The Chhattisgarh assembly election, the first phase of which got off to a rousing start yesterday (11 November), is likely to be as important a signal on the direction of political winds as the Delhi results will be. That the turnout was likely to be 70 percent plus despite Naxal violence is itself an indicator of the state's importance and the unpredictability of its electorate. High turnouts can be an indicator of voter expectations of change, but this assumption has not always held true.
With one more phase scheduled for 19 November and results due only on 8 December, it will be a long wait before we know the mind of the Chhattisgarh voter, but whatever it is, it will have implications for 2014.
Broadly speaking, Delhi will test the power of the anti-incumbency vote (with both the Aaam Aadmi Party and the BJP staking a claim), Rajasthan will be a test of whether freebies like food security can reverse anti-incumbency, and Madhya Pradesh will be a test of voter interest despite 10 years of reasonably good one party rule - with no signs of anti-incumbency.
But Chhattisgarh is a very important weather vane, nevertheless. For several reasons.
Chhattisgarh is one of the most rural states in the country. Since the Congress is betting on the rural vote rather than the urban one to stave off defeat in 2014, which way Chhattisgarh votes will be indicative of the rural mood. Chhattisgarh is also a tribal state - one where the Congress has had a traditional upper hand, but one which Raman Singh has been able to breach. The vote will tell us whether Congress can reclaim an old stronghold despite the fact that voters have few reasons to turf out Raman Singh. It they do, it will mean the fatigue factor is at work. Voters are tired of seeing the same old face after 10 years and are in an adventurous mood.
This brings us to the second factor: Chhattisgarh is the one state which has already implemented a Food Security Bill and Raman Singh is widely credited for it. He is known as the "chawal wale Baba" to large parts of the electorate. Since the Congress's big policy plank in 2014 is its own Food Security Bill, Chhattisgarh voters will tell us one of two things: if they vote against Raman Singh, it effectively means the voter is not swayed by freebies like food security - at least beyond a point. On the other hand, if they do vote for Raman Singh, it does not necessarily mean the Food Bill was important to his victory. As Raman Singh has delivered reasonably good governance, voters may not be specifically voting for the Food Bill. For the Congress, thus, win or lose, it will gain no insight. For the BJP, a loss means food security is no great shakes; a win means the good governance planks works. Narendra Modi should take his cue from this.
The third signal comes from the Naxal front. The Chhattisgarh electorate clearly gave them a thumbs down by turning up in large numbers at polling booths. It could mean that the policy focus on development combined with efficient policing can break the back of Naxalism. But then, it is not clear how far Raman Singh's public distribution system has reached the poor when the Naxals control large swathes of territory. So far, only the development agenda is clear and efficient policing and surgical operations against the Naxals are practically non-existent. A BJP win can be a signal to move forward on eliminating both the causes and consequences of Naxalism. A Congress win will mean more floundering with the right policy mix on how to deal with the Naxals.
The Naxal attack earlier this year, which killed many top Congress leaders in Chhattisgarh, including the founder of the Salwa Judum, was a major security lapse, and 8 December will tell us if that will be held against Raman Singh or not.
Fourth, Chhattisgarh is a purely local election fought on local factors, local leadership. Neither Narendra Modi nor Rahul Gandhi can claim great relevance here. But what happens here can send signals on several issues. Chhattisgarh will tell us which way the rural vote is tilting right now, what people think about food freebies, and whether people will reward good governance or prefer change now that they have seen 10 years of rule by one party.
There will be lessons for both BJP and Congress from Chhattisgarh even though the state has only 10 Lok Sabha seats. In the context of 2014, Chhattisgarh may punch far above its weight in national politics.
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Updated Date: Nov 12, 2013 11:18:24 IST