The verdict is in, but the mandate is still 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. And it is important to say so, for there is a real risk that the peoples’ mandate could be misread or hijacked.
Clearly, this decision by Indian voters during the 15th Lok Sabha elections cannot be explained by the standard old formulae that we have gotten used to hearing. This is not simply an aggregation of state-level verdicts; there is a clear national trend here. In almost every state, the Congress party has finished at the upper end of whatever reasonable range of performance it was capable. Everyone is talking about its performance in Uttar Pradesh, but no less important is the fact that the Congress has crossed the 10 percent threshold in Bihar; and has done much better than expected in states such as Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, where its party organisation is in shambles; or in Maharashtra, where the party’s government leaves much to be desired. A verdict like this cannot be explained merely by local-level factors such as selection of candidates and party factionalism. Or else, Congress would not have performed so well in Rajasthan and Haryana.
Unlike 2004, this is not an election that was lost by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Therefore, much of the analysis of what went wrong with the BJP’s campaign might be somewhat beside the point. This election has been won by the Congress, and that is what needs to be focused upon. A combination of factors appears to have caused this mild, almost invisible undercurrent in favour of the Congress. A positive image of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi definitely helped the party. Many of the major pro-people initiatives of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government – such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), the farm-loan waiver, the Right to Information legislation, the Forest Act, etc – may not have reached all the people, but they did create a positive climate for the party. It helped that the Congress underplayed its cards, and did not get into ‘Shining India’ kind of fallacy. Compared to its opponents, the Congress appeared more responsible, future-oriented and pro-people.
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 in the 2004 elections to 321 this time around, roughly the same tally as the two parties had in 1998. But there is no sharp increase in their vote share. In 2004, the Congress and the BJP together had 48.7 percent of the national vote share. According to the provisional figures available as Himal goes to press, the combined share of the big two parties is about the same, at 48.9 percent. It is not true that the era of national political parties has returned, despite what might appear to be.
Yet, regional parties are clearly not on their way out. One only has 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 note that the regional parties are here to stay. In fact, one could argue that those national-party leaders, such as Y S Rajshekhar Reddy, Narendra Modi, Sheila Dixit and Bhoopinder Hooda, who have given a ‘regional’ touch to their respective parties, have done better than their colleagues elsewhere.
Ultimately, all that has happened is that some of the state parties, such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, that took the voters for granted. Those who thought that caste equations could substitute for governance have now been put in their place. But those who put a premium on governance, such as the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United), have now been rewarded. The electoral fortunes of state-based parties can go up and down, but politics based in local regions is very much in effect, as it has been for the last two decades. Similarly, one type of perversion of coalition politics, which reduced the process to bargaining for money and positions, has receded in national politics. That is a very healthy outcome of this year’s verdict. Yet one only has to look to Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal to understand why coalition politics is here to stay in India.
The real significance of this electoral verdict lies in a major shift in the political landscape. The last two decades have witnessed an expansion in the ‘third space’ in Indian politics. This non-Congress, non-BJP space was occupied by the left and many regional parties. The expansion in the third space brought in new issues, leaders and fresh energy in politics. These included the pro-reservation and pro-secular forces, as well as various movements against the new economic politics and people’s movements on the questions of ‘jal, jungle and jameen’ (water, forests, land). Yet this third space has not had its own political front at the national level. Ironically, the expansion of the third space has been matched by the shrinking of the so-called Third Front, comprised of the left parties, and several regional parties. The decimation of the Third Front this time has completed this process. Meanwhile, the fruits of the politics of the third space have, almost by default, come to the Congress in this election.
The real challenge for the Congress now is to inherit this legacy, which has fallen into its lap. In the last five years, the Congress did not create a politics of those at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid. Yet their votes have come to the Congress. The Congress now has to prove itself a worthy heir to this legacy, and to create a long-term political bloc. The Congress has to build policies that respond to the needs of the poor. It has to internalise the regional impulse that has been articulated by the regional parties. It has to revert to being a grand coalition and, thus, to internalise the need for coalitions in-built into Indian society. The real question is whether the Congress is aware of this historic opportunity and responsibility. Reverting to Congress-style sycophancy is no substitute for organisation-building. Much worse would be to opt for unbridled economic reforms, now that there is no left to check such steps. If the Congress is at all serious about its own 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.