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Vyapam impact, or the lack of it: BJP's municipal win in MP

Suhas Palshikar | Updated on: 20 August 2015, 21:25 IST
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The elections

  • A total of 218 urban municipal seats went in to by-polls this month in Madhya Pradesh
  • The BJP won 111 of these seats, two mayoral posts and six posts of municipal presidents

The claim

  • The party promptly claimed that the public had exonerated it from the Vyapam scam

The reality

  • State-level issues are not central to civic body elections
  • Corruption is an emotive issue, but forms only a small part of a voter\'s decision-making
  • The BJP has a strong mass base in MP, and its followers would vote for it regardless of Vyapam

Recently, there were some by-elections to urban municipal bodies in Madhya Pradesh, and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party won 111 of the 218 seats up for grabs. It also won the two mayoral elections, while six of its candidates became municipal presidents.

In itself, this would be no big deal. After all, the party has been in power in the state Assembly since 2003, and in the main elections to local bodies in December 2014 and February 2015, it fared quite well.

But the BJP itself projected this as a special victory. Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan was seen celebrating his karyakartas' win, and party headquarters in Delhi announced to the public that voters in MP had reposed faith in him and the BJP.

The ghosts of Vyapam

The cause for this celebration is not too difficult to fathom. For the past few months, the Vyapam scam has been attracting a lot of attention nationally.

It has hit the BJP badly, for the party claims what makes it different from the Congress is its record of clean governance. The scam gave the Congress opportunity to resuscitate itself and rise from the wilderness.

The BJP would have been secure enough when it went to the by-polls, but the outcome helped the party fight its image battle in Delhi. This is why party leaders big and small emerged to argue how the result put a stamp of popular approval on the state BJP.

It is understandable that the BJP would take this line and make it seem like the public had exonerated the party in the Vyapam scam.

But the question arises: how could a party which was involved in the scandal, or, at best, conducted a lackadaisical investigation into it, go unpunished in the elections?

Corruption as an election issue

Our anti-corruption zeal prompts us to jump to unfounded conclusions about how critical the issue is to the voter.

Indeed, people are aware of corruption and are quite fed up with it. But is it the only issue in an election?

In the first place, India is still a country where a large number of voters identify themselves as 'traditional voters' of some party, or they feel close to a particular party. This would mean that when elections are round the corner, such voters would already have decided which party they would vote for.

The BJP won 111 of the 218 seats up for grabs in the recent Madhya Pradesh municipal by-elections

This would mean that at least a section of the voters would be partisan in assessing which party is more corrupt. When opposition parties cry foul, such voters would put it down to 'politics' - i.e. attacking the party the voter favours to gain political mileage.

In MP, the Congress has been out of power since 2003 and it is easy for a BJP supporter to believe that the Congress is only making a political issue out of the Vyapam scam.

For a party that has regularly been winning elections for a decade and a half, it is natural to have a large number of regular voters or supporters. Such supporters do not need proof of the party's performance or non-corrupt character every time, nor do they believe in criticism of the party's misdeeds.

In other words, a successful party would have a reservoir of support - something the BJP obviously has in MP.

Election is a time when many factors may weigh on the voter's mind. Particularly in local elections, local political linkages are probably the most crucial factor.

What is happening at the state level and what charges are traded across parties would constitute the larger backdrop, but the campaign for these elections are mostly isolated from such matters and focus on local issues of leadership, local amenities and power structures.

Lessons to learn

This is exactly what has happened in Madhya Pradesh. It's not a failure of the anti-corruption campaign, nor is the result any sort of response to the Vyapam scam. It was not the main issue in the local elections there and, hence, has had no bearing on the election outcome.

So does this mean corruption is not a big enough election issue? How far can corruption charges make a difference?

The simple answer is that in isolation, just corruption charges are not likely to turn the tables.

The last Lok Sabha elections took place in the backdrop of a well-advertised anti-corruption agitation. The BJP took advantage of that and kept highlighting the many scams of the UPA government.

On the face of it, therefore, the outcome could be seen as a direct result of corruption charges against the Congress and the UPA.

However, using Lokniti data from the National Election Studies, this article (by Pradeep Chhibber, Harsh Shah and Rahul Verma) argues there was no direct relationship between the voter voting for the BJP or the Congress, and the awareness of various corruption scandals.

It is indeed possible that the negative assessment of a government would be based on many factors and corruption would be one among those.

The BJP's victory in MP needs to be understood in the context of these larger dynamics. There is no guarantee that the ghosts of Vyapam would not come back to haunt the BJP in the future.

And yet, corruption alone might not be a reason enough to defeat the incumbent.

First published: 20 August 2015, 21:25 IST
 
Suhas Palshikar @PalshikarSuhas

Suhas Palshikar is a professor of Politics and Public Administration at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune.

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