Poll notes of a limo liberal

If you laugh at parachute reporters, what would you call a genuinely motley gang of psephologists, investment bankers, editors, columnists and television anchors—even an editor-turned-anchor-turned MP — in three stretch Volvos traversing Rajasthan in the last leg of the election campaign? We obviously had the wisdom of so many pre-election surveys at the back of our minds. All the major ones gave the state to the Congress and, sure enough, the Congressmen we met en route were sure they were right. This state, they said, was already in the bag. Then we found Sudhanshu Mittal, the biggest of Pramod Mahajan’s backroom boys—or the chief of his so-called laptop gang—over an elegant dinner at The Oberoi’s seven-star Raj Vilas.

 

“You’ve got it all wrong. All the surveys are wrong. Rajasthan is with the BJP, we will get 110 seats,” he said, looking us pundits and grandmasters of psephology in the eye.

Now, if there is one thing Mittal and his boys lack, it is not confidence. But by the next day the picture had begun to look a bit confusing. In a state that the Congress was supposed to sweep, the voices in the countryside said something else. At every roadside huddle—which was quickly achieved at the sight of us Limo Liberals — there were more voices speaking of the BJP than the Congress. At the village of Soyila (in the Niwai constituency on National Highway 12 connecting Jaipur with Kota) a quick headcount at the chai-shop produced a result of 8-5, in favour of the BJP. Of course the BJP-wallas were also much more vocal. One told us, quite confidently, that he had read (in the RSS paper, Panchjanya, he claimed) that Indian journalists had visited Sonia’s village in Italy and were told that she used to be a cabaret dancer there. But obviously you can’t take the Panchjanya seriously, even if it wrote such a thing, we said. But his mind was made up. Oddly, there wasn’t too much outrage at that even from those who said they were voting for the Congress. The result now: the Congress Deputy Chief Minister Banwarilal Berwa was trounced here.

Pushing further north, deeper into the ravines before gliding into the green flat-lands of Kota, awash in Chambal waters and the fertile riches they bring, the picture never really conformed to the pre-poll surveys. Except in the really poor, mostly Dalit village of Pradeepnagar 15 km from Tonk (named after the princeling), you would never get a higher count for the Congress. But there was one running thread: things were different until a few days back. The winds were blowing for the Congress. But something has changed in the last couple of days. You heard this from the BJP candidate, Mahabir Jain, at Tonk, a veteran of five elections with a 3-2 record (six now, score is 4-2) who gave us native political wisdom with generous dollops of the famous local milk-cake, sitting on top of a shop in the heart of what must be the princely town’s Fashion Street. The tailoring shops in front have names like Beyond Compare, Bondstreet, and As You Like It. And in an election Jain obviously believes that arithmetic is the thing. He thinks he has it all sewn up and is even not regretful that Modi has not come campaigning here. “I know why you are asking that question. Because there are 40,000 Muslim votes here. But we do not need a Hindu-Muslim division here. I am winning nevertheless.”

He was winning, actually, because the Muslim vote was badly divided. If Modi came here, it would probably consolidate again in fright, entirely to the benefit of his arch rival, Zaqia of the Congress, the sitting MLA and minister. Now she had to handle three more Muslim candidates, one each from NCP and the SP, and another Congress dissident Nazimuddin, reputedly the richest man in Tonk, the bidi king (his secularism underlined by the brand-name for his bidis, Ganesh) with sons who went to St Stephens and frothing at the corners of his mouth at having been ignored by his party. “I am not here as a spoiler. I will win,” he says more in anger than with conviction and invites us to his “rally” alongside a tiny mosque, attended by no more than a hundred, probably all Muslims — two-thirds of them children who clap furiously each time his cheerleader recites another rousing Urdu sher, exhorting Nazimuddin to be like the bird who dared to fly, and leave the rest to Allah, in spite of having rain-drenched wings. In this case, however, all his “bird” had on his mind was throwing a bucket of cold water on his Congress rival’s wings, which he did quite effectively. The result now: Mahabir Jain won.

The Congress had obviously got a couple of things wrong in Rajasthan. And the BJP a few right. Independents and rebels were placed strategically and helped, with the simple, straight-forward purpose of dividing the committed Congress vote. I bet Sudhanshu Mittal and his (and Mahajan’s) other boys would not have required some supercomputer to work these equations out and take the election away from the Congress. All this while, as a story by this newspaper’s correspondent Kota Neelima later showed, the Congress stalwarts were focusing on what obviously matters most — their offspring’s constituencies, unmindful of the spectacular trap being laid for them. With the picture so confusing, it was the Original Psephologist Prannoy Roy who came up with the idea of a direct “haath-ya-phool” (the hand or the flower) poll. You stopped any bystander and asked that simple question. The count was decisively against what the opinion polls were telling us. Evidence that winds had shifted?

In Ajmer, Sonia Gandhi addressed a modest rally. I did a spot poll of my own, asking as many as 12 Congress participants — and presumably Congress voters — if they knew who the lady (Ambika Soni) accompanying Sonia was. Not one had an answer and the one uncharitable guess somebody made I’d rather not mention. You cannot win an election against a party as organised as the BJP, which can throw a dozen leaders in the campaign whom every voter would know from television if nothing else, if your general secretary is such a lightweight. Ambika versus Mahajan, Kapil Sibal versus Jaitley, Pranab Mukherji (where is he?) versus Venkaiah, you can go on, but the fact is, Sonia and the Congress simply did not have the team to counter the BJP. They cannot complain of lacking resources. They had an incumbent government, tipped by the polls to win, so resources could not have been such a problem. What they lacked was focus, discipline, intellect, commitment and probably a laptop for which somebody would have found 60,000 rupees.

In her speech, spoken in very good Hindustani (her diction is getting better), Sonia accused the BJP of producing so many scams as to make it to the Guinness Book of World Records. I am not sure anybody understood that in Ajmer, but crowd clapped on cue. But if Sonia now sits back and introspects, she might look seriously at her party’s chances of making the Guinness Book as the political party for having wallowed in denial for the longest period in its history.

Her generals are not willing to match their skills with the BJP’s, her colonels are not willing to leave the comfort of their homes and business to join battle, and the troops are in disarray. Amazing, how a party that brought in the computers into elections (1984), then Sam Pitroda with his promise of high-tech revolution and Rajiv Gandhi with his promise of 21st century India, now speaks a language frozen in the seventies. Its thinking on economics has regressed, it sees privatisation as the loot of public wealth, banking reform an insult to the memory of the senior Mrs G, clings to the least creative of its old guard (one of them told me the other day the way for the Congress to revive itself was to re-establish contact with the generation of freedom fighters!), is afraid of throwing a Manmohan Singh even into the Delhi campaign, and refuses to create a new B-team. It fails to project its chief ministers as stars. Why was S.M. Krishna not paraded in Jaipur and Bhopal? “I will do for tourism in Rajasthan what my colleague did for IT in Bangalore.” That is one line we never heard from a Gehlot.

It instinctively denies the arrival of a new India, awash with a feel-good mood not seen since Rajiv’s first year in power, and powered by a new voter who asks real questions on his quality of life, rather than succumb to old slogans, mantras and the pull of any dynasty. You send tacky, free school-bags to children who have seen better bags on their TV screens. You insult them. What this voter is telling you is, don’t throw me a freebie. Promise me a much better tomorrow — it’s my right. The party fails to understand that the Gandhi-Nehru nostalgia may not have ended but is waning, that nearly five crore voters in the 2004 elections would have actually been born after Indira Gandhi’s assassination and that they will vote on a promise of a better future than on the prejudices or loyalties of the past. How come the same voter that throws you in the gutter in three states, votes you back so thumpingly in the fourth? A party that does not ask itself these questions and wrestles with their answers lives in the past and the only message it gives its constituency is that it cannot guarantee a future. And if there is one thing the New Indian Voter is not ready to compromise with, it is the future. Irrespective of what your ancestors did for his in the past.

News Source: Indian Express
News Link : http://www.indianexpress.com/oldStory/36679/