The problem

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IT is not often that electoral verdicts follow a pre-ordained script. And no matter what political pundits and psephologists claim, voters have a way of springing surprises. In this sense at least, the December 2003 elections to the state assemblies of Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram were no different. Though most pre-poll surveys had predicted a victory for Sheila Dikshit in Delhi and a defeat for Digvijay Singh in Madhya Pradesh, even hard core BJP enthusiasts could not have imagined the scale of their victory in Rajasthan. As for Chhattisgarh, particularly after the telecasting of the Judeo tapes leading to the expectation of a hung assembly, the results must have come as a pleasant surprise for the BJP.

But more than the 3-1 victory for the BJP in the Hindi heartland, placing a serious dampner on the Congress’ ambitions of returning to power at the Centre, the recently concluded state assembly elections mark important shifts in the political landscape of the country. For a start, they have provided a new impetus to the otherwise sagging NDA coalition, nudging it to go in for early general elections sometime between March and May this year. They have also considerably strengthened Vajpayee’s position as a politician-statesman foregrounding development and peace, giving him the confidence to not only attend the SAARC meeting in Islamabad but also initiate a personal dialogue with Musharraf.

It is now obvious that the Congress is no longer the pole around which politics, particularly electoral politics, in the country revolves. Despite retaining its position as the party with the largest (close to 30%) vote share, the Congress has steadily lost both geographic and social space. Alongside losing power in much of the periphery, its position in the heartland too has now become tenuous. It may still represent a rainbow social coalition but has lost significant sections of the upper castes to the BJP, the OBCs to a variety of state specific formations, Muslims to the Samajwadi Party and dalits to the BSP. December 2003 demonstrated for the first time a major erosion in its tribal base. All this may explain the party’s sudden willingness to reconsider its position on alliances, as also the insistence on Sonia Gandhi as the leader of the anti-NDA coalition.

However, more than the confidence marking the BJP led NDA and the obvious despondency in the Congress camp, the recent assembly elections point to other issues that party strategists and managers can ignore only at some cost. Foremost among them is the issue of alliances signalling a clear shift to coalition politics. Be it an attempt to forge a ‘secular’ or ‘communal’ alliance, nationally or with state specific variations, given that neither the BJP nor the Congress are in any position to come to power on their own at the Centre, there is need to pay greater attention to the role of smaller, region specific formations. Even though these recent elections were perceived as a direct, one on one, contest between the two major parties, the ability or otherwise to tie up with smaller players may explain the difference between victory and defeat, or minimally, the margins of victory.

In part, this may represent the trend towards a dilution of ideology. Even if one grants that issues of governance – what in Madhya Pradesh was called the bijli, sadak, pani factor – overshadowed those of Hindutva (Article 370, Uniform Civil Code, Ram Mandir) it appears that coalitions, formal or otherwise, were forged not among the like-minded but between those with complementary bases, success coming to those who could make the most extravagant promises to formations with the ability to deliver votes. Such as the BSP. Such instrumentalist calculations cannot portend a happy augury.

An inordinate attention has been paid in post-poll analysis to the importance of electoral management, in particular the focus on marginal, ‘at risk’ constituencies where the swing of a few thousand votes can mean victory or defeat. Evidently, a concentration of resources – money, leadership time, cadres, customized advertising, and so on – can pay rich dividends, symptomatic of the green revolution strategy in agriculture. Once institutionalised, this may well imply a paradigm shift in the electioneering process, with large rallies giving way to localized campaigns.

We also need to examine the implications of the new regulations requiring each candidate to file affidavits disclosing financial assets, ‘criminal’ record and education status. Did this have any impact on the selection of candidates, particularly by recognised political parties? Even more on the results? Preliminary analysis, however, suggests that the objective of reducing the influence of money and muscle power was only minimally met. Nevertheless, what is heartening is the growing involvement of civil society groups and individuals, normally seen as alienated from the electoral process, in exercising the ‘right to information’, assessing and analysing the disclosure data and trying to inform/educate voters in an effort to influence choice in favour of ‘cleaner’ and ‘better’ representatives. If this process gathers strength it can only improve the content of our electoral democracy.

As we approach the impending Parliament polls, we need to debate not only the lessons of the recent assembly elections but also larger, possibly abstract, questions relating to our elections and democracy. Both the extent and composition of turnout seems to suggest that even as the poorer and more marginalized strata continue to enthusiastically participate in elections, the better-off, educated voters seem far less involved. Many now look upon the political class as a whole as venal, a ‘cancer’ in the words of our current straight-talking Chief Election Commissioner, more apt to subserve personal than general interest. Equally, the tendency towards ‘anti-incumbency’ indicates that even if faith in democracy and elections has not diminished, the same cannot be claimed for specific politicians and parties, with a large proportion of ‘sitting’ representatives facing defeat. And even though this may impel parties to continually field ‘fresh’ candidates (a welcome development?), many even winning, the disillusionment with the process can no longer be hidden.

The immense stakes in victory underlying the intensity with which elections are fought suggest that politics and governance is increasingly being judged by only one criterion – victory. This not only undermines the possibility of rulers taking tough decisions – reducing the fiscal deficit, downsizing government, introducing reforms in the labour market, shutting down unproductive enterprises – but impels politicians across party lines towards populist policies, as witnessed in the recent sops announced by the finance minister. More troubling is the fact that policies and programmes which, though socially useful (education guarantee, watershed development, barefoot health workers) but enjoying low electoral salience, at least in the short run, will continue to be neglected. This, after all, was the plaintive complaint of a Digvijay Singh or Ashok Gehlot.

Of equal concern is the downgrading of ideology. Even though our public discourse is overly dominated by the words ‘secular’ and ‘communal’, relating these terms to specific political parties and individuals has become increasingly difficult, what with every political formation to varying degrees foregrounding identities rather than interests. On most other policies and practice, it is difficult to distinguish one coalition from another. Is this why both the NDA and the ‘secular’ front are willing to accommodate parties that they have otherwise little in common with? Has the logic of arithmetical alliances overtaken concerns of policies and programmes?

It is unclear in which manner the 2004 elections will mark a watershed in our political life. Will, for instance, the victory of the BJP led NDA coalition imply a consolidation of Hindutva forces, particularly if the weight of the BJP increases? For whatever the other ‘achievements’ of the Vajpayee regime, and there are many, this phase has witnessed not only the horrific ‘pogrom’ of Gujarat, a continuing campaign against minorities and a rise of majoritarian intolerance, but also an erosion of many of our institutions of education and culture. The issue is no longer whether the Congress was any less sectarian/communal, even if episodically, but whether the institutions of the state can uphold constitutional, republican values and laws. It is symptomatic that despite appeals to Rajdharma, the senior BJP leadership has done little to rein in Narendra Modi or even the VHP/Bajrang Dal. Neither the ‘India shining’ campaign nor the ‘feel good’ factor can hide the widespread unease with the steady unravelling of the Indian republic, in particular our future as an open, tolerant and law abiding society.

Fortunately, elections in our country still represent an open-ended contest. Alliances, micro-management and ad campaigns may improve the probability, they cannot guarantee success. Our political class has still to come to terms with a changing India – a young, mobile, urban, consumerist and globally aware electorate. Or even that we are ‘many Indias’, with issues and personalities perceived very differently in different contexts. There is also a simmering discontent with politicians and political parties, an urge for reducing the overload on politics and of politics in our everyday life. This issue of Seminar attempts to go beyond the recent verdict in an effort to engage with the emerging concerns of elections and democracy.