Put celebrations on hold, voter surge could well be good for Modi

Yes, perceived wisdom says high turnout is anti-incumbency. But for that, we need prevalence of anti-incumbency mood, which might be missing in Gujarat


BV Rao | December 14, 2012

Youngsters in Gujarat show their preference. Time for Narendra Modi to start smiling?
Youngsters in Gujarat show their preference. Time for Narendra Modi to start smiling?

After a record 68 percent turnout in the first phase of Gujarat elections, the question on most minds is, of course, is it for Narendra Modi or against him? The simple thing to say is that it is too risky to dissect the mood of the electorate and predict the outcome of an election, so we must wait for December 20 for the official announcement of the results.

It is wise to be safe than sorry. But, as they say, a week is a long time in politics, especially when we are looking at an election that has the potential to influence the direction of our national politics. And in the world of 144 characters that we live in, a week is eternity itself.

So, without taking the easy route of postponing analysis to eternity, let me admit that decades of psephological wisdom says that an unprecedented turnout in elections is normally bad news for the incumbent government. It indicates a high degree of dissatisfaction or disaffection and results in regime change. Our experience in the most recent election in Uttar Pradesh bears out this theory. In UP, the high turnout in the seven phases did indeed lead to the overthrow of Mayawati.

But a critical condition for an anti-incumbency vote is the prevalence of anti-incumbency mood. When there is anger against a government, it is palpable, as it was in UP. Anyone who toured UP was clear about one thing: Mayawati was facing a rout. The only imponderables were who would benefit from that and by how much. Many publications, including Governance Now, had predicted a strong showing by the Congress and Samajwadi Party. We were wrong about the Congress and the size of the SP victory. But nobody got the most crucial part wrong. The anti-Mayawati mood was unmissable.

The problem with analysing the record turnout in Gujarat as an anti-Modi vote is that this critical condition for anti-incumbency is missing there. Modi has not given blemishless governance but we cannot dismiss his claims to good governance out of hand. Many issues and areas have not been impacted by his governance (see our story Gujarat's God of Growth and its Deep Development Trance), many people and regions have many complaints against him but none of this adds up to anger against him of such proportions as to call it anti-incumbency.

So, what explains the surge in voting percentage? We will come to the political reasons later but there might be a good administrative reason. While updating the rolls, the election commission allowed, for the first time, voter identity cards to be issued at the block level for speedier disbursal. This resulted in large number of voters getting their cards as late as just two days before voting. This has apparently propelled more voters to the booths. Chief election officers are not known to make any predictions but while announcing the record turnout yesterday, Gujarat's CEC, Anita Karwal, said, "We expect a higher turnout in phase II."

Her confidence seems to be based on the fact that she has a few more days to disburse voter cards before phase II and knows she can cover far greater ground than she could for phase I.

Of course, we cannot say with certainty who these voters are choosing. Once again, the received wisdom from psephologists says that since rural areas have turned out in numbers, it could be bad news for Modi. But the fact is that the surge has come in equal measure from rural and urban areas. Also, even in the rural areas, there has been a very high turnout of women and youngsters, known to be Modi's support base.

A senior officer told Governance Now that if the surge is not for Modi, it is not against him either. This underscores the point made above about the absence of anti-incumbency mood. It is blasphemy for a journalist to even consider the fact that the surge in voting might actually be favourable to Modi but I shall suggest that at the risk of being politically incorrect.

Is it not possible, against the background of the absence of anti-incumbency and the empty benches in the Congress dugout, that Gujarat's people voted may have voted for Modi with a "bigger" purpose in mind? And what's the bigger purpose? Come on, you know it.



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