As I write this, results in Bihar are still trickling in; but it is apparent that the Lalu Prasad Yadav mystique has finally faltered after fifteen years. In Haryana, the incumbent INLD has been soundly thrashed; in Jharkhand it looks like a hung Assembly.
If I were to put my insta-pundit hat on, there is a pattern in these results: anti-incumbency, pure and simple. This follows a model that has been evident south of the Vindhyas for some time. That is, there isn't a great deal to choose between the two major pretenders to the throne; so you throw the current bunch of rascals out and bring in the new ones.
You sort of hope and pray things will be better this time. But in your heart of hearts, you know nothing will change; it is only that those siphoning off the millions have different names and different nominal party affiliations. Tweedledum and Tweedledee, they are; they know it, you know it; but you all go through the motions of an elaborate and expensive mating dance.
In a way, this can be interpreted as the blasé and ennui-ridden reaction of a maturing electorate, which recognises a. that the system is stable enough that the differences between the two opposing factions are vanishingly small in reality, although of course they fluff them up for electioneering purposes; b. there is sufficient broad consensus and momentum on a development path that the challenger is really not going to change things that much, and therefore it is not a life-and-death situation who comes to power.
This is roughly what happens in the US, of course. The differences between the Democrats and Republicans are minuscule, and so it really doesn't matter except to the activists who comes to power: the general direction of the country is not going to change substantially. This is why many observers felt that it didn't make any difference whatsoever whether Bush or Kerry came to power: the economic and political and foreign policy train had left the station, and all the new president could do is to make minor mid-course corrections.
This has been the case, interestingly enough, in Kerala and Tamil Nadu for some time. In Kerala, it's either the Marxist-led coalition or the Congress-lead coalition that comes to power after each election. And as regular as clockwork, the electorate gives a drubbing to the incumbent, regardless of trends at the national level: every five years, the other guys get in. More or less the same thing has been happening in Tamil Nadu as well, where it's the DMK one time and the AIADMK the next time.
This, I contend, is because the electorates in the two southernmost states have seen over time that there is really no difference. The DMK and AIADMK are joined at the hip, as it were, both being offshoots of the old Dravida Kazhagam: the main differences, one might suggest, are personality issues.
Similarly, the Marxists and the Congress in Kerala are indistinguishable. Nor are their coalition partners. They play musical chairs all the time, intending merely to extract their pound of flesh. There is no particular ideology in all this -- you see dogmatic 'secularists' regularly aligning with arch-fundamentalists -- all in the name of the father, the son, and the pork barrel.
I suspect things have been different in the badlands of Bihar and Bengal: the voter really hasn't had much of a choice. It has been, you better vote this way, or not at all, if you value life and limb. Of course, Marxists have been practicing their usual strategy of 'one man, one vote, one time' in Bengal, since they have no intention of relinquishing their stranglehold. Or maybe they are paraphrasing Henry Ford: 'you can vote for any candidate, so long as he is a Marxist.'
This has been true in Bihar too: you have had a choice, to either vote Lalu Prasad Yadav, or not at all. If this vicious circle has now been broken, that itself would be a major improvement, and it would indicate that Bihar has touched bottom and is now on an upswing. It might mean that the voter is no longer browbeaten into accepting the Yadav-Muslim vote-bank formula. Pundits will soon tell us if this is the case, after detailed analysis of voting patterns.
The antics of fundamentalist Communists are cause for concern: I believe that in Jharkhand they insisted that people shouldn't vote, and poor Jeevanlal Mahato, who was the first to exercise his franchise, was shot, decapitated, and his head displayed as a warning to others who might be tempted to exercise their franchise. It is clear that these people do not believe in anything other than violent, armed chaos.
The voters of Andhra Pradesh are also concerned about this too, I believe. The Congress government's caving into the Naxalites, to the extent of directing a police party to not capture some terrorist leaders whom they were closing in on, will surely be taken into consideration by the voters the next time around. I wouldn't count Naidu out in spite of the World Bank's claim that they knew he would be wiped out in the last election.
Thus, if you were to extrapolate from these three southern states -- and from Bihar and Haryana -- it appears as though 'throw the rascals out' is the prevailing sentiment in the voter's mind. This is something the UPA had better keep in mind; and so should the NDA. Impatient voters are more demanding now: a Kerala-style flip-flop at the national level is not altogether unlikely in the next Lok Sabha election, unless the motley crew in power perform minor miracles in the economy and national security; which they are not likely to.
Errata: In a previous column on Nepal, I mentioned former ambassador to China K M Panikkar; but mis-spelled his name as K N Panikkar. The error is regretted.