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Mainstream, VOL LIII , No 38, New Delhi, September 12, 2015

As Parties Plunder by turn, People’s Only Choice is Negative Voting. That doesn’t seem to Work

Sunday 20 September 2015, by T J S George


It has the appearance of a planned conspiracy. A party gets power, indulges in abominable corruption and misdeeds and is then thrown out by disgusted voters. But the next party that comes to power proves just as abominable, so voters throw it out, letting the earlier party come back to power. Thus voters end up as fools while all parties get a chance to plunder the country by turn.

Indira Gandhi’s Emergency atrocities angered the people so much that they did the unthinkable: Threw out Indira herself and her despised son Sanjay. With great hope, people welcomed the Morarji Desai Government. But it took only weeks for that government to show that it was a bunch of quarelling egoists. The odious lot was thrown out and Indira Gandhi returned to power.

In the last election, although Narendra Modi’s oratorical magic played a significant role, it was people’s disgust with Sonia Gandhi and her now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t Prince of Wales that gave the BJP a landslide victory. A re-programmed Rahul Gandhi still does not strike anyone as a credible national leader. As long as he remains the alternative, Modi will be safe in his chair.

At the States’ level, Kerala and Karnataka are the classic examples of negative voting—people anxious to throw out sinful incumbents. The practice actually originated in Kerala. The Congress-led United Democratic Front and the

Marxist-led Left Democratic Front perfected the art of competitive corruption. People responded the only way they could: With clockwise precision, they would throw out one obnoxiously corrupt Front and, five years later, throw out

the other equally obnoxious Front.

There is a possibility that the tradition may be broken next time around—and not because the UDF now in power is any less obnoxious in its ways. So numerous are the scams it has spawned that a competition seems to be under way to decide which Ministry is the most fetid den of iniquity—Finance, Excise, Industries, Revenue? Voters would as usual want to get rid of the lot. But, for the first time, the nightmare of the alternative seems more scary than the nightmare of the incumbent.

The CPM’s State supremo, Pinarayi Vijayan, has been making policy-mistakes over the years. He drove out the RSP, an important component of the LDF, used foul language in his speeches drawing criticism from his own followers and saw dissidents leaving the party, some even joining the BJP. In public perception the party is associated with the blood-curdling murder of a prominent dissident. Under Vijayan the CPM in Kerala has become not only corruption-prone but also violence-prone and autocratic. The prospects of such an unpopular leader becoming the LDF Chief Minister will persuade many to vote against the LDF.

In Karnataka it was popular disgust with the Congress misrule that made people welcome the untested H.D. Kumaraswamy of the JD (S) and then B. S. Yeddyurappa of the BJP. The “first BJP government in the south” gave the party a historic opportunity. But they botched it up; the BJP’s first CM also became the first CM to be jailed with some of his Cabinet colleagues for company. Negative voting came into play again and the Congress got another go at power.

Now it was the Congress’ turn to botch things up again. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, experienced and relatively clean, suffers from a reluctance to apply his mind to an issue on hand and act decisively. As a result, problems—ranging from drought to the rise of moral-police thugs—remain unresolved.

People expressed their mood in Bengaluru’s corporation elections. During a longish rule, BJP corporators had set an unprecedented record in corruption which outweighed the lacklustre performance of the Siddaramaiah Government. So voters gave the BJP 11 seats less than in 2010 while they gave the Congress 11 seats more, depriving both of a working majority—a friendly warning to both parties.

But no self-respecting party pays heed to warnings, friendly or otherwise. As it happens, both the LDF in Kerala and the Congress in Karnataka have trump cards they can play to ensure victory in the next elections. Party prospects will dramatically change if the LDF officially projects V.S. Achuthanandan, the most popular living political leader in Kerala, as its chief ministerial candidate. In Karnataka, the Congress will immediately gain the upper hand if it announces that its choice of the Chief Minister after the next election is Mallikarjun Kharge, a veteran respected by all. But where shall wisdom be found, and where is the place of understanding?