Will Nilekani vs Ananth Kumar be a repeat of Govinda-Ram Naik?

Will Nilekani vs Ananth Kumar be a repeat of Govinda-Ram Naik?

One of the marquee contests of the 2004 Lok Sabha elections was Bollywood star Govinda taking on five-time MP and Union Minister Ram Naik in his bastion – Mumbai North.

 As a student of journalism and an election junkie, I could not resist writing a 500-word analysis, predicting a comfortable win for Ram Naik (as conventional wisdom made it seem, and me taking pride in having spent my childhood in that constituency).  But to my utter astonishment, Govinda won and how!

What is the relevance of a Govinda upset of Ram Naik to the high profile, Nandan Nilekani versus H N Ananth Kumar contest in Bangalore South? For starters, there are quite a few similarities, which the latter would ignore at his peril. Like Ananth Kumar, Ram Naik too was a five-time consecutive sitting MP and to add to that, a three-term MLA from the Mumbai North constituency. He was a sitting Union Minister and in his five straight victories to the Lok Sabha, his lowest margin of victory was 75,000 votes in 1998! 

In 1999, he promptly recovered and posted a whopping 17 per cent point win over his Congress rival, translating into a 1.5 lakh vote margin. Therefore, when Govinda was declared the Congress candidate in 2004, almost everyone, including myself, thought that the “Hero No.1” would flop in his new role.  So much so that neither Ram Naik nor the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) even took his candidature seriously, till it was too late to recover. And newspaper articles like these seemed to suggest that Ram Naik’s victory was a foregone conclusion  (http://archive.deccanherald.com/Deccanherald/apr262004/iv27.asp ).

What transpired was a script even the most hopeful Congress supporter would not have been able to write. 

Bangalore South, ever since the news first leaked 4-5 months ago that Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, would contest against BJP heavyweight & former Union Minister Ananth Kumar, has mirrored what happened in 2004 in Mumbai North. Ananth Kumar & BJP were  initially dismissive of Nandan mounting any challenge in their stronghold. When I met a journalist friend in the last week of February during a Bangalore visit, I was told that the BJP was expecting a “comfortable” victory riding the NaMo wave. The BJP-friendly constituency demographics and Nandan being a hopeless misfit in electoral politics were some of the factors they counted on. This seemed very similar to Ram Naik thinking that his nurturing the constituency for 25 years, the 'Vajpayee factor' and Govinda being “out of touch” with ground realities as  filmstar  would see him through without breaking a sweat.

There is one fundamental difference though between the Govinda-Ram Naik and Nilekani-Ananth Kumar contest.  While Ananth Kumar has won five straight elections from Bangalore South, his margin of victory has been reducing in the last 3 elections, from 65,000 in 1999 to just 37,000 in 2009 (just over 4 per cent). Even more worrying for him should be the fact that when one extrapolates the Karnataka Assembly election results of 2013 to the Parliamentary constituency, Congress has a reasonably significant lead of over 40,000 votes (this, after transferring all the 20,000 KJP votes in this seat to the BJP kitty). So unlike Ram Naik, Ananth Kumar doesn’t start with the wind at his back and an aura of “invincibility.”

Of course it won’t be a cake walk for Nandan, especially when taking on a veteran politician like Ananth Kumar. For Nilekani to pull off an upset victory, he will have to replicate the Govinda playbook of 2004, wherein he let Ram Naik keep a lead in his bastion - Borivali assembly segment, to a manageable 33,000 votes, but whipped him in his own backyard – Virar (Govinda is famously known as “Virar ka Chokra”  or the boy from Virar). Almost his entire victory margin of 50,000 votes came from the Virar/Vasai assembly segment. But Govinda also did something very few analysts thought was possible – he took small leads in Malad & Goregaon, which were assembly segments considered BJP-Shiv Sena strongholds. It sure didn’t surprise me when just 6 months later, in the assembly elections, Shiv Sena won back both those seats. That was the “Govinda” factor which pulled in those 30-40,000 “floating” votes and made that crucial difference in a close fight.

Nandan will have to do the same to pull it off -  take solid leads in the Congress strongholds of BTM Layout, Vijayanagar and Chickpet and keep Ananth Kumar’s margins at around 20,000 votes each in BJP bastions of Bomannahalli & Basavanagudi and 10,000 in Jayanagar.  Govindrajnagar assembly segment went for Ananth Kumar in 2009 , by a margin of 9,000 votes but Congress won this seat in last year’s assembly elections by a huge 42,000 votes. So its quite unlikely that Govindrajnagar will swing back to BJP in such a short span of 12 months. Caveat: When any celebrity contests polls, conventional wisdom goes out of the window and historical electoral performances or trends are shockingly reversed (More on this in my next post).

What the candidates say and do, more often than not, reveals the state of play in a high-profile contest. I attended a Nilekani campaign event on Sunday morning. Of the three speeches of local Congress leaders running into 30 minutes, half the content was reserved for criticising Ananth Kumar’s allegedly complete neglect of his constituency. On the other hand, Ananth Kumar is seeking votes almost exclusively in the name of Narendra Modi and trying to prevent the contest from becoming a referendum on his performance as an MP. It is a classic contrast of strategies at play in dozens of constituencies across many states – BJP trying to make it a referendum on Modi as PM, while the Congress playing up local factors.

If Ananth Kumar does indeed lose the election, he would rue having committed the same mistake Ram Naik committed in 2004 – waking up too late to the challenge of a formidable opponent with high name recognition. In the last few days of his campaign, Naik threw the kitchen sink at Govinda, from mocking him as out of touch with common man, to invoking his “Dubai” visits. But in the end it was too little too late. For the average voter of Mumbai, Govinda, though a film star,  was “one among them” having struggled to make it from the streets of Virar to the big league of Bollywood. His story resonated with the voters, at least enough to send Ram Naik packing.

Ananth Kumar faces a similar problem. His rival is a celebrity in his own right, a co-founder of one of the iconic Indian IT companies that put Bangalore on the global map, and a role model for middle-class salaried professionals, especially from the IT sector, who form a decent chunk of voters in this constituency. So, for Ananth Kumar to attack Nilekani's record may not necessarily work and hence the relentless NaMo chant forms a big part of his campaign.

So, will  Mumbai North 2004 repeat in Bangalore South 2014?   Either which way, it sure is one of the most fascinating contests of Election 2014.

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