The Writing Is On The Wall

The elections in India have come and gone like a tropical hurricane, leaving behind one of the most unusual results of recent times. After almost thirty years, the Indian voter has given an unambiguous verdict in favour of one political party. Today, I want to focus on the implications of these results for a state that has been my karmabhoomi for over thirty years – Maharashtra. After being a witness to six State Assembly elections since 1985, there are certain interesting trends to discern in the voting pattern in the recent Lok Sabha elections that could serve as a pointer to what might transpire in the forthcoming Assembly elections scheduled for October this year.
The one sided nature of the Lok Sabha election results in Maharashtra defied all predictions and came as a shock to the ruling Congress party and a very pleasant surprise to the victorious Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). As one of the two states in India where the BJP has stable, long term alliances with regional parties (the other being Punjab), the scale of the victory in Maharashtra catapulted the BJP to an absolute majority in the Lower House. In fact, the results in UP and Maharashtra were instrumental in propelling the BJP to a position where it need not employ coalition dharma in ruling the country for the next five years.
What is significant and a pointer to things to come in Maharashtra is the margin of victory of the candidates of the BJP and it’s allies, the Shiv Sena and the Swabhimani Paksha, in every constituency in the state. The final constituency-wise tally reveals that in 41 of the 42 seats won by the BJP alliance, the margin of victory exceeded one lakh votes. Even in Yavatmal-Washim constituency, the victorious Shiv Sena candidate’s victory margin exceeded 90,000 votes. This was higher than the largest victory margin for a Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance candidate. This, too, was in Nanded, where the former Chief Minister and son of the old Congress loyalist S.B. Chavan, Ashok Chavan, won by just over 81,000 votes. There are two disconcerting (for the Congress-NCP alliance) trends that will give them a lot of food for thought in the coming four months. The first is, of course, the six-figure defeat margin in all but one constituency, a first in the state of Maharashtra. Even more worrying for the alliance are the victory margins for the successful Congress-NCP candidates, which range from under 2000 to just over 80,000 (if we rule out the sole aberration of Satara, won by an ex-royal family scion). Even the Sharad Pawar bastion of Baramati was breached, with his daughter getting home by what, for the Pawar family, would be termed a wafer-thin margin of under 70,000 votes.
The results reflect a deep discontent (indeed anger) of the voter with a ruling alliance that, over the last fifteen years, has been riven with internal dissensions and squabbles, allegations of corruption in high places and a continuing failure to deliver effective, honest governance. The NCP came into existence with the ambition of becoming a major regional political alternative: it hoped to replace the Congress as the main centrist formation in Maharashtra. The marriage has been a fairly acrimonious one, marked by suspicion, intrigue and mutual recriminations. Even as this is written, the two parties in the ruling coalition are busy accusing each other of sabotaging the electoral chances of the other party’s candidates.
Corruption allegations against individual members of the Cabinet have surfaced at regular intervals, right from the first five-year term of the present coalition. Decisions in infrastructure areas like roads and irrigation as also resource allocation areas like land have been the target of public criticism for alleged favours shown to certain parties, including those politically well-connected. In recent years, both the Chief Minister and the Deputy Chief Minister have had to resign in the wake of very specific allegations relating to their conduct while in office.
The failure to effect institutional changes to improve administrative effectiveness is particularly disquieting. Even after legislation to regulate transfers was brought into force in 2005, there is still a lot of opacity about the transfer process. Boards to regulate Civil Service and police transfers are yet to start functioning, in spite of Supreme Court directives. The recent disquiet at the highest levels of the police over excessive interference from the Secretariat and the political level is a notable example. Ministers have centralised most project approval, procurement and purchase powers at the Secretariat level, giving ample scope for doubts about the fairness of these processes. The attempted remedy, further centralisation of powers at the Chief Minister’s level, has delayed decision making. With no empowered, independent Lok Ayukta at the state level, there is no effective check on the actions of the executive. The state is yet to enact a Right to Public Services legislation, lagging behind other states which have already done so. Important steps like repealing the Rent Control Acts and devising policies for using the stock of land currently with the government subsequent to the repeal of the Urban Land Ceiling Act have not been taken, leading to artificial escalations in real estate prices and diminishing the stock of property available for housing purposes. No effort has been made to introduce responsible, efficient local government systems, with adequate financial and administrative powers: the result is particularly evident in decaying towns and cities with a poor quality of life. Promoting primary and secondary education and developing job skills have never been the priority of the government. Above all, there has been little job creation in the organised sector, creating a vast underbelly of underemployed, discontented youth.
It might be argued that the situation is not much better in many other states, where governments have been returned to power time and again. The real issue, however, is one of public perception. When the constituents of the government do not pull in one direction and there is a widespread feeling that there is no specific policy direction, public confidence in the governing dispensation is severely shaken. The recent election results reflect, of course, the rejection of the government at the national level. But the margins of victories for the main opposition parties in the state represent a rejection of the state government as well. 2014 is different from 2004 and 2009 in that, in the state elections in those years, the BJP alliance was going through its own existential crises. The BJP was going through a churning process at the national level and the Shiv Sena was beset with the exit of many important leaders, consequent on a leadership struggle in the party. With these issues largely resolved for now, the BJP alliance is much better placed to offer a more viable alternative to the current ruling coalition. Given the short time period available before the state election process kicks in, it looks well-nigh impossible for the present government to refurbish its image to attract voters to its fold once again.
My only fervent hope (indeed prayer) is that whichever group comes to power will focus on the basic issues that will make Maharashtra a vibrant, competitive state and give its over 100 million people a decent quality of life. The Shiv Sena-BJP alliance squandered its 1995 mandate and the Congress-NCP alliance has wasted three opportunities given to it since 1999. Politicians of all hues would do well to remember that you are only as good as your last term in office. If you wish to continue ‘serving the people’ (a favourite euphemism of all politicians), please set aside your personal goals and focus on policies that will give your people a better future.

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