It will be naive to conclude from the results of the recently held assembly elections in five states that inflation and terror have ceased to be the main issues that agitate the minds of voters in India. Indeed, it would be dangerous for any political party to make such an assessment and believe that inflation and terror may not determine the voters’ choice in the general elections due to be held in less than six months from now.
Yet, this is what some political parties have begun believing to be true. Worse, this may even be the key input that they may use in framing their election strategies for the Lok Sabha polls. Nothing could be more misleading than this. And for political parties that nurse the ambition of forming the next government at the Centre, nothing could pose a bigger risk.
It would be patently wrong to believe that voters’ behaviour remains the same in both the assembly elections and the Lok Sabha polls. It doesn’t. Most voters make a subtle and important distinction between their expectations from a state government and those from the Centre. If indeed the prevailing high inflation rate and the spectre of terror stalking the whole country did not swing a wave against the candidates sponsored by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) during the five assembly elections, it is because these voters did not see prices and terror management as the responsibilities of the governments in their states.
Yes, the responsibilities of enforcing law and order are vested with the state governments under the Indian Constitution. But the terror strikes, as in Mumbai last month, were seen more like a war waged against the nation by an external agency. This was not a simple law and order issue, where a citizen’s safety is threatened because of purely local or domestic factors. The proverbial foreign hand is seen behind the terror attacks and it is the Centre that is held accountable for preventing them. So, voters in the recently held assembly elections failed to see terror as a potent issue that should determine their choice of candidates.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the UPA did not lose Delhi, even though the opposition parties led by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had mounted a shrill campaign on terror. The absence of a credible, confidence-inspiring alternative chief ministerial candidate may have played a role, particularly when the UPA had in Sheila Dikshit a reliable and reasonably efficient candidate to lead the next government. But terror as an issue did not strike a chord among Delhi’s voters.
The same message came from the results in Rajasthan and Mizoram, where the Congress trounced the reigning political parties — BJP and the Mizo National Front, respectively. The Congress victory in these two states was also not influenced by either inflation or terror. Instead, there were local issues (including the shifting allegiance of some influential caste formations) that sealed the fate for the incumbent parties. Similarly, the BJP victory in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh was ensured not by its campaign against inflation and terror, but by convincing the voters that the party could continue to provide better governance in the coming five years.
What about inflation? Two factors need to be kept in mind. One, inflation is clearly not a state issue. Two, the inflation that has been troubling voters for the last several months was clearly seen to have been largely caused by the rising international price of crude oil, over which the Indian government did not have any control. On the contrary, voters saw that the UPA government did its best to cushion the domestic prices of petroleum products for as long as possible. So, if anything, voters were appreciative of the Centre’s role in minimising the impact of rising crude oil prices on them.
In a strange way, voters saw both the issues — inflation and terror — as not having arisen because of domestic mismanagement. Instead they perceived these to be an outcome of international developments. Yes, the Centre should have been more alert and taken the necessary steps to prevent their adverse impact. But clearly these were responsibilities that could not have been heaped on the state governments. Hence, inflation and terror failed to mobilise voters the way the BJP had hoped.
Yet, it would be suicidal for the UPA to lull itself into believing that inflation and terror management will not make a comeback as issues in the Lok Sabha polls. They will certainly return and influence voter behaviour. The important point to remember is that voters do recognise that the current bout of inflation and the terror strikes are linked to external factors. But they also recognise that these are factors whose adverse impact can be minimised or even eliminated by an alert and efficient government at the Centre.