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HindustanTimes Thu,02 Oct 2014

Silent voters may play the X-factor

Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times  New Delhi, March 20, 2014
First Published: 01:22 IST(20/3/2014) | Last Updated: 01:59 IST(20/3/2014)

If there’s any doubt about the success of Narendra Modi’s political machinery, two incidents may dispel it.

In Patna’s Phulwari Sharif, a Muslim-dominated locale next to Imarat-Shariah, is the Rashtriya Janata Dal office. Qausar Khan, a local party activist, has several images with his leader, Lalu Prasad, plastered on the wall. He is confident that the party would do better this time. “We will definitely get more than the four seats we got last time,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. But then, Khan added after a pause: “But it will not be enough. This time, Modi will become PM it seems.”

Byaspur is a village in Chandauli district, adjacent to Varanasi. Two months before Modi’s candidature was announced from eastern UP, Chavinath Prasad, 75, was sitting along with others at a corner tea-shop in this Dalit-dominated village. Prasad said he is a loyal BSP worker. “I will vote for Behenji as long as I live.” When asked if he thought she could be the PM, he said, “Not this time. Modi will win. Everyone is only talking about him. But Mayawati will come back to Lucknow in 2017.”

The biggest success of the Modi campaign has been its ability to project the inevitability of his victory. All his other successes have stemmed from this sales pitch. He has vanquished internal rivals in the party, he has got the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to nod at his ascent, he has managed to stitch up unlikely alliances, he has ensured that the media gives him adequate, and sometimes excessive, coverage because of one simple reason: He has behaved like he has already won the election.

This is a key campaign tool because it tilts the swing voters, who tend to move towards the winning candidate, rather than ‘waste a vote’. 

But projecting success is not equal to success. The BJP in 2004 had been able to project a similar inevitability about its victory, only to see the calculations go haywire. And the reason is that the Indian voter is usually silent, and speaks only where it matters — at the ballot box.

Reporters know it may be easy to trigger a political conversation at tea shops, in villages, with taxi drivers, in trains and public buses, with small shop-owners. But they also know it is far more difficult to get a voter to reveal his or her actual political preferences. Within a span of five minutes, Dalit women voters in Bettiah told this correspondent that they would vote for the Congress, BJP and the JD(U). Then they laughed, saying they would not tell us their real choice.

The Indian citizen, reasonably skilled in democratic practices, knows voting is an intensely private act and sees no reason to blurt it out. And this is why we often tend to rely on the most articulate, relatively educated segments of society — who have an interest in setting the terms of public discourse — to tell us the mood on the street. Pollsters and journalists can at best capture fragments of the public opinion, but the voice of the collective will only be known on May 16.

Till then, candidates can pretend they are winning. The game is, however, not over till it is over.

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