The importance of being the last seat

The importance of being the last seat

By M.J. Akbar | 3 May, 2014
Voters show their identity cards as they wait to cast their votes for Lok Sabha polls in Agra on 24 April. PTI
Voters understand that a stable government at the Centre can happen only if each seat contributes to stability

The only pan-Indian, 2014 event longer than the general election is the IPL season. Perfectly logical, then, that there should be signs of serious fatigue in both. But with a difference. This self-obsessed, frenetic form of cricket has become frayed and listless from its first day of play because its credibility has withered. Democracy remains vigorous, because despite dents inflicted upon it by high-level corruption its integrity is in the hands of the voter, not the ruling class.

Electoral fatigue is physical, not mental or psychological. If the Election Commission had to face a referendum on whether this general election should have been spread out over six weeks or three, the Commission would have lost the popular vote. But the same voter is ready to poll heavily — in many cases breaking previous records — when democracy arrives at the doorstep. The seeming contradiction is easily explained.

Voters are restricting their emotional energy to their own regions even while they watch, with a beady eye, the unfolding process across the country. They want a stable government at the Centre, and understand that this can happen only if each seat contributes to stability.

Elections have this extraordinary ability to reinvent themselves through multiple twists and surprising turns. A complex electoral demography like India's becomes a virtual maze; even in those faraway days when Congress claimed single-party majority, it never won every state. And so each phase throws up challenge and opportunity. The 89 seats that went to the polls on 30 April, for instance, are a crucial test for Congress, which won a handsome 44 of them in 2009. The Congress performance in Telengana and central UP was a triumph. BJP won only 30 seats out of 89, and others 15.

Topsy has become turvy within five years. Andhra has been split, energizing huge and mutually hostile passions. In Bihar, the BJP-JDU alliance that won easily is asunder, turning 2014 into a triangular contest. True, two sides of this triangle, NDA and UPA, are far bigger than the short third, with Nitish Kumar reduced to a lonesome battle, but the outcome could still depend on what percentage of the minority vote Nitish Kumar manages to pull away from UPA. Each round of voting adds its own mathematical nuance to the complex algebra of an emerging Lok Sabha.

The battle is not so much about forming a government — every election produces a government — but about a stable government. This is why the conflict is going to be as keen to the bitter end. On 7 April everyone had everything to fight for; on 12 May, all that will be left to determine is the confidence level of the next administration. The best Congress scenario is a fractured Parliament in which a game of shifting numbers can thrive. NDA, on the other hand, wants to maximise its strength so that government does not become vulnerable to either maverick allies or a belligerent opposition.

This will be determined by how well a political party does on new turf. Narendra Modi has been drawing crowds reminiscent of the late N.T. Rama Rao in Andhra. In Bengal, an anxious Trinamool has been forced, in one constituency, to spread the canard that the BJP candidate has passed away, while the Left continues to fade. But we will know which candidate has gone first past the post only on 16 May.

By then, of course, all nuances will be forgotten. History, and even journalism, does not waste much ink over the ill-starred politician who lost by one vote. But it does devote a few chapters to a government which falls because of one MP. Just in case you believe this to be fanciful, consider what happened during Atal Behari Vajpayee's first term. He had to call a general election because he lost his Lok Sabha majority by one vote.

There will be time enough to offer laurels to the winner and consolation to the defeated, but in the meantime let us celebrate a victory that has already taken place. Fulsome congratulations to the voter, who has displayed enthusiasm, commitment and a determination that should be the envy of every democracy. There has been a minimum ten per cent rise in voting throughout the country. My own view is that most of this rise comes from first and second-time voters, as they have the most to lose from a faltering economy and the most to gain from recovery. While only a foolish observer would dare predict anything more specific than a trend, common sense suggests that most voters want a stable government under a dynamic Prime Minister who hasn't lost his voice, or left his authority hostage to a family's interests.

I write this on a day when the previous winners of IPL, Mumbai Indians, have lost all their five matches. Is this an omen for previous winners of a general election as well?

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