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It’s Modi vs 20 strong state leaders and there is no wave in the air

India has about 20 strong state leaders, whose voters no national leader can take away. Even Modi & his oratory can’t swing a majority in more than 7 states.

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You have to get out of Delhi often if you want to understand that there are two ways of looking at India: Inside-out, that is, from Delhi and the heartland at the rest of the country; or outside-in, which is, looking at the heartland from beyond.

Essentially, when you look inside-out, it brainwashes you into seeing the picture purely in national party-national leader terms. If you give yourselves the gift of distance and an open mind, you might see the change in this new India. National parties, as we knew them, are in decline. The concept of the Great Pan-National Leader ended with Indira Gandhi. What about Narendra Modi? We will come to that in a bit.

This new writing on the great political wall of India was read out to us earlier this week by two of our strongest state satraps, not even regional leaders. Telangana strongman K. Chandrashekar Rao (KCR) and young Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy (of the YSRCP) in next-door Andhra made the same point, each in his own chosen words: There is no such thing as a truly national party in India anymore. The ones you describe as national parties, BJP and Congress, are also regional. They just happen to have a footprint across a few states.

Congress declining as a national party, you can understand. But how can the BJP not be called a national party? After all, it won a national majority of its own in 2014. Get out of Delhi and see.

Sitting in Delhi, we confuse the Hindi heartland for the nation. The BJP’s 2014 majority tally of 282, for example, mostly came from UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Haryana, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand (190). Of the rest, 49 came from the two western states, Maharashtra and Gujarat. This accounts for 239 seats out of 299 in these states, a strike rate of 80 per cent. From the rest of the country, which is the entire south (Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra, Telangana, Tamil Nadu), east (northeastern states, West Bengal, Odisha) and even including the far north, Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab, the party only won 43 out of 244, or just 17 per cent. Plot this on the map of India. This isn’t the footprint of a pan-national party. It is a 10-state party, which maxes out the seats there and gets a majority.

And pan-national leaders? Narendra Modi is the only one today with that claim. Everybody knows him. But can he get people to overwhelmingly vote for him in more than these 10 states? Even within these 10 states, in the most important ones, his challenge comes from local parties and leaders. He is now fighting a make-or-break battle in Uttar Pradesh with Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav.

Bihar’s equivalent of these state leaders are Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar. Both the Congress and the BJP have aligned with one, as a junior partner. In Punjab, the BJP is an adjunct of the Akali Dal; in Haryana, both the BJP and the Congress are searching for a local ally. Even Modi, with his phenomenal oratory, cannot swing a majority for his party, even hypothetically, by himself in more than seven states today. Hypothetically, because these include Uttar Pradesh.

Also read: Modi’s 2019 mantra: Forget achhe din, fear terror, Pakistan, Muslim

Check out the Congress. If BJP is a national party of 7-9 states, Congress has just six, albeit many of these smaller: Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Kerala, Punjab and Karnataka. It is extinct in West Bengal, Odisha, Andhra, Telangana, UP and Bihar.

That’s why the maximum the Congress can aim for, if all the electoral Gods smile on it, is about 150. I know it’s unlikely and 100 will be an optimistic target. But it serves our limited purpose of proving that if the BJP is half a national party, Congress is no longer even a one-third. You want a further reality check? Name a state, any one state, where Rahul Gandhi could swing this Lok Sabha election by himself.

The fact is, Indira Gandhi was the last truly national leader who could win in almost all states. Since her passing, barring the unusual election of December 1984, no truly pan-national leader or party has emerged. That space is taken by charismatic, powerful leaders of states and castes. To call any of them even a regional leader is a misnomer. Vote tallies support this hypothesis.

From just about 4 per cent in 1952-77, now regional/state parties’ vote share has risen to 34 per cent (2002-18). This summer, it will go higher. What’s even more important, because these parties’ vogue is concentrated in a region, they get more bang for the buck, or seats for their vote percentage. Today, with 34 per cent vote, these parties win 34 per cent of the Lok Sabha seats. With each additional per cent, they get 11 more seats whereas the national parties get just 7. I am taking this data from The Verdict by Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala. Just in case you thought I made it up.

In undivided Andhra Pradesh, the Congress vote share was traditionally around 40 per cent. It has fallen to just under three in the new state. The BJP’s boasts of a coming boom in West Bengal and Odisha will be tested soon. But, barring Assam and Tripura, it has conquered no new frontiers, despite a Modi with a majority and an Amit Shah with his BJP membership of 10 crore.

India, today, has about 20 leaders so strong within a limited geography or political demography that no national leader, including Modi, can take their voters away. Most of them have acquired administrative and political experience, and networked across regions. They might have different concerns and ideologies, but are united on one point: Abomination of dominant national parties.

There is a large, populous and progressing world outside of our Hindi-Dilli dugout that doesn’t share the insecurity of our elites in the polling season, of a ‘khichdi’ taking over if Modi doesn’t win. You can spend days in the south and the east without hearing that familiar chatter: But if not Modi, who? For three decades now, as Congress declined, India has been evolving into a truly federal republic, and the idea of a national election has been replaced by a sum of 30 state elections. As it should be, with no party dominating even a third of the states, and BJP plus Congress significant in less than a half.

Also read: Why Rahul Gandhi’s Congress is in danger of morphing into a clueless NGO

Why does the TINA (There is No Alternative) factor dominate the politics of the heartland, but doesn’t impress people beyond these states? One important factor is that in the states where the Congress and the BJP fight for domination, no true regional leader has grown. In Bihar and UP, Lalu, Nitish, Mayawati and Akhilesh are formidable leaders, but each has their limitations. The BJP either challenges them or compels them to share the turf with it. Of the major states, national parties still dominate Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, and to some extent Karnataka, since they lack their own leaders.

The second reason is, of course, that national parties do not like to build strong state leaders. The Congress committed mass suicide in Andhra rather than let the obvious successor for its state satrap grow. It was so furious with his ambition, it didn’t even treat him with basic respect after his father’s death in a helicopter crash. It has only one state leader of consequence, Capt. Amarinder Singh. The BJP today has just none, may be a half, Yogi Adityanath. The three others, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Vasundhara Raje and Raman Singh have been consigned to deep-freeze.

Indian politics, therefore, is at an interesting juncture with no truly pan-national leader or party, and yet, a declining insecurity over coalitions beyond the heartland. As 2014 demonstrated, you can still produce a counter-intuitive full-majority government if one party can sweep contiguous states containing upwards of 200 seats.

There’s nothing in the 2019 campaign air, the chunavi hawa that tells you it’s a wave election for anyone. We can say now with confidence that this election will be fought state-by-state, more like 2004 than 2014. Don’t ask me who will lead the next coalition, because I do not know. All I can tell you is, irrespective of who leads the next government, it will be a cabinet in which Ram Vilas Paswan can also open his mouth.

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  1. Shekhar ji, It appears that you are confidently predicting a return to the coalition era, characterized by diminished authority for whoever is the PM and greater voice for the allies. Perhaps. But will that be good for your sincere hope –well argued by you in other articles– for India to massively modernize its military? An article would be welcome on whether a weak coalition with a diminished PM can truly satisfy your hope for military might . Thanks.

    • Law and institutions should be developed in such a way that the country runs efficiently no matter who is in government. If you want to achieve such law and institutions then coalition government is the best bet

  2. I love the day when state leaders sit together and decide on national issues. That will be the real democracy in India. Some people say that the state leaders are corrupt and perpetuate family dominance. That is acceptable so long as they are in power. When they cross the endurance limit, people will throw them out and usher in new leaders who also may follow the same route.

  3. Prof PK Sharma, Freelance Journalist, Barnala (Punjab)

    I went through this week’s NATIONAL INTEREST- “It’s Modi vs. 20 Strong State Leaders……. ” perusing it as usual !

    Mr. Shekhar Gupta, I feel you are in the habit of jumping conclusions off and on.It is often said that old habits die
    hard, please do not mind !

    Very amazing before meeting Telangana Strongman Mr.K. Chandrashekar Rao and Mr.Y.S.Jaganmohan Reddy you
    had quite different observations on the political as well as election scene in the country without a sound feedback !

    In many of comments on various articles appearing in The Print, I have reiterated this fact a number of times that
    nothing is hard and fast in this world what to talk of India’s political and election scenario !

    I beg to differ with you that it is Modi vs. 20 Strong State Leaders ! You can not be certain because the 2019 Lok Sabha Polls
    Saga is in for many twists and turns ! It is too early. You may again have to follow a different line of thought !

    I want to sound a note of caution here. To my mind, you are not playing safe to underestimate Congress Party in the fray. The
    fact cannot be denied that twenty leaders however strong they may be statewise- state party wise but even then they are not
    in a position” at present” to match Congress Party so far as getting numbers game in the Lok Sabha seats tally in 2019 is
    concerned .

    Who can deny this fact that Congress as a National Party at present is the only alternative to BJP at the Centre ? Will Congress
    fall below 2014 tally of 44 ? Can any regional party cross figure of fifty ? These are the moot questions looming large in this context ?

    Your view in my opinion defies logic ! These leaders can be strong in their own dens but when it comes to national uniformity
    they dither and think in their own terms for want of some unifying force to tie them together ! If these state leaders wish to see a
    government at Centre sans Congress or BJP, at least at the national level they should have come forward with a Common
    Minimum Programme because for that a national outlook is the dire need of the hour especially well before the hustings time !

    You asserted : “And pan-national leaders ? Narendra Modi is the only one today with that claim…..
    Even Modi with his phenomenal oratory, cannot swing a majority for his party……….. ”

    How can NaMo claim to be a pan- national leader when he is a butt of criticism of his own party veteran stalwarts present and
    erstwhile what to talk of othet parties ? The definition of pan-national leader should not only be confined to win polls alone but
    it has many far wider and vast connotations !

    Then your assertion” Even Modi…… phenomenal oratory cannot…….. ” in itself is quite paradoxical.
    Up to some extent, in 2014 it was worthwhile to call him an average orator simply because he could befool and tempt masses with his utterances and ploys but to term his current utterances in the poll meetings as ” phenomenal oratory ” tantamounts to degrading and
    demeaning the art of oratory and elocution !

    It is a hard fact and stark reality that the nation is passing through a very critical, transitional and churning phase in its annals !
    It very badly needs a CHANGE that too for positive and optimistic moorings !

    Prof PK Sharma, Freelance Journalist
    Pom Anm Nest,Barnala (Punjab)

  4. A good article from Shekhar Gupta. The real need of political discourse is on such issues which would shape the future course of our democracy.
    Being a country with many diversities there will always diverse demands about the policies desired by different sections of society. To have a national leader there must be a national party. And to have a national party there must be an ideology acceptable to all. That is why all regional parties opposing Modi government cannot coalesce into a national party. The failure of the Janata party cobbled to defeat Mrs. Gandhi’s congress is more than enough proof for this. But it is also necessary to stay together as a country to survive in the hostile world. That is why a national government with a national policy becomes absolutely necessary. A congress which can boast of liberal credentials cannot enforce discipline over fissiparous tendencies by advocating the liberal agenda alone. There must be some core in the ideology which makes them believe that they should stay together rather than break away. If every small dissatisfied group is allowed to enjoy unfettered freedom to pursue their interests in accordance with the liberal demands, there won’t be any nation. So there are limits to the applicability of the liberal political philosophy. How much is acceptable is the point of contention and the compromise depends on the prevailing political strengths of contenders. At present BJP appears to have nationalism as the common acceptable principle. Questioning the definition of nationalism doesn’t help because whatever meaning the critics put forward must be acceptable to the majority and not to the few liberals who agree with the definition.
    I think India will be evolving to be a federal union with clear demarcation of powers of states and the centre, but the centre will retain enough powers to hold the country together. And what will hold the country together is obviously the majority view; majorities not in different states but majority in all Indians. As long as they use their judgment to differentiate between state agenda and national agenda wisely, we need not dispair about lack of national leaders.

  5. It is reported that Rahul Gandhi is more popular than Modi in the southern states. But what is Congress’ stake in these states? None in A.P. and Telangana, and second fiddle in Tamil Nadu. It is even steven in Karnataka. That leaves only Kerala. Here fight is not against BJP, but against CPM, which is in a sense a regional party of Kerala.. Of what use is this so called popularity and the strategy of fighting from Wayanad? Does it give Congress more seats than the regional parties? One thing can be said in respect of all regional parties.-their post-election behavior is unpredictable. We shall witness lot of horse trading , volatility and consequent political uncertainty after the election results are out.

  6. A coalition led by a much weakened BJP seems at this point to be the best bet for India. While it does reflect the poor choices in front of Indians in this election, a Congress -led coalition would be a predictable disaster, allowing BJP to come back with a vengeance.

    On the other hand, a BJP forced to follow a ‘coalition dharma’ will be an interesting experiment – it will keep BJP’s worst instincts in check, force more diverse opinions and some talent for a change in government decision making, not just of 1-3/4 gujaratis deciding for an incredibly diverse country – no offence to gujaratis. And, encourage BJP to realize that a party its size cannot stay a single trick pony for too long – that single trick is to win sufficient votes by polarizing the voters on hatred of the other.

    A BJP coalition allows Congress to one more chance to get its house in order (how many does it need, what has it been doing all this time?) and push BJP a little bit to the center. What more can you ask for in a depressing election.

    • No offence to Gujeratis. Point taken. Are youthan not insulting the voters who brought them to power. Are you trying to say the voters wanted the 3 to 4 gujeratis to make decisions for them. Little do you realise that they are Indians first and last and not gujeratis.

  7. Guy Douglas, Manu pubby journos are reported to be friends of Shekhar Gupta. So with a view to sway public opinion he can hand down any article.

  8. I truly believe that it’s the Regional parties that are going to call all the shots. But the big question is, if it’s good for India or not. Secondly I strongly believe if regional parties start pulling each of their strings it will be appeasement of all. But truly there would be no disastrous implementation of demonetisation like law that can be implemented. I am talking about it because I want to see a law wherein the surgical strike on black money is completed with implementation of land reforms. In the end I strongly believe that a government led by Congress can only take all Regional parties for the full-term. Your take and comments please.

  9. Your analysis is absolutely correct and showing the future trend … Yes, there is no National leader after Mrs. Indira Gandhi … When after emergency Mrs. Gandhi was totally routed from North India (Due to harakiri she made by accepting that Nasbandi was wrong just before 1977 election from which maybe Modiji didn’t accept Notebandi as a total failure to avoid such political harakiri as Mrs. Gandhi did in 1977), she got about 140 seats from other states outside North India that proved her to be a true national leader … Again yes, regional parties are becoming stronger and stronger … It is too early to say, is it for the good for the country or bad … But it may lead to true federalism, even more than that in USA as USA has only one language, India being multi lingual country … In worst situation there would be no Union of India as it was 400 to 500 years ago … It is historically true, Mughals by their military supremacy made Northern India united admistratably and then Britishers created a country named India …

  10. Yes. It is true. In states, where both Congress and BJP are weak, there are many powerful state strataps, who cannot be overlooked. Also even where these so-called national parties have strong, they seldom tolerate strong state leaders. In Congress, the dynasty feared it’s own interests if some strong state leaders emerged. Sharad Pwar , Mamta etc. had to leave the party due to this reason. BJP, particularly Modi too took the hint from Congress. While choosing Chief Ministers in Haryana, Himachal, and even UP, he imposed nonenties as CMs, overlooking the known strong leaders. Reason could be that, as a strong state leader Modi sidelined Advani and other strong national leaders, he felt the danger of his own survival from any of the mass state leader. I may be wrong, but the defeat of BJP in MP, Chh. G. and Rajasthan, where strong ,many times Chief Ministers had to face defeat, could be manipulated by a section of BJP, so that no strong state leader remains to challenge Modi, in case BJP performs not so good in this national elections. Both these national parties should understand that to challenge strong state leaders of regional parties, these too should have strong leaders of state levels.

  11. Mere wishful thinking. You say there are 20 strong and charismatic regional leaders. Except KCR in Telengana all those great leaders have failed their people. We had so many of those Khichdi governments led by likes of Devegowda or Gujarals. No! Nation deserves a strong govt and will get it.

    • Sir, do you really believe that KCR is a great leader? What would be the basis for defining a greatness of an individual who sees governance as a family enterprise and did not have a cabinet for nearly two months after calling for early elections? Am I missing something?

  12. Hi. I am intrigued by your last sentence. For the common non expert readers like me could you please explain further? The underlying premise is he cannot speak in the current cabinet so what will change to allow him to speak? Either a different PM or if Modi comes back he will have to become more collaborative and inclusive (which I find hard to imagine).

  13. As per my analysis to Indian politics, it is like pre independence situation where we had princely states in rule, now a days their are family parties all over India who is ruled turn by turn (in the lack of alternative people has to chose only available dynasty/kingdom) This in return leads to so many weaknesses such as not implementing new reforms or policy, overlook corruption, overlook genuine talent in that particular party,,, It is not a good sign for country which desperately needs growth.

  14. Garam Hawa chal rahi hai, iss saal. That was not the focus of this fascinating column, but there is not one word of Ram Mandir, the faceoff with Pakistan, on which so many hopes rested. For that matter, on the incumbent’s record in office, what the first majority in a generation has yielded to ordinary citizens, which would have widened the geographical footprint – beyond minor league Assam and Tripura -, and deepened the pan India appeal. Regional parties deliver on what matters to citizens, see the HDI scores in the South. 2. The BJP has adopted the Congress template of cultivating bonsai plants in the state capitals. This would have been a time for its CMs to deliver their states. 3. After reading this column, the sense one gets is 175 for BJP, 125 for the Congress, both erring on the side of generosity. In Bombay we have no fear of the many ingredients that go into making a fine serving of bhelpuri.

  15. Quite interesting and heartening analysis sir, India should gradually become more federal in governance, and we need across the section representation at the national level.

  16. BJP May still scrap though there is no wave excepting heat wave which is going to increase in days to come. However opposition is still clueless and leaderless

  17. Would prefer any day the ‘dominance’ of national parties compared to the vile, selfish, feudal, non-democratic, one person based “state leaders” — leaders who couldn’t give a toss for any issue vital to the wellbeing of the nation other than own narrow family interests.

  18. All Kaliyugi RAVANS 😈 RAVANRAJ 😈 Sinners Sexpests holding top constitutional posts destroyed democracy constitution judiciary demolished AntiSecularism anti-poor Anti-constitution Anti-females anti-farmers anti-peace Anti-ALL Sins RAVANS
    CORRUPT PM with govt salary campaigning in elections misusing Constitutional position all grand Corruption LOOT

  19. Yes, your analysis seems fair. Neither BJP nor Congress can call themselves a truly national party & state leaders are becoming stronger by the day but isn’t it a worrying trend? This makes the possibility of a “Khichdi” government at the center even higher. May be not in this election but if this trend continues then at some point we will have this “Khichdi” govt. & its a worrying prospect. This kind of a govt. will definitely not have any clear leader. Every one who will be part of it will try to put forward their own leader & agendas & the national interest will be put aside. They may be able to come up with a compromise candidate for the PM’s post as it has happened in the past but will that leader be able to run a smooth govt.? and the answer is NO. None of those govt. in the past was able to finish the whole term & the country was burdened with elections after elections. India doesn’t need that. We need political stability. Coalition govt. is fine but one of the two big parties either BJP or Congress have to play a dominating part in it for it to be a stable govt. A govt. consisting more regional parties in which BJP or Congress are minor players won’t last more than couple of years & even those years will be marred by instability. I think this is happening mostly because of the decline of Congress. Regional parties are filling in the void left by Congress’s decline. But for India’s political stability both these parties need to be strong. While the BJP is still strong enough but they need to start grooming someone to take Modi’s place in the future & NO Yogi Adityanath won’t do & Congress needs to up its game. Rahul Gandhi needs to again reinvent himself or pass the leadership to some other more able leader who is not from the family.

  20. Mr Gupta’s articulation is absolutely in line with what India is. I only hope he believes in the India that is and articulates more strongly and more often about this India. Not the India that is being projected to us by ‘pretending to be independent’ darbari (but really sarkari channels and papers) channels but who depend on the government for advertisement money.

    We are a country where the language/dialect varies by district in many cases. If we try distinguishing regions based on multiple factors, India is a combination of few hundred states. We have multiple new years. Some of us revolve our lives around the sun and others around the moon. That itself tell us, how diverse we are. We have common festivals but they are celebrated for different reasons – sometimes very different reasons. How can then our politics be led by one fellow, who thinks of himself no less than God or who is positioned by the darbaris as the reincarnation of God. Given that the God has created us to be different, what business does a self-serving politician or the darbaris have to tell us how to live our life? We are largely independent thinking and that is why no effort at assimilation in the past has succeeded. What does it tell us about who we are? Not to mention that our geography is that of a continent and our economic opportunities vary significantly.

    Not everyone can or has to become one kind of citizen – thinking the same way.

    Why do I need Modis of this world to waste my hard-earned money to tell me that I should think like him? And threaten me, if I don’t think like him, if I don’t abuse others (including my parents – read 70 years no body did nothing) like him or I don’t make hateful comments about communities like the Yogi or claim that one individual owns the army and so on?

    No one politician (forget unthinking, uncaring one), will even understand the words (lack of knowledge of language), forget the problem. We don’t have many babus who are willing to think independently and help the politicians by presenting the problems as they are (after understanding the local challenges – read Gujarat cadre dominating positions across key institutions ). Consultants, and the lobbies (particularly large business lobbies or cronies – domestic and the Indian) are formulating policies. BSNL must shed 50,000 employees so that we can make space for the cronies (election funding by the 3 big businesses) in the private sector, Air India has to die to make space for 3 others – it is fine to save Jet but not Air India. BSNL and Air India were not allowed to expand when the market was growing, when we all know that timing is what matters in a business. You miss a growth cycle and you are dead. Providing support to farming a drought year is a dole, when drought is a natural calamity. Saving a private sector business is fine, as he/she made an error of judgement in pursing maximisation of shareholder value. Banks writing off lakhs of crore for less than 100 businesses is an error of judgement, but millions of farmers and rural Indian suffering on account of poor monsoon is a dole. It is fine to help a big business maintain his life-style (fly private planes), but it not fine to let a family feed itself. One is a dole, other a consideration for supporting economic growth and reviving ‘animal spirits’. I have never understood – which animals are these people referring to? My understanding of the animal kingdom is that they try taking care of their own for sure. We don’t seem to care about that ‘spirit’. Increasing income tax on the super-rich who is billionaire is considered a bad deal, but charging GST on basic needs is not a bad idea.

    Given the nature of funding that Mr Gupta has, I don’t expect him to shift, over night or 180 degrees, from supporting business interest, but I would like to urge him to present the economic reality on India as it is, rather than what the ideology driven lobbyist tell us. Same way as you have presented the reality of political India.

  21. At the outset, your article debunks an oft repeated charge by the Lutyens presstitutes about ‘assault on federalism’ etc etc.
    This proves that federalism has become more robust. The opposition is fearing an existential crisis were BJP to retain power. Every regional party is a family owned venture. Hence trouble in the family guarantees downfall of the party. A few would bite the dust post 23rd May.
    Your analysis can be succinctly explained by the national vote share of BJP & Congress in the 2014 elections. Their combined vote share failed to cross the half way mark. Conversely, half of India voted for regional parties.

  22. Hello Sir,
    I have been following media discourse about the election and it seems that media understand that BJP is going to get a major setback but is shying away from saying so in public. I would request you to give your analysis/opinion on who is the likely leader behind whom the opposition is more likely to rally behind in case NDA is not in position to form government.

  23. Bit of a overstretch isn’t it? Just to prove your point, do not twist your facts, at least as a journalist you should know it. Congress has pretty good vote share throughout India, even though it may not transform into seats. Congress’s vote share in Rajasthan, Gujrath and Madhya Pradesh was around 40% (in 2014) and was definitely more than that of TMC’s in West Bengal. BJP own majority of seats in both Assam and Karnataka in 2014. It has been doing so in Karnataka since last three lokasabha elections. Maybe you need to count again, and this time properly, without your eye on the end result of the count.

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