Among all the elections held in democratic India, 2004 elections have been the most unique in nature for the stunning outcome that confounded everybody. It was unprecedented in India’s electoral history, for every pandit, political observer, psephologist got it wrong. Ever since, there have been myriad attempts to explain the results of 2004 by many schools of thought and a wide spectrum of opinions have sprung up among the intelligentsia and the internet warriors alike; right from the socialist theory of absence of inclusive growth in NDA’s policies and the secularist theory of an anti-Gujarat-riots vote to the conspiratorially bizarre theory of EVM hacking. Why so many attempts to explain an election? Why were we so stunned by the outcome of 2004 in the first place?

The answer to these questions lie in the historic context of the 2004 polls. The background on which these polls were held gives us that contextual reference; BJP & NDA were seen as almost indispensable because of their no-nonsense governance model and the ability to not only attract allies but also retain them and Congress was seen as a directionless party with almost no significant allies and no alternative policies, furthermore, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was perceived to be the most popular Indian leader since Indira Gandhi, whereas Sonia Gandhi was seen as almost a liability for the Congress party mostly because of her foreign origins (remember how Vajpayee and Advani were informally quoted many a times to having said something like “as long as that woman (Sonia) is the head of that party, there is nothing to fear about Congress”). Had the 2004 elections gone according to popular expectations and had the Congress party lost once again, then most certainly the party would have disintegrated and their leader Sonia Gandhi’s political carrier would have come to a premature end. For the first time in independent India’s history, Congress party was out of power for 8 years and its tally in the Lok Sabha had fallen well below 150 seats. It is from this nadir that Sonia Gandhi and the Congress party emerged like a phoenix from the ashes to defeat a party and a leader whose popularity was far greater than her own.

How does one explain an election like 2004? News media, psephologists and political commentators have tried some very complex methodologies by inculcating socialist economics and secular polity, they have tried almost every electoral theory possible to explain the astonishing results of 2004, but have, as usual, missed the “real” reason. The biggest and also the simplest explanation for the 2004 BJP/NDA debacle is a seven letter word – DROUGHT.

The drought background to 2004 elections:

Year 2002 was witness to one of the harshest droughts that India had experienced, in fact, historically, it has been classified as the 5th biggest drought ever to hit India. Although the NDA government had taken enough measures to counter the debilitating effects of that severe drought – world bank and Asian development bank had commended the Vajpayee government, by terming it as the best managed drought in Indian history – obviously those measures were not enough to assuage the affected populace. The 2004 elections were not only a setback for the BJP but also for two popular chief ministers in south India. Both Chandra Babu Naidu (Andhra Pradesh) and S.M. Krishna (Karnataka) were perceived as performing chief ministers and there was enough evidence on the ground to that effect, while the assembly elections in both the states produced a stunning reversal for both of them – the reason again was drought.

This author, on an electoral study tour across central and northern Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in the months preceding the 2004 polls, was first hand witness to the severe impact of drought in rural India. ‘Tandas’ are small tribal habitats on the outskirts of almost every village in northern Karnataka and certain parts of adjoining Andhra Pradesh. Lambanis/Lambadis or Banjaras are a tribal community that constitute these Tandas. An astonishing view would be presented to the visitor in every Tanda that one visited in 2004 – the complete absence of the male species, apart from kids and a few old-bedridden men. This is not an overstatement but an absolute fact, every man of the Banjara community had migrated to the city to earn a livelihood as an after effect of drought, living their purely female habitats vulnerable to predatory attacks from other community men (Banjarans are some of the most beautiful women in India). During this period RSS and other right-wing socio-cultural organizations formed groups of teams who performed yeoman service in these areas by not only protecting the female folk but also in helping Banjarans re-build their lives. The electoral benefit of this has been harvested by the likes of Yeddiyurappa, for ever since then Lambanis have stood rock-solid behind the BJP by almost voting en-block in favour of the party in Karnataka (a narrative that has been completely missed by all news reports over a decade).

The impact of the 2002 drought was not limited to the 2004 elections alone, as a matter of fact, the preceding November-December 2003 elections to the states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan & Chhattisgarh had all produced stunning victories for the BJP. The writing was there on the wall, that India was affected by the severe drought and had electorally gone anti-incumbent. But Advaniji made a strategic blunder by reading the three state election results as a vote for BJP & development politics rather than as a vote against drought. Similarly, S.M. Krishna also erred by preponing the state assembly polls and had to bear the voters ire. Had BJP nationally and Congress locally (in Karnataka, or for that matter even TDP in AP) not preponed the polls and if the elections were held in time, around August-September 2004, history would have been completely altered. The fact is that the NDA government at the centre or for that matter the Congress government in Karnataka had performed well on the governance front and stood a reasonable chance of retaining power in a normal-non-drought election scenario. In fact there is enough evidence to prove that normal elections would have produced a different result. After the summer of 2004, India had a normal monsoon and the drought affected country was back on track – Maharashtra assembly elections were held subsequently and the Congress-NCP government was voted back to power despite not scoring high on the governance model, because drought had receded and the vote had become pro-incumbent.

Drought v/s elections in India

The historic correlation of drought and elections goes back to the 80’s when the Congress dominance in the (practically if not theoretically) single party system of India had started weaning and many other parties had started challenging the Congress hegemony on governance. One of the more stunning implications was seen in 1989 when the Rajiv Gandhi led Congress government not only lost the LS polls but also lost more than half the number of seats. Again most of the historic media narrative around the 1989 elections is built around Bofors, corruption scandals, the rise of VP Singh and Mandal politics or the rise of Hindutva etc. The most important factor is again missing. News media in India will tell you everything, all sorts of things that may or may not be related to an event, but will not tell you the one the thing that matters, truth.

1989 was preceded by the mother of all droughts in India – the 1987 drought is termed as the worst drought of 20th century India, by United Nations. The New York Times reported thus about that drought “The problem is especially acute in the 70 percent of the country’s farmlands that have no irrigation and depend entirely on rain… But even the developed farmlands of the north in Punjab and here in Haryana, where irrigation is extensive, are suffering. The Financial Development Commissioner of Haryana said the state had reached ”near-famine conditions.” It further described the drought as “a crisis that could dwarf all his other political difficulties” (about Rajiv Gandhi, the then prime minister of India facing direct allegations of corruption and nepotism). Let us put that drought of 1987-88 in proper perspective;

  • Overall rainfall deficiency stood at around 19% – in some areas (almost 33% of India) the deficiency was as high as 75%
  • The overall deficiency of only 19% was mainly because of 124% excess rainfall in the north east
  • Only about 43% of the meteorological districts of the country, accounting for 37% of the geographical area, received normal or excess rainfall
  • The drought severely affected agricultural operations in 43% of cropped area or about 58.6 million hectares in 263 districts of 15 states and 6 union territories.
  • 285 million people suffered directly in this drought
  • There was severe water shortage and power scarcity in 54000 villages and 80 major cities/urban centres of the country including Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Calcutta and other major commercial hubs

That was the primary cause of the downfall of Rajiv Gandhi and not just Bofors as propagated in the popular mythology for more than 2 decades.

Even before 1989, there was another severe drought exactly a decade ago in 1979 which contributed to the electoral loss of the Janata experiment and enabled the return of the almost “unelectable” Indira Gandhi back to the Delhi throne. Thus electoral success and failure in India have been very much dependent on the presence or absence of drought, for instance, the latest 2009 re-election of the UPA government was enabled because there was no severe debilitating drought in India and the election was preceded by 4 years of normal monsoon. This phenomenon is not only limited to national elections but includes the state assembly elections too;

Drought Year

State going for elections

Outcome

1979-80

General Elections (1980)

Janata Party lost to Congress

1979-80

Maharashtra (1980)

Janata Party lost to Congress

1979-80-81

West Bengal (1982)

Left-Front overcomes anti-incumbency

1982-83*

Andhra Pradesh (1983)

Stunning victory by NTR TDP over Congress

1982-83*

Karnataka (1983)

Ramakrishna Hegde’s Janata victory

1987-88

General Elections (1989)

Stunning defeat of Rajiv Congress

1987-88

Karnataka (1989)

Congress victory despite central defeat

1987-88

Andhra Pradesh (1989)

Congress defeats TDP despite central defeat

2002-03

Madhya Pradesh (2003)

Two term Digvijay Singh govt. defeated by BJP

2002-03

Chhattisgarh (2003)

BJP trounces popular Ajit Jogi’s Congress

2002-03

Rajasthan (2003)

BJP defeats Congress

2002-03

Karnataka (2004)

Popular CM S.M. Krishna & Congress lose

2002-03

Andhra Pradesh (2004)

C.B. Naidu & TDP trounced by YSR Congress

2002-03

Orissa (2004)

NDA managed a victory despite drought

2002-03

General Elections (2004)

Stunning defeat of the BJP/NDA

[*in 82-83 there was a mini drought in the Deccan region. The 90’s was devoid of any major droughts]

As seen from the table above, there are only two exceptions in the east (Orissa & Bengal) which have been historically status-quoist states, otherwise droughts have always brought down governments if immediately followed by elections. Similarly most of the repeat, pro-incumbent, victories in recent times were brought about in the absence of drought (prime example being Maharashtra).

Raison d’être:

Now that we have established a historical correlation of drought with electoral outcomes in India, it is important to underline the reasons for this impact.

  1. Roughly 68% of India still lives in the rural hinterland
  2. The primary function of the rural economy is agriculture
  3. When there is a drought, it affects the entire rural economy thereby making the people disillusioned with governments and powers that be (even amongst party loyalists)
  4. Neutral vote (fence-sitters) in the villages becomes anti-incumbent in nature in drought or drought like situations
  5. There is a cascading effect in the form of inflation due to the underperformance of rural agronomy leading to reduced sense of well-being for people living even in urban areas
  6. The combined effect of inflation and reduced wages – because of migration of rural labour to urban areas – impacts the livelihood of urban poor and makes them anti-government

The next General Elections:

There is almost a general agreement that the next general elections would be probably held sometime in 2013 rather than when they are due in 2014, because of the mis-governance by the present dispensation and increasing restlessness among the UPA allies and supporters to break their umbilical cord from a sinking ship. NCP and Sharad Pawar are the latest entrants to the breakaway club of UPA 2, already Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress and Mulayam Singh’s SP have walked in and out of that club. It is in the interest of all these allies to move out of the alliance and limit their perceived electoral losses. Eventually, UPA 2 will collapse on its own weight of sheer unpopularity.

Recently the number of voices even in the neutral territory of the political divide have increasingly started to propose that Congress would be reduced to 100 odd seats or even below to a double-digit nadir. The same voices are also proposing a BJP revival of sorts, two of the latest examples of this new school of thought are Swaminathan Ankleshwar Aiyer of the Swaminomics fame and Minhaz Merchant of the Global Intelligence review (both, significantly of the TOI ecosystem). There are inherent flaws in such analysis which cannot be ignored while arriving at the final conclusion. First let us look at the national vote share of both the parties.

Last 4 LS poll performance matrix of both national parties:

  • The combined vote share of both the parties has hovered around 50% while the combined seat share has remained between 280 and 340 (roughly the margin between simple majority and absolute majority)
  • A breakthrough election would be when the combined vote share would break either the lower circuit of 40% or the upper circuit of 60%; in terms of seats, going below 270 or above 350; that is unlikely to happen any time soon
  • Congress vote share has almost remained stagnant with a plus or minus of 2 odd percent indicating status quo
  • BJP’s vote share has seen a wider fluctuation of 7 odd percent indicating gain or loss of support and a certain dependency on coalition building
  • For Congress to come down to 100 seats there has to be a swing of at least 6 to 8% votes away from it; unless it completely ditches all its allies and fights the next elections all alone like in 1998-99 for a lesser swing to be effective
  • For BJP to reach 180-200 seats, there must be a positive swing of 7-8% in its favour; unless it gains allies across board all over the country (like Mamata, Jagan, Patnaik, Jayalalita et al.)
  • As of today both the scenarios are unlikely to unfold because such wild swings are not possible in one election cycle and rather take at least 2 or 3 election cycles – for even the BJP to lose a third of its seats and 5-7% of its vote share it took 2-3 election cycles – lest there are extraordinary influences on electoral politics
  • What is more likely to happen is not a repeat of 1996 but instead a repeat of 2004, wherein both the parties would be even-Stevens and win close to 150 seats each with a 4 odd percent vote share swing away from Congress and a 3 odd percent gain for the BJP (assuming they get their priorities right and settle the leadership issue)

Even a cursory glance at the state-wise political build-up is also suggestive of a similar electoral outcome rather than a spectacular one. For instance, if Congress loses say even 2/3rd of its seats in Andhra Pradesh, it could still make up for at least half of it by gaining in Karnataka. Similarly, BJP can more than make up for its loses in Karnataka by substantially improving in Rajasthan. Another aspect that would prevent Congress’ complete decimation is its ability to pick up bits and pieces of seats here and there owing to its wider national presence and long term roots. In the final analysis, it could be a zero sum game with both parties performing almost equally.

Anointing Narendra Modi as the Prime Ministerial candidate could make a crucial difference, but the opposition for him will come from internal sabotage rather than from allies. Nitish Kumar, the wily opportunistic creature that he is, will not part ways with BJP even if Modi is announced as the PM candidate because he knows he cannot survive in the jungle of Bihari politics without BJP’s support base, unlike in Patnaik’s Orissa. Despite all these positives it could still be a tall ask even for a Modi to get a positive swing of 7 odd percent in BJP’s favour. A part of the solution could be in building new innovative alliances in hitherto untapped territories and efforts are being made in that direction. One wild effort is being tried in the state of Kerala which could potentially alter the electoral map of that state if VSA breaks out of his suffocating existence in the LDF and makes common cause with the NDA (the state politics is actually ripe for such a political adventurism and currently there are secret hush-hush negotiations with the VSA faction by you know who). Unfortunately, such efforts do not always bear fruit.

The Game changer:

When was the last time India saw a huge 8+% swing in a national election? 1991 due to the massive Hindu mobilization for the Ram Janam Bhoomi Andolan and in 1989, when the Rajiv Gandhi led Congress party was for the first time reduced to under 200 seats and the vote share loss was close to 10% (even in 84 it was a 6% positive swing in favour of Congress). That happened in the backdrop of a huge drought in India and the Bofors corruption scandal. History it seems has a sadistic sense of humour, for while once again India is being looted by some big ticket scams and horrible policy paralysis of UPA 2, drought is visiting us hapless Indians just as a reminder of the recent crimes. It is as if India’s destiny wants to land this one final sucker punch on the face of dynastic Congress party and its blatantly debilitating vote-bank socialist politics. India is on the verge of another major drought year.

The overall monsoon shortage till 25th of July is about 22%, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Gujarat & Maharashtra are the 4 worst affected states and 3 of those go to polls in the next 1 year or so (except for Maharashtra which may yet again escape the electoral consequences of drought). Closely following on the heels of these 4 states are Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh & Bihar who are also staring at imminent drought. What is even more worrying is that Punjab & Haryana (the food basket of India) having comparatively better irrigational infrastructure are also rapidly slipping into the category of affected states – the deadline that agricultural scientists have put up is August 15th, if there are no (or deficient) rains till then, a full-fledged drought would be a reality.

Area under Kharif crops has fallen by almost 18% as compared to last year, yet grain production is not affected much because of MSP (minimum support price) and over-cultivation in the last few years. The biggest effect has been in the production of Vegetables and fruits, pulses and oilseeds. Vegetables, fruits and pulses are all predominantly grown by small and marginal farmers who are simply not taking the risk of cultivating in the midst of water scarcity and are instead taking up govt. doles in the form of MNREGS.

Deficit Agricultural production in 2012 (6 months)

Agricultural Produce

Deficit Production Percentage

Vegetables

25%

Fruits

30%

Pulses

11%

Oilseeds

10%

Cotton

10%

Coarse grains

6%

[Data source: CMIE]

If the national general elections are held in the next year or so then drought would definitely leave its mark on the outcome of the polls. A combination of bad governance, corruption scandals and massive economic mismanagement combined with the most important factor of drought could give Congress a deathblow of a 9-10% away swing and reduce it to the depths of double-digit ignominy. If the BJP can project development politics and effective governance as the alternative model under the leadership of Narendra Modi then it can gobble up at least half of that 9 % away swing from the Congress party, when coupled with additional neutral voters and re-enthused middle class under NAMO, that “for” swing can hit the deadly 8% mark, to hit a double century. (The one possible roadblock for such a model is of course the “Muslim Vote” which could rally against BJP, and for Congress – we shall see more about that some other time.) It is now all in the realm of possibility, can BJP rise up to the occasion?

Possible vote share swing model in 2013 LS polls

[*This model does not give weightage to the “en-block” Muslim vote against BJP/NAMO, which could potentially be its biggest flaw]

Epilogue: Among the lot of states that have been severely affected by drought, Karnataka stands at the top of the list, it is almost a humanitarian crisis in the north & central parts of the state – areas from which the BJP derives most of its strength. People in these regions are totally disillusioned by the infighting and politicking within the ruling party while they are suffering from a drought that is as bad as 2002-03, if not worse. Sometimes it is amazing how the ruling class completely misses the pulse of the masses and falls so woefully short of providing even the basic courtesy of a sympathetic demeanour rather than cajoling for power and fighting for ministerial berths. To put it bluntly, without mincing any words, BJP as it stands today would not only lose the next assembly elections (to be held within the next 9 months), but also would be lucky to even get half the number of seats that it managed last time, no matter what caste-combo-magic it tries. It is not that all of the ruling party is living in denial, in fact BSY (who has an amazing understanding of mass politics) is so worried that he is chiding the government every day, even on the floor of the house. Many politically aware legislators of the party are already secretly looking for alternatives away from the BJP and will abandon the sinking ship as and when it is convenient to them. One recently sworn in minister from north Karnataka confided that the cajoling for ministerial berths is because they “want to leverage as much as possible from the opportunity available in the next few months, for who knows when one would be a legislator again” – that is the catharsis of a perfidious political class living in a make-believe world of their own. When BJP loses the next assembly elections, just remember that it did not lose because of perceived corruption scandals nor because of an antagonistic media narrative neither because of caste politics, it was simply one reason – DROUGHT. If there is one thing and the only thing that Mr Jagadish Shettar must be doing for the rest of his term as chief minister, it is easing the pain of the drought affected populace as much as possible. Drought relief must be taken up on a war footing, if necessary by abandoning all other projects, even then BJP would almost need a miracle to come back to power.

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Praveen Patil

Praveen Patil

Analyst of Indian electoral politics and associated economics with a right-of-centre perspective.