Debating India


Not alliance arithmetic alone

Saturday 5 March 2005, by KUMAR*Sanjay, YADAV*Yogendra

A cohesive and more inclusive UPA alliance was likely to have secured a majority in Jharkhand. But the Assembly election results also suggest a disenchantment with all mainstream parties and a greater fragmentation of the socially marginalised, say Yogendra Yadav and Sanjay Kumar, basing their analysis on a post-poll survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

Six months ago, the outcome of the Jharkhand Assembly election seemed a forgone conclusion. The 2004 Lok Sabha election had seen a decimation of the decade-old dominance of the Bharatiya Janata Party in this new State, formerly a part of Bihar. The grand alliance forged painstakingly by the Congress with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Communist Party of India made a near-clean sweep, winning 13 of 14 Lok Sabha seats, leaving just one for the BJP. The alliance established a lead in 62 out of 81 Assembly segments in the State. Anyone could be forgiven for assuming that the Assembly election, which was held within a year of this verdict, would prove to be a non-contest. For assuming that notwithstanding the usual electoral complexities of Assembly elections, the Congress-JMM alliance would displace the BJP in the State. Jharkhand, which held its first ever Assembly election, looked all set to emulate Uttaranchal and Chhattisgarh. In these States, the ruling parties in the pre-poll Assemblies (the BJP in Uttaranchal and the Congress in Chattisgarh) lost the first Assembly election.

The Jharkhand results showed the State did not go the way of the other two. However, there were certain common factors. As in the other two newly formed States, the Assembly election in Jharkhand was marked by intense participation and fragmentation. The creation of a new but long cherished State led to the intensification of political activities. The election witnessed a modest rise of about two percentage points in the turnout, even as neighbouring Bihar witnessed a sharp drop in voter turnout. The number of contestants was 1,390 as against the 882 who contested from this region in the last Bihar Assembly election. In Uttaranchal and Chhattisgarh, the upsurge in participation had been accompanied by a fragmentation of the party political space: hung Assemblies with a large proportion of votes going to smaller political formations. This is what happened in Jharkhand too, only even more so than in the other two States.

The hung Assembly in Jharkhand reflects a deeper fracturing of the electorate, something that may become a reference point in Indian politics. An analysis of the final vote share reveals the nature of the vote splintering: no single party got even one quarter of the votes cast in the State. The largest single party, the BJP, secured only 23.4 per cent of the total vote. Moreover, none of the alliances secured even 30 per cent of the vote. The BJP-JD (U) garnered a combined vote share of only 27.4 per cent. The corresponding figure for the Congress-JMM alliance was 26.3 per cent. Hung Assemblies are not unusual in our country. But even a hung Assembly normally has one or more political blocs controlling one-third or more of the popular vote. As an instance of a fragmented verdict, Jharkhand 2005 must be one of the very few exceptions of its kind.

The all-important question: what changed in less than a year? How did the Congress-JMM snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? From a different vantage point, why did the BJP-JD (U) not succeed in converting the Congress-JMM follies into a clear victory for the NDA? Here are some factors that contributed to making this an uncertain verdict.

UPA disintegration

The instant media has already given its verdict: it was all about the changing alliance arithmetic. No doubt there is a lot of substance in this assessment. The one big change in the last year is that while the alliance forged by the Congress more or less disintegrated, the BJP actually consolidated its position by forging one. In the last Lok Sabha election, Jharkhand was one of the few States where the BJP failed to keep the NDA together; the BJP and the JD (U) fought separately. While the JD (U) secured less than 4 per cent of the vote, the BJP recognised its role as spoiler and accommodated it this time. The JD (U) polled the same proportion of votes in the Assembly election, but brought six crucial seats for the NDA. But for this alliance, both parties would have been a few seats short of their current tally and certainly out of the race to form a government.

The anti-BJP forces moved from unity to disunity during this period in more than one way. First, the alliance shed partners such as the RJD and Left parties on the assumption that they were dispensable. It did this at a time when the BJP was learning a lesson about the indispensability of smaller allies. A post-facto analysis suggests that if the Congress, the JMM and the RJD had forged a perfect pre-poll alliance, one that avoided all conflict, its combined vote share was enough to win 44 seats. Secondly, the truncated Congress-JMM alliance was far from perfect. It was marred by many not-so-`friendly’ contests. All the votes gained by the two parties did not add up as votes for the alliance. Thirdly, the two allies were very poor in transferring their votes to each other. The BJP-JD (U) fared much better on this count. It is difficult to estimate the precise effect of all these three follies on the part of the JMM-Congress. But there is no doubt that better alliance-making would have put the UPA in a less embarrassing situation that it finds itself in today.

Changing vote share

But was it only about alliances? Was there something else that needs looking into? An analysis of the changing vote share of different parties brings out the other major change: a significant decline in the vote share of all major parties.

The seats tally masks this major change. It suggests somewhat misleadingly that there is a strong resemblance between the recent verdict and that held in this region in 2000, when the Jharkhand area was a part of Bihar. The BJP, the Congress, the RJD and the JD (U) [then JD (U) and Samata] - all have lost two seats each compared with the 2000 tally. The JMM has added five seats to its tally, while the remaining gains have accrued to other smaller formations.

The vote share analysis reveals the direction and the extent of the shift in the popular mood. All the major parties, including the JMM, suffered an erosion in their vote base. The Congress lost as much as 8 percentage points while the others lost about two percentage points each. This adds up to a negative swing upwards of 20 percentage points.

Compared with the last Assembly or the last Lok Sabha election, one-fifth of the State’s voters shifted from mainstream parties and their allies to smaller political formations and Independent candidates. These `smaller forces’ - mainly smaller Left parties and alternatives within the JMM family plus Independents - control as much as 35 per cent of the vote share. Their share of seats, however, is only 12. If the seats-votes relationship was fairer, these forces would have controlled about 25 seats. This is clearly a vote of no confidence in the mainstream of the political establishment.

JMM follies

Why did this lack of confidence in mainstream parties affect the Congress-JMM alliance’s performance more than others? There is strong evidence to suggest that the JMM’s last minute follies played a small but significant role in ensuring this. The case of Stephan Marandi highlighted the poor candidate selection by a JMM leadership that was overconfident of victory. But the problem was not confined to this alone. If the people voted only on the basis of the reputation of candidates, only nine per cent would have favoured JMM nominees. Voters felt that Congress candidates were much better.

A `late swing’ against the Congress-JMM may have also dealt a significant blow to the combine. The polling took place in three phases over three weeks. The 24 constituencies that went to the polls in the first phase actually saw a five-percentage point swing in favour of the Congress-JMM compared with its share in the Lok Sabha election. The BJP-JD (U) suffered a loss of 20 percentage points in this phase. By the second phase of the election, the downward slide for the Congress and JMM had begun. The combine lost 15 percentage points in the second phase and as much as 22 points in the third. It seems that the adverse image created by infighting and nepotism within the JMM may have caused the steep decline in Congress-JMM fortunes.

An analysis of how votes changed hands between the Lok Sabha and the Assembly election confirms this reading. This time, both the major combines lost about one-third of their votes secured in the Lok Sabha election, mostly to others. The Congress-JMM alliance suffered twice over, for it also lost about 20 per cent of its votes to its former ally, the RJD. Thus only 44 per cent of the voters who backed the grand alliance in the Lok Sabha elections voted in favour of the Congress-JMM combine in the Assembly election. This poor level of retention was critical to the reversal of its fortunes.

The same signal emerges when we look at the pattern of traditional party support. The BJP managed to hold 77 per cent of its traditional supporters, who constitute one-fourth of the electorate. The combined strength of the traditional supporters of the Congress and the JMM is a little more than that of the BJP, but the hold of these two parties over their committed voters was much less. The JMM fared worse in this respect; it could hold only 60 per cent of its self-declared supporters, a clear indicator of disaffection within the party rank and file.

Greater fragmentation

The verdict in Jharkhand invites a deeper question: why did the combine that seemed to represent the majority of the State’s population - Adivasis, Muslims and Dalits - fail to secure a majority? The CSDS post-poll survey in the State points to a political fragmentation of the weaker sections, while the smaller but more powerful sections were less divided. The Congress-JMM combine was no doubt the major vote-getter among Adivasis, Dalits and Muslims, but compared with the Lok Sabha election, this alliance actually lost six percentage points among Adivasis and 23 percentage points among Muslims. Adivasis, who constitute about 25 per cent of the State’s population, got divided along political and tribal lines and were therefore unable to play a decisive role in this election. The lead secured by the Congress and JMM among Adivasi voters was not enough to win a majority of even the 28 seats reserved for the Scheduled Tribes. The Congress-JMM won 12 of these, while 10 went to the BJP-JD (U). In these seats, the Congress-JMM lost as much as 18 percentage points of the vote when compared with the 2000 Assembly election.

The BJP also suffered losses across all communities, but it managed to secure 58 per cent of the "upper caste" vote, which proved to be more of a vote bank than the rest. Its support for the extension of reservation benefits to the Kurmi-Mahato community inflicted major damage on the Congress-JMM. This time, the Yadavs consolidated even more in favour of the RJD. Other parties and Independents attracted a large proportion of the vote of the backward and marginalised communities. As a result, these communities did not influence the election as much as they might have.

In Jharkhand, the social pattern is linked to the geographical. All the major parties suffered reversed in the areas that were considered their strongholds. The RJD suffered reverses in the 28 seats in the northern region bordering Bihar, where older and recent `migrants’ from Bihar dominate the electorate. The BJP suffered losses in the Chhota Nagpur area in the south. And in Santhal Pargana, the homeland of Shibu Soren, the Congress-JMM combine lost as much as 19 percentage points of the vote.

Livelihood issues

The analysis above should not lead to the conclusion that the shift in votes had nothing to do with governance. This is not true. Jharkhand’s voters do care about governance issues, particularly when the performance of a Government is particularly good or bad. However, the popular evaluation of the BJP government was neither very positive nor very negative. The voters said the condition of the roads and schools had improved during the five-year tenure of this Government. They also expressed satisfaction with the overall development of the State and the condition of Adivasis. But they had reservations when it came to assessing the law and order situation, public health facilities and the supply of drinking water and electricity. When asked to answer `yes’ or `no’ to a question about whether the State Government deserved another chance, the voters were equally split. Forty seven per cent of those who expressed an opinion were in favour of giving it another chance, whereas 53 per cent were against this. Significantly, the voters were split on caste lines on this question. "Upper castes" and Kurmi-Mahatos were overwhelmingly in favour of this Government while Yadavs, Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims were strongly opposed to its continuation.

This ambivalence on the Government’s developmental record perhaps prevented the governance issue from becoming the main one. Asked which issue most influenced their voting decision, half of those polled mentioned livelihood issues, while a little less than a quarter mentioned development or the presence of a good candidate. Interestingly, the much talked about domicile issue was a non-issue for all but two per cent of the State’s voters. It is significant that all the major political parties lost votes in an election in which livelihood issues mattered most. Clearly, the voters looked towards political leaders and formations outside the mainstream to meet these concerns.

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