Twin Demons of 2004 – Chandrababu Naidu’s Loss and Wrong Lessons

In IDFC Institute Blog, Politics by Praveen ChakravartyLeave a Comment

“Prime Minister Modi would do well to learn lessons from my defeat” – Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu to the Economist magazine, May 30, 2015. This story titled “Learning from the Pioneer” recalls how one of India’s first Davos-trotting, reformist, liberal Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu lost the 2004 elections in Andhra Pradesh, to the dismay of the then ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The article further elaborates that “those close to Modi are painfully aware of Naidu’s 2004 parable”. More than a decade earlier, in May 2004, then editor of Indian Express, Shekhar Gupta in his weekly column wrote “the malls of Hyderabad or the software parks of Cyberabad” did not resonate with the average rural voter, handing Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party, BJP’s alliance partner, an ignominious loss. Gupta, in his article, further expounds on Naidu’s loss with perils of “trickle-down economics”. Evidently, Naidu’s 2004 loss has left an indelible scar on the psyche of Indian politics. This notion that Naidu’s reforms in Andhra Pradesh between 1999 to 2004 made him a rockstar among the urban rich voters but a pariah among the rural poor, thus leading to his electoral defeat, is deeply entrenched in Indian political thought for more than a decade now. Pandering only to the urban elite was Naidu’s Achilles heel which won him urban/rich votes but abandoned rural/poor votes, is the prevailing wisdom. Only, this is folklore, devoid of any data based evidence.

The Census and the National Sample (NSSO) surveys are perhaps the only reliable data source that numerically and objectively define often bandied English terms of urban, rural, rich, poor, literate, illiterate, young, old etc. Incredulously, the Census districts and the Election Commission’s electoral constituencies are two completely distinct silos, making it very hard to map electoral data to it’s districts. Using Census data from 2001 and 2011 and corresponding NSSO data, we categorised the 23 districts of erstwhile united Andhra Pradesh in order of “urbanness”, “richness” etc. We then painstakingly mapped all 294 electoral assembly constituencies of Andhra Pradesh to each of these districts. Analysis of 35 million votes cast in the 2004 elections in Andhra Pradesh across these 294 constituencies and 23 districts reveals that Naidu’s loss was uniform and spread evenly among urban/rural, rich/poor, young/old voters. In Hyderabad, the most urban and wealthiest district, Naidu’s TDP won 41% of the votes in seats that it contested versus 56% for the Congress. In Mahbubnagar, the most rural district as per Census definition, TDP won 45% of the votes versus the Congress at 48%. In Nizamabad, the poorest district as per NSSO definition, the TDP won 39% votes versus Congress’ 56%. In the five most urban districts, Naidu’s TDP won 43.8% of its contested votes vis-a-vis 43.5% in the five most rural districts. Similarly, in the five richest districts, TDP won 44% of its votes versus 42% in the five poorest districts. For the more mathematically inclined, the trendline of TDP’s vote share across districts of “urban” or “rich” is flat with no statistically significant relationship.

The scatter chart shows how voters in Andhra Pradesh across urban, rural, rich and poor districts voted in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections when they had a choice of a TDP candidate on their ballot. This analysis was also tested for various scenarios – districts that urbanised rapidly between the 2001 and 2011 Census periods, districts that saw an inordinate growth in wealth in this period, districts with higher youth population, districts with higher literacy levels and so on. In 2004, Andhra Pradesh had simultaneous elections to its State assembly and Lok Sabha. Voter choices across districts were tested for differences between the assembly and Lok Sabha elections as well. The results are unequivocal – Naidu was voted out across all segments with no one section of society favouring him disproportionately over the others.

Contrary to the decade long belief, it is unclear from this analysis that Naidu’s economic reforms abetted his downfall or that he was embraced by the urban rich and ostracised by the rural poor. The only plausible explanation for Naidu’s 2004 loss in the absence of any other hard evidence seems to be plain voter discontent and anti-incumbency uniformly across all sections.

Wedged between a noisy clamour for economic reforms and the sounds of silence of farmer suicides, governing leaders in India seem to struggle to achieve a seemingly impossible balance between votes for their party and greenback notes for the economy. That these two are mutually exclusive and “never the twain shall meet” seems to be accepted notion in the Indian political fraternity, predicated largely on the defeat of “CEO Chief Minister” Chandrababu Naidu in the 2004 election. As Prime Minister Modi battles his way through a reforms vs state elections environment, it is evident from this analysis that the choice is not binary and is often a mere alibi. Electoral outcomes in a plural, first-past-the-post democracy such as ours is often a complex manifestation of various inexplicable factors. In our quest for simplistic narratives, we run the risk of endangering the larger policy environment by misreading electoral verdicts. It is time to discard the demons of the 2004 electoral loss of the TDP and BJP. Perhaps the only lesson to learn for both Chief Minister Naidu and Prime Minister Modi is that there were no deeper lessons there.

(With help from Rithika Kumar and Swapnil Bhandari of the IDFC Institute. A version of this article has also appeared in the Hindu Business Line.)

Published on 18 July, 2015 in IDFC Institute Blog