Assembly Elections Results for five states are not 'semi-finals' for 2019; here's why that lazy metaphor falls flat

As the curtains come down on the bitterly contested Assembly elections in five sates, we are treated to some aggressive political jargon from analysts trying to sum up the results in pithy one-liners and tweet-sized punches. However, this time the word in vogue to sum up the tedious polling exercise seems to be 'semi-final', indicating that perhaps the voting patterns in Assembly election are a precursor to the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. The generic tone of political commentary pieces is that the five state elections will 'set the stage' for the big battle, or how these polls show the voters' mood ahead of 2019 polls.

They do neither of these things, and here's why:

To resort to calling the mandate of roughly 14.86 crore people the trendsetter for how over 85 crore voters will vote is unscientific, inaccurate, and sensationalist. When elections in five of India's 29 states are used to make presumptions about the likely trend in the Lok Sabha polls, we undermine the representativeness of our own democracy. Not to mention that we also run the risk of overlooking the fact that the 2019 result is likely to be not one verdict but 29 distinct voter assertions.  Because different states in India have all very distinct political flavours, voter aspirations, and complex set of regional issues, no Assembly election can be dubbed a semi-final for 2019 — neither metaphorically, nor literally.

 Assembly Elections Results for five states are not semi-finals for 2019; heres why that lazy metaphor falls flat

Representational image. AP

Even by using the term metaphorically, we oversimplify a complex electoral process.

But even if to assert how ludicrous the idea is, examining the most widely accepted usage of the term 'semi-final' shows how different the nature of  state polls is to the Lok Sabha elections. Semi-final is usually the penultimate match in a sporting event, which rules out all other contestants in the fray and the last round is a straight fight between the two emerging leaders.

In elections, especially when neither the BJP nor the Congress are likely to get an absolute majority, it is hardly going to be a straight fight between the two national parties. In fact, many analysts are ascribing double the significance to regional satraps in 2019, than they ever did in previous elections.

The only way these polls are likely to affect the general election is by redefining the terms of negotiations for an alliance in 2019. Favourable results might give smaller parties a better negotiating space for an alliance with either NDA or UPA, both of whom will be forced to take their allies more seriously.

Besides, even though psephologists have argued that despondency with electoral choices in recent past may affect a voter's choice in the near future, surveys published as late as in August predicted that Congress might win Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh (currently ruled by BJP) voters preferred Narendra Modi as the prime minister in 2019.

Retrospective analysis of state govts versus brand Modi

Even if Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan and Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh fail to lose the deadweight of incumbency, as suggested by most exit poll surveys, it is unlikely to weigh Modi down.

From the issues the Lok Sabha polls are contested on to the mobilisation tropes used by the political parties, the narrative in Assembly polls is usually very different from general elections.

The BJP has the funds, the means, and the strength to drum up a campaign around larger 'national issues' in Lok Sabha polls to deflect attention from the performance of BJP state governments. The Congress too will comply as the 2014 poll campaign was based more an a personality cult than anything else. In 2019, armed with issues like Rafale 'scam', 'failure' of demonitisation, joblessness and the state of economy, Congress will find it much easier to attack brand Modi than ask voters to appraise a state government retrospectively.

For voters, candidates matter more than the party

A survey conducted by Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) indicates that for voters, the local candidate is the most decisive factor in Lok Sabha polls, followed by their traditional political leanings. The prime ministerial candidate, voters' caste and/or religion identities, and the 'gifts' offered at the time of polls (if any) are further down in the list of issues people identified with when they chose their representatives in Lok Sabha.

These factors indicate that the state and Lok Sabha polls are clearly de-linked in the minds of voters. And since each party fields candidates on the basis of winnability, the voters in Lok Sabha may or may not vote for the same party that they opted for in state polls.

This partly explains why parties continue to repose faith in influential political turncoats and candidates with criminal backgrounds, as winnability is the most important criteria in winning elections.

Another reason why these state elections can't be dubbed a semi-final for Lok Sabha polls is because the geographical definition of an Assembly constituency is quite different from Lok Sabha seats. None of these states, barring Telangana for which we don't have sufficient data, are an outlier to the above statement. Three of the five states (also those with the most number of Lok Sabha seats) are typical Hindi heartalnd states where the usual complications of the region, strong caste and religious fragmentation, is operative. Now this changes drastically when the boundaries of the constituency are redrawn.

A particular sect or caste dominant in an Assembly constituency may become considerably diluted in a much larger Lok Sabha seat. This not only alters who commands dominance but alters voter behaviour. Most people from minority caste/ community vote for one of the two most winnable candidates irrespective of their own caste/ religious identy, as they wouldn't squander their vote on a candidate that had no chance of winning at all. This might not be the case in state polls where regional sensitivities dictate voter behaviour. A strong Independent or a candidates from a small party may have a fairer chance at winning.

Assembly not semis for LS even if voters replicate behaviour

However, despite all these factors a set of political analysts argue that voters indeed tend to replicate their behaviour from those Assembly elections which are held close to Lok Sabha polls. Even if this argument were to hold true for all future elections, empirical data demands prudence.

In 2003, the BJP swept Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh state polls but still went on to lose the 2004 General Election (although, not in those states). Similarly, evidence exists to the contrary as well. The BJP swept Bihar during the Lok Sabha polls in 2014, but failed to wrest power from Nitish Kumar who was re-elected chief minister for another term the following year.

But even if this behaviour of choosing same party in state and Central polls was replicated this time again, it would still not make Assembly elections the semi-final before 2019. The reason, all these state combined — Chhattisgarh (11), Madhya Pradesh (29), Mizoram (1), Rajasthan (25), Telangana (17) — add up to just 83 seats in the 545-member House.

Therefore, the Assembly election results might indicate what may happen in these states in 2019 but will have no predictive value beyond that. The composition of a 545-member Parliament can never be convincingly predicted based on the outcome of Assembly polls from a handful states, whether or not voter behaviour can be mapped on a model.

History defines that no political party is infallible in time and one victory never guarantees a future win to anyone. Prudence, therefore dictates that we accept and analyse the 11 December results for what they are worth and not make lazy assumptions to second guess who could rule the country in 2019.

Updated Date: Dec 10, 2018 13:47:28 IST