Pawan Kumar Bansal, the corruption tainted former railway minister in UPA 2, is like a cat with nine lives, for he keeps getting a new lease of life every time he is on the verge of a collapse. Bansal’s political career should have ended long ago; in 1999 to be precise, when he had managed to get the Congress ticket from Chandigarh despite losing back-to-back elections in 1996 and 1998. Had he lost the 1999 election too, it would be a virtual death knell for him. The 1999 national elections were held in the backdrop of the Kargil war and a really high dose of chest-thumping patriotism which was equated with the then ruling NDA government headed by Vajpayee, thus Chandigarh, being a garrison town with a large portion of army men, should have logically voted for the BJP with relative ease. Additionally, BJP’s sitting MP of Chandigarh, Satyapal Jain was a formidable candidate – a self-made man who had grown up in poverty as a newspaper hawker and had gone on to study law – which made it almost an impossible battle for P.K. Bansal of the Congress party.
BJP did the unthinkable in 1999, it denied ticket to Mr. Jain and instead nominated the party vice president, K.L. Sharma (Pandit ji, for everybody in the Sangh circles), to the Chandigarh parliamentary seat because Mr. Sharma had become extremely unpopular in his own constituency of outer Delhi! The 1999 general election was necessitated due to BJP losing the vote of confidence by a solitary vote, which should have made the party extremely weary of each and every MP seat, but instead BJP leadership went ahead and disturbed a winning combination in Chandigarh to accommodate an apparatchik of the high command who was loaned out by the RSS. Needless to state that BJP shamelessly lost Chandigarh just a few months after Kargil war and Pawan Kumar Bansal got a new lease of life. Since 1999, Bansal has won two more electoral victories from the Chandigarh seat despite BJP re-nominating Satyapal Jain and what is more, he has even improved upon his victory margin each time.
This is a classic case of bad ticket distribution hurting the party not just in one election but in three elections on the trot. This has been BJP’s forte since a long time; in fact, it is a unique mindset defect of the Hindu psyche which forcefully grabs defeat from the jaws of victory. Look at what is happening in Chandigarh today, the party is running like a headless chicken and yet everybody wants to contest the LS polls hoping to ride on an apparent Modi wave and cash in on the corruption charges against Mr. Bansal. Whole new dynamics are being cooked up overnight and celebrity names like that of Kirron Kher, the actress wife of Anupam Kher, are being bandied about by the high command, despite her having zero connect with the political environs of Chandigarh. Pray, who is in-charge of Chandigarh in the BJP? Answer: Arti Mehra, need one say any more?! In the end, P.K. Bansal may yet survive the battle of 2014, but he will have only BJP and its leadership to thank for this all over again.
Contrast this with how clinically Congress handles ticket distribution. Let us take the case of another highly urban constituency, Mumbai North as a case in the point. In 2004, Ram Naik, the then O&G minister in the Vajpayee cabinet had already won Mumbai North 5 times on a trot since 1989, but was facing some anti-incumbency after 15 years. Congress was quick to pounce upon this small window of opportunity and pitted fimstar Govinda against the veteran Railway commuter’s activist of Mumbai North, Ram Naik. Govinda and Congress were able to convert the entire electoral battle into a fight for the north Indian migrant labors, who are present in abundant numbers and have had various issues of conflict with BJP’s alliance partner in Maharashtra, the ShivSena. Govinda turned out to be a giant killer in Mumbai North in 2004 as Mr. Naik was defeated by a greenhorn celebrity.
Conventional political wisdom of that time was that this was a one-off defeat for Ram Naik, who was expected to bounce back by the next election. As it turned out, Govinda, the filmstar was one of the worst performing MPs of the state as he hardly found time for his constituents in the midst of a busy movie career. Ideally, Mr. Naik deserved to return back to the parliament in the 2009 polls, but Congress had other plans. Govinda was dropped as the Congress candidate and Sanjay Nirupam, who had ostensibly deserted ShivSena on the issue of maltreatment of north Indian migrant laborers in Mumbai, was given the ticket and Congress once again managed to defeat Ram Naik with ample help from Raj Thackrey’s MNS. This is a classic case of converting anti-incumbency into an opportunity which all but finished the political career of a veteran BJP leader who had risen through sheer hard work. The study of contrasting impact on the political lives of P.K. Bansal and Ram Naik gives us a metaphor to distinguish Congress from BJP; it is this metaphor that tells a story.
In the top 50 urban parliamentary constituencies, Congress got 30 lakh more votes than the BJP in the 2009 elections and also managed to win 26 of those 50 seats, while BJP won only 14 (10 were won by others). One of the primary reasons for such a good showing by the Congress was due to some very smart ticket distribution, an area where BJP failed miserably in the last elections barring the lone exception of Bangalore. Indeed, Bangalore was an oasis in an otherwise BJP’s urban drought of 2009, for some very smart choices had been made by the local leadership – for instance, putting up Prof. D.B. Chandregowda from Bangalore north was nothing short of a masterstroke.
The same BJP seems to be devoid of ideas this time around in Bangalore, as the names of P.C. Mohan (Bangalore central), C. Ashwathnarayana (Bangalore North), Muniraju (Bangalore rural) and Anantakumar (Bangalore South) are doing the rounds of informed circles. Do any of these inspire confidence? None! There is now a very distinct possibility of BJP drawing a blank from Bangalore this time around, for even old war horse Anantakumar is facing the toughest battle of his life in the form of Congress’s Nandan Nilekani, the former CEO of Infosys (the iconic brand of Bangalore). Why is BJP not thinking out of the box? For instance, since winnability should be the only criteria, why is Anil Kumble, the original icon of Bangalore not being persuaded to contest from Bangalore rather than Uttara Kannada as is being reported?
With Bangalore going into a spin, Delhi in the grips of an Aam Aadmi frenzy, Mumbai and cities of Maharashtra remaining largely divided and other tier 2 cities like Chandigarh showing absolutely no logic, BJP is well on its path to repeat its dismal performance of 2009 in urban India. Thus in the midst of an apparent Modi-wave, BJP is virtually writing itself off in large chunks of urban India! If it cannot get its act together in urban India, then what are the chances that the party will work any better in small town or rural India, where the elections are far more localized in nature? Probably Modi has answers.
Our past studies of the last few elections have shown that voting patterns in India are essentially local in nature, although more localized in rural India than in urban India. Rarely, in star constituencies, like say, Amethi or Gandhinagar, voters may exercise their franchise overwhelmingly on a national issue of electing a future ruler, but otherwise most electoral contests are fought along local issues. This is what Modi is seeking to change, by converting each MP seat into a national election and a vote for Modi and BJP which partially explains his overtly national agenda in all his speeches, public rallies and pronouncements. By touring all over India and building almost an unprecedented clamor for a single political leader, Modi has possibly converted the 2014 contest to a virtually one horse race. This is reminiscent of the early 70s and 80s, when all that mattered in elections was Indira Gandhi, and local candidates could be virtually any non-entities. Here is a small story from the 1980s to elucidate Indira’s hold over remotest corners of India. C.M. Stephen, an orthodox Christian from Kerala and a permanent resident of Delhi had lost the New Delhi parliamentary seat to opposition stalwart, Atal Bihari Vajpayee narrowly, but since he was to be in the union cabinet owing to his unquestionable loyalty to Mrs. Gandhi, Mr. Stephen was asked to contest from the Godforsaken, utterly backward, Gulbarga constituency in a bye-election. A Maliyalee speaking Delhi resident contested from northern Karnataka and won a landslide victory with a margin of over 33%. The funniest part of this story was that the voters of Gulbarga and even local Congress leaders couldn’t even pronounce the name “Stephen” and he was referred to as “Tiffin” even in open speeches by Congress leaders during campaign! Thus Mr. “Tiffin” won a parliamentary election without as much as visiting the town of his conquest – that was the power of Indira.
Of course, 2014 is not 1980, and our voting populace is presumably more mature now. So there could be a danger of localized shenanigans hurting the overall performance of the BJP. For instance, in our recent survey of Karnataka we have seen that 3 out of every 10 voters who want Modi as the next PM of India are not even voting for the BJP. A somewhat similar pattern is emerging from our Jharkhand survey too, albeit a little less apparent. Usually, these anomalies get sorted out by the time of elections as things settle down, but poor candidate selection can have a very adverse impact on such a factorial index.
Converting an election into a virtual national referendum is a great tactic no doubt, but Modi must be weary of localized factors. There is somehow a strange reluctance on the part of the BJP and Narendra Modi to address local issues at this point of time; for instance, his unwillingness to take on either the DMK or ADMK and their shortcomings in the Chennai rally last weekend was almost mindboggling – Rahul Gandhi, the Congress party and even the “recounting minister”, P. Chidambaram are virtually absent in the TN political landscape, so attacking them cannot possibly win you any additional votes. It is quite possible that there is a “stage-2” in the Modi strategy when he will take the campaigning to a far more local level once candidates are announced and the real electioneering begins in earnest.
Yet, the interregnum, between stage 1 and stage 2 is where many a battle is lost, for it is here that contestants are decided and party tickets are distributed – a process in which BJP has failed time and again. In fact, not only did BJP lose more close contests in 2009 as compared to 2004, but also the number of very close contests (less than 3%) that BJP lost in 2009 more than doubled when compared to 2004 – from 15 to 34. These are very significant numbers that are telling us a story of bad ticket distribution of a party that is yet to realize its full potential.
The real battle for Narendra Modi over the next month is not external, for no political party or opponent can defeat him in the present political scenario of India. The real battle is within. Can Modi ensure that winnability is the sole criteria on which party tickets are distributed? Or will he succumb to the same old malaise of the BJP giving tickets to the likes of Pandit ji as in 1999 Chandigarh and face low margin defeats? The answer to these questions are crucial for the 2014 India which has rediscovered hope in another four-lettered word – Modi!