Making sense of the verdictMay 18th, 2009 | By editor | Category: ELECTIONS 2009, Opinion, Viewing News
The verdict is out, but the mandate is hazy. If the verdict is loud and clear, the weak and hesitant voice of the mandate does not lend itself to simple headlines. It is easier to say what this mandate is not. It is necessary to emphasise this, since there is a real risk that the people’s mandate may be misread.
Clearly, this result is not simply an aggregation of State-level verdicts. There is a clear national trend here. In almost every State, the Congress has finished at the upper end of the band that it could have performed within. Everyone is talking about its good showing in Uttar Pradesh. But no less important is the fact that it crossed the 10 per cent threshold in Bihar and did much better than expected in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, where the party organisation is in a shambles, and in Maharashtra, where the State government’s performance leaves a lot to be desired. A verdict like this cannot be attributed only to local factors such as candidate selection or factionalism within rival parties. If so, the Congress would not have performed as well in Rajasthan and Haryana.
Unlike 2004, the Bharatiya Janata Party did not lose this election. Therefore, much of the analysis of what went wrong with the BJP’s campaign is beside the point. This election was won by the Congress, and this is what the focus should be on. A combination of factors appears to have caused this almost invisible undercurrent in its favour. A positive image of the Prime Minister and the Congress president definitely helped. Many of the major pro-people initiatives of this government such as the NREGA, the farm loan waiver, and the Right to Information Act may not have fully impacted on the people, but they did create a positive climate for the party. It also helped that the party did not become overconfident and did not resort to an “India Shining” kind of campaign. The Congress appeared more responsible, more future-oriented and more pro-people than its opponents.
A national trend does not mean a trend in favour of national parties. The combined seat share of the Congress and the BJP has increased from 283 last time to 321, roughly the same the two parties had in 1998. But there is no sharp increase in their vote share. In 2004, the Congress and the BJP together polled 48.7 per cent of the total vote. According to the provisional figures available, the combined share of the big two parties is about the same: 48.9 per cent. Therefore, it is incorrect to suggest that the result signals a return to a time when national parties dominated.
Clearly, regional parties are not on their way out. You just have to look at the performance of the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa, the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu and the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra to recognise that regional parties are here to stay. In fact, one could argue that the leaders who lent a “regional touch” to their national parties — for example, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, Narendra Modi, Sheila Dikshit and Bhoopinder Hooda — have done better than others. All that has happened is that some State parties such as the RJD, which took voters for granted and thought caste issues could substitute for governance — have been put in their place. Those such as the JD(U), which put a premium on governance, have been rewarded. Electoral fortunes of State-based parties may go up and down, but politics based on regions has far from vanished. A healthy outcome of this verdict is that it has reduced the possibility of bargaining for money or political office.
The real significance of this electoral verdict lies in a major shift in the political landscape. The last two decades have witnessed an expansion of the third space in Indian politics. The Left and many regional parties occupied this non-Congress, non-BJP space. The expansion of this third space brought new issues, new leaders, and a fresh energy to politics. Included here are the pro-Mandal movement, the various campaigns against the “new” economic policies and the agitations on questions of jal, jungle and jameen (land, water, forests). Ironically, the expansion of this space has been matched by the shrinking of the Third Front. As a result, this space, almost by default in this election, has come to the Congress.
The real challenge for the Congress now is to inherit this legacy that has fallen into its lap. In the last five years, the Congress failed to address the politics at the grass roots, address those who are at the bottom of the pyramid. Yet, it has secured their votes. The Congress now has to create policies that respond to the needs of the poor and build a durable political constituency. It has to internalise the impulses that have been articulated by the regional parties. It has to revert to being a grand coalition and accept that the need for such coalitions is inbuilt in our society.
Is the Congress aware of this historic opportunity? Reverting to the Sonia-Rahul chants and typical Congress-style sycophancy is no substitute for organisation building. Worse, it could succumb to the temptation to go in for unbridled economic reforms, now that there is no Left to check it. If the Congress is serious about its future, the party needs to invent a new Left within it. The party does not need a new ideology: it just needs to take its own election manifesto seriously.