Does vikas (development) get you the votes? This is a question that remains a perennial favourite of India’s commentariat and has become hugely relevant once again in the wake of the Karnataka elections. It is also likely to remain so till the general election in 2019 or whenever it is scheduled.
Political pundits in India would tell you that “it depends”. It depends on how you define development and victory. Is “development” a slew of welfare programmes, about health, education etc and inclusive growth, or is it big-ticket infrastructure projects, roads, bridges, bullet trains and foreign direct investment?
Despite its many shortfalls, the Congress Party in Karnataka did deliver its vision of social welfare centred-development. The Congress’ critics would say that the Karnataka verdict proves that these welfare schemes did not click. But it is also true that the Congress’ voteshare has remained more or less at par with what it was in 2013.
As far as the BJP is concerned, its chief vote-getter, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has made “vikas” the theme song of his speeches and the party’s official agenda centrestages its vision of development. Still, two of the mining scam-tainted Reddy brothers won! Where does the electoral success of Karnataka’s famous Reddy brothers of iron-rich Ballari, known for their money and muscle power, fit into these competing visions of development and high-decibel concern about corruption?
Which takes us back to the question of the relationship between vikas and victory at the hustings and the Karnataka verdict. The short answer: it is complicated.
While the theme song running through the BJP’s official agenda is development, development and more development, it is amply clear from the Karnataka election campaign that this theme is going to run alongside the BJP’s other agenda of aggressive promotion of Hindutva. This has been apparent during recent Assembly elections and also surfaced during the poll campaign in Karnataka. Emotions stirred up at the mention of Tipu Sultan are very much a part of its campaign.
It sounds cynical, but while development remains the crying need of the vast majority in this country, the all-pervasive talk about development or vikas is a bit like that trope about “mom, apple-pie and democracy” in the United States. Everyone feels obliged to publicly pay homage. And then, there is reality which is less lofty in tone.
On Tuesday evening, as the election results were still coming in, I watched a riveting discussion on television. Panellists were discussing the likelihood of different types of “horse-trading” in the wake of the Karnataka electoral verdict. Yogendra Yadav, psephologist, academic, politician and a familiar face on TV, said the contest was now veering towards one between the unconstitutional and the unprincipled.
From the comfort of my couch in the living room, I also marvelled at BJP stalwart Meenakshi Lekhi’s take on “freedom”. Ms Lekhi saw what others typically see as defection as freedom of movement, as in a MLA’s right to dump his/her own party and cross over to whoever was making a good offer. We’re now very much in the by-now familiar game of “horse-trading” which follows many elections in India.
At the time of writing, it is not clear what will happen finally in Karnataka though Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP leadership have already delivered rousing victory speeches, thanking the cadre. The Karnataka verdict has left ample room for hard bargaining. The BJP has emerged as the single largest party, but the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) together have more seats. All eyes are now on governor Vajubhai Vala, who, incidentally, was the man who vacated his Assembly seat when Prime Minister Narendra Modi contested his first election in Gujarat in 2001.
Given the current situation, the governor can invite the coalition that has a majority, or he can invite the single largest party, which is the BJP, and ask it to prove its majority. Media reports say a few Karnataka MLAs have gone “incommunicado” and there is much talk about shifting the much-in-demand legislators to a resort. Can one joke about the resort becoming the last resort of electoral politics?
Vikas may not have touched the lives of everyone but in the coming Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh Assembly elections, and till the next general election, expect incessant talk of “vikas”. Competing visions of vikas are going to rend the air.
It is equally clear, and Dr Subramanian Swamy publicly acknowledged it the other day, that economic or development issues alone are not powerful enough to enthuse the BJP cadre and therefore Hindutva will feature prominently.
The BJP’s critics will see this as the party’s not-so-hidden agenda of tugging at voters’ emotions through religion, consolidating Hindutva. Others will simply call it the formula for winning elections which has been worked at for a long time now and which is delivering results.
During a recent TV discussion, Dr Swamy said that for years, the Congress’ winning formula had been to “create divisions within the Hindu community and unite the minorities”, and now the BJP is determined to reverse this by uniting Hindus and dividing minorities.
So what can we expect in the coming months? Only soothsayers dare to definitively forecast the future. Caste, regional issues, local concerns have always driven the electoral agenda in this country. But given that we now have an explicitly ideologically-driven party calling the shots at at the Centre and in many states, ideology is going to be a key part of the traditional mix. This should not come as a surprise.
What is very likely, therefore, is that the BJP will continue to use its dual strategy — mobilise its cadre by aggressively reaffirming its ideological commitment to Hindutva and pitch its talk about vikas and aspirational India at the non-committed voter.
Will the voter buy this again? What about jobs? What about the real issues on the ground that affect the day-to-day lives of most people? In a democracy, the voter can still call the shots but only if he or she is willing to do so....