Should the INC Withdraw from 2014 Assembly Elections?

Assembly elections in the state of Maharashtra seem interesting and psephologically complex. The alliances have all broken down. A four cornered contest is both easy and difficult to predict; the leader should be reaping disproportionate returns but first past the post system in a large state with multiple distinct regions may complicate that. This post is not about polling data, however.

The election campaign in Maharashtra has drawn comparisons with the neighbouring state of Gujarat. It’s a bit of a strange comparison, given the former is a richer state with the luxury of having within its boundaries India’s premier city. It’s simply bound to do better in terms of revenues and investment. Historically, too, the state has been India’s industrial powerhouse. Therefore, it’s a bit meaningless to throw Maharashtra’s admittedly higher per capita income at Gujarat. Almost no one with even a peripheral understanding of India would dispute Maharashtra is richer in comparison to Gujarat.

It also makes no sense to credit Prithviraj Chavan, the incumbent Chief Minister, for Maharashtra’s better metrics in terms of the size of economy or its much higher FDI inflow. He did almost nothing to deserve it. Except perhaps in not ruining it. The only way to measure these two states on a relative basis then would be to understand how the state governments have performed on domains that are exclusively state subjects. There too, the base from which these two states started about a decade ago were different. Maharashtra has a heritage of higher literacy and better health. Gujarat doesn’t.

If we start with where these states were and how the relative performance has been in the recent past on health and education to see which government has done better, there’s not much difference between the two. We looked at this a certain way earlier; we’d measured how far current overall population illiteracy was from teen illiteracy. It showed us both Maharashtra and Gujarat were relatively poor performers, with Maharashtra having better absolute numbers because of its history.

In terms of health related indicators, however, we saw that Maharashtra is consistently in the top 5 states in terms of improvement. Not merely absolute numbers. That leaves Gujarat with worse absolute numbers and not even as good an improvement. So, if the choice were between being born in Gujarat and Maharashtra, one’d pick the latter without any hesitation at all strata of society.

But the above metrics are well known and therefore do not make for a non-trivial discussion. What does is this: should the INC, set for a certain defeat by most poll estimates, sit this election out for its own good? The senate race in Kansas is a possibly a good starting point for the INC to study. Greg Orman, an independent, is expected to win this reliably red state. Orman got on the ballot was by getting enough signatures to get on it. The Democrats noticing how well Orman was polling, dropped out of the race; the race thus became an Independent vs Republican race. Stunningly, the red state is now likely to send a possibly centrist Senator to Washington.

One could argue, the problems of the INC in many Indian states are remarkably similar to that of the Democrats in red state America. Its voters aren’t energised and its opponent the BJP is proving insurmountable in head to head contests. However, there are third and fourth forces in India already at play given it’s a multi party system. So, let’s assume the INC simply drops out of the race in Maharashtra. Will that mean a majority of its core votes go to a non-BJP formation that could emerge victorious? If that were indeed true, what’s the longer term risk of losing those votes forever to the other party vis-a-vis making a mere tactical retreat?

A cynical view of the AAP experiment was that it was intended to be the Greg Orman of Delhi. However the INC contested that election. Perhaps it did not have the courage to implement its own strategy. Just as the BJP could have done this when Sheila Dixit was on a roll but did not. When smaller parties contest every election as their survival depended on it, it’s understandable. They are likely to fade out of public consciousness if they don’t even contest elections. However, parties like the INC and BJP are big enough to not worry about that.

If they did that, it’d not only be in their self-interest – with a chance to stop the principal opponent from a certain victory – but also make Democracy stronger. Perhaps it’s time the major parties in each state came to an agreement: they’d not contest a third successive election if they’d won the previous two.