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Post-poll lessons for the winners, and whiners

Author: MJ Akbar
Publication: The Times of India
Date: December 15, 2013
URL: http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/TheSiegeWithin/entry/post-poll-lessons-for-the-winners-and-whiners

In the great toss-up between perception and evidence, the former generally wins. Conventional wisdom, for instance, suggests that unity within a party brings victory. Reality: It is the scent of victory that encourages unity. When crowds recede in an election campaign, leaders squabble and search for alibis. Tensions become septic after results. Witness the blistering attack on Digvijay Singh by a former Congress spokesman. As for alibis, top marks to the Rajasthan Congress leader who blamed the Election Commission for encouraging voters to turn up. If only they had not voted, Congress would still be in power. Quite right.

Politics is better understood with a scan below the surface. Tilt the perspective on what seems an obvious fact, and the picture changes to startling effect. The Aam Aadmi Party has made a dream debut in Delhi, winning 28 seats. But think back to the start of the campaign. Kejriwal made much play of an opinion poll, done by his associate Yogendra Yadav, which prophesied that his party would win a very comfortable majority, up to 47 seats. Kejriwal offered tantalizing details of a swearing-in ceremony in the open. His message was unambiguous — he was in the game for governance, not maverick thrills, and he was taken seriously by voters.

Did Kejriwal invent that opinion poll? No. Kejriwal is an honourable man. Yadav, if anything, is even more honourable, with proven credentials in the opinion poll business. Yadav did not make up that claim. By that measure, Kejriwal’s support declined by nearly 20 seats between the opinion poll and polling day. The struggling BJP picked up momentum, reaching first place but not entering comfort zone. Has Kejriwal, therefore, lost an election that he could have won comfortably? This question seems to have evaporated in post-results hyperbole.

Both BJP and Kejriwal are already putting together a narrative for the re-match, but a reluctance to rule will hurt Kejriwal more, precisely because he represents greater hope. He cannot argue, convincingly, that he did not have support in the assembly. Congress has offered unconditional backing, and BJP is in no position to sabotage him. But as chief minister, he will need to deliver on free electricity, cheaper water, affordable housing and better security, which is easier promised than achieved.

The significant national story from Delhi is the continuing migration of Muslims away from Congress. In the capital, a huge chunk went to AAP. In Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, a sizeable number of Muslims took a further step and voted for BJP. This was not huge, but that it happened at all is remarkable. It may even have turned an expected BJP victory into an unexpected sweep. Muslims responded to experience; their reasons were rational, not emotional. MP CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan did not discriminate against their community in his signature schemes like Kanyadan Yojana and Ladli Laxmi, and he prevented communal riots with efficient administration. Rajasthan Muslims know Vasundhara Raje, and judge her to be fair. The overall message is simple. Muslims are tired of illusory favours. They want equality. They are fed up with hypocrisy.

How did this shift take place despite the presence of Narendra Modi as BJP’s nominee for PM? Change invites change, albeit sometimes in imperceptible degrees. The key might be called the Patna moment. Every politician prepares for an important speech; but no one can prepare a speech for a sudden crisis. When bombs went off in the middle of Modi’s oration at the Gandhi maidan, his response became the acid test. He could have become provocative under pressure. Instead, he delivered his best lines. Impoverished Hindus, he said, had a choice — they could either fight poverty or they could fight Muslims. And impoverished Muslims could fight Hindus, or they could fight poverty. That summed up the mood of the nation, and calmed even those Muslims who did not want to believe what they heard.

On a parallel, uncoordinated level, Muslim leaders have begun to speak up against the politics of fear that has herded the community into one direction on voting day. Deoband’s Maulana Mahmood Madani, a leading Sunni leader, did not endorse Modi on a visit to Jaipur, but told Congress to stop threatening Muslims with one bogey after another. Shia cleric, Maulana Kalbe Jawwad, came to Delhi from Lucknow on the eve of election day to advise Muslims that they should not vote for either Congress or BJP. The second option hardly needed his exhortation, but the first did.

Simple numbers do not always explain the complexity of facts; statistics indicate what happened, not why. India seethes when every Indian is angry. We have got a glimpse in 2013. We shall see the full face of anger in 2014.
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