The problem

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MOST, if not all of us, got it wrong. Expectedly, there are those who post-facto claim that they anticipated the results – that they ‘knew’ that there was no ‘wave’ in favour of the Vajpayee-led NDA regime; that the ‘shining India’ campaign had not only peaked too early but that its ‘overkill’ was alienating voters, particularly those who had no reason to feel good. As evidence, they point to the ‘crowds’ at Sonia Gandhi’s ‘road show’ and the relatively low appeal of the Advani Bharat Uday Yatra. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that psephologists and sooth sayers, political analysts and social activists, even ‘leaders’ of political parties claiming to have a finger on the ‘pulse of the masses’, did not anticipate the final verdict.

The Indian electorate retained its capacity to surprise. Not only did the Congress party, which many asserted would slip below the three-figure tally, emerge as the single largest party with 145 seats in the 542-member house, its pre-poll alliance climbed upto 219. The NDA, close to 300 in the dissolved house, crashed to 189 and the BJP, confident of crossing the 200 mark on its own, lost 44 seats to shrink to 138. With the Left Front reaching its best-ever tally of 61 (of only 69 contested), it slowly sunk in as the final results were announced that the country would have a new prime minister heading a new regime.

Overcoming initial embarrassment at having so misread the political mood, analysts have advanced a multitude of explanations for the mandate. The most commonly used terms – ‘over-confidence’ and ‘hubris’. But these, like the equally popular ‘anti-incumbency’, are catchall phrases, explaining little unless converted to specifics. Is it that the NDA, basking in Vajpayee’s obvious popularity, particularly after the 3-1 victory in the December 2003 state assembly elections and progress in talks with Pakistan (not to mention the cricket win), its advertisement campaign, and the ‘perceived’ weakness of the lead opposition party, failed to ‘manage’ its campaign properly?

Or that having stayed in power for nearly six years, the BJP over-reached itself, forgot its coalition dharma and missed structuring proper alliances? It not only lost earlier allies (DMK, MDMK, PMK, Lok Jan Shakti), dropped one (HVP) and spurned others (AGP), the one new alliance forged (Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK) yielded nothing. In packaging these elections as a ‘presidential’ contest (Vajpayee versus?), it failed to realise that it is individual states which constitute the battleground; that there are no uniform swings across the country. In this, it forgot a crucial maxim of Indian electoral politics – that India is a rainbow country with a variety of political formations (caste-based, ethnic, regional), a reflection of ‘cleavage-based’ politics, enjoying salience in different parts of the nation. No one party can currently hope to come to power on its own.

It is instructive that the Congress, for long used to seeing itself as the natural party of governance, better learnt this lesson. Jettisoning its Panchmarhi resolution, it drew on its subsequent Shimla understanding and was quick to structure new alliances – the DMK-MDMK-PMK combine in Tamil Nadu, the TRS and Left in Andhra, roping in the RJD and LJS in Bihar and firming up its strained alliance with the NCP in Maharashtra. All these paid rich dividends, just as the failure to come to any agreement in Uttar Pradesh (though not for lack of effort) cost it dearly.

Nevertheless, while intelligent alliances help, electoral contests cannot be reduced to an arithmetical game. Overplaying India Shining and economic reforms alongside Hindu majoritarianism and exclusivism majorly harmed the NDA. Even while conceding a rightward shift in Indian economy and polity, a wilful disregard of the legitimate concerns of the poor – both rural and urban – reflected in the mix of policies followed (a consistent wooing of capital and the well-off alongside persistent neglect of rural areas, agriculture and irrigation; a virtual dismantling of the food security regime; absence of cheap credit for farmers and artisans, among others) and fostering greater insecurity amongst religious minorities (Gujarat, attacks on Christian establishments and ministers, ‘saffronising’ the cultural and educational establishment) does extract a price. The Congress (and its pre-poll alliance), by contrast, not only underscored the plural ethos of the country but also focused on real-life issues of unemployment, rural and urban distress, and the need for policies with a ‘human face’.

No less significant are the less talked about other factors – candidate selection (replacing discredited incumbents, introducing fresh and younger faces), locality-specific campaign, factoring in caste/ethnicity and so on. Even as analysts struggle to provide a more nuanced analysis – what worked where and why – it can be safely asserted that there is no single, overarching explanation for the mandate. Probably, the results reflect more the ‘defeat’ of the BJP-NDA than the ‘victory’ of the Congress-UPA.

For instance, much is being made of the ‘ostensible’ mandate against reforms. Cited in support is the convincing defeat of the TDP in Andhra, the Congress in Karnataka, and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu. In contrast is the example of Bihar and the vastly improved performance of the RJD despite an abysmal development record. This may well represent an over-reading. As the post-election survey conducted by the CSDS, Delhi (The Hindu, 20 May 2004) makes clear, the greater failure lies in not ensuring that the ‘benefits’ of reforms reach the masses and in not trying to create a political constituency for needed structural changes. Even more, obsession with abstract macro objectives (forex reserves, fiscal deficit) and an ideological subservience to foreign and domestic capital without commensurate concern with employment generation, contributed to an unpopularity of the policy mix. No wonder an overwhelming majority of respondents rejected the reform process as currently constituted.

Equally, over-reading the ‘secular’ character of the mandate will only weaken the need for continuing struggle against a majoritarian ethos. It is insufficiently appreciated that in terms of popular votes the BJP is for the first time, edging close to the Congress vote share, though this is partly because it contested many more seats than the Congress. However, its ambition was not matched by efficiency, with many incumbents losing their seats. There are still states where it remains dominant – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Uttaranchal (by itself) and Punjab and Orissa (with allies). And while it made gains in Karnataka, it lost ground in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh and suffered a near rout in Delhi, Haryana, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Tripura and Jharkhand. It not only failed to make any dent among minority voters but also suffered erosion in its upper caste/class and urban base.

Then caste. Getting the jati samikaran (caste arithmetic) right is normally foreground as a crucial ingredient of a successful electoral strategy. The assumption is that citizens vote less as individuals and more as members of a caste bloc. It is worth investigating such assertions given the growth in urbanisation, migration, the influence of mass media and the changing demographic profile of voters. Does performance and the ‘ability’ of candidates have no role? And with each political party factoring in caste/ethnicity calculations in their strategy, to what degree do members of any particular community vote as a group? Claiming synchronicity between party and caste is a common error among political forecasters.

It is troubling that none of the independent, non-party, ‘clean’ candidates supported by an alliance of social movements even managed to save their deposits. Are we to conclude from this that the issues these candidates embody do not matter in the hustings? Similarly, despite so much being made of the Women’s Reservation Bill, the proportion of women candidates and victors remains as low as before. We also need to work out the implications of such staggered elections, that too accompanied by a blitz of opinion and exit poll surveys. Did these influence the final results? Finally, we urgently need to debate the specifics of electoral political reforms – correcting the reported errors in voting lists, curbing the inordinate use of money and muscle power, even re-considering the first past the post system. It does appear that the innovation of instituting a new disclosure regime is still to make its impact felt on our electoral system.

All this has major implications for how the main parties/blocs recast themselves. Will the BJP, despite major losses in Gujarat and the temple towns of Uttar Pradesh (Ayodhya, Mathura, Varanasi) and the defeat of prominent Hindutva ideologues (M.M. Joshi, Vinay Katiyar, Chinmayananda) seek to revert to its core ideological agenda? Has it learnt anything from the rebuff to its personalised campaign against Sonia Gandhi and her Italian birth? Equally, will it rethink its framework for economic reforms – the package of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation tilted in favour of capital and the well-off corporates and urban professionals?

The challenge is no less serious for the Left Front. Both its efficiency and scale of victory is unprecedented. But as before, most of this is accounted for by three states – West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala. And while the Front has, for the first time, agreed for one of its members to assume the post of Speaker and extend support to the ‘now in power’ United Progressive Alliance, it has eschewed greater direct participation in governance. Another ‘historical blunder’? A desire to exercise control without responsibility? A throw back to the Mohan Kumarmangalam thesis of power via infiltration? An inability to grow out of its traditional mindset?

What of the many parties, mainly regional and caste-based, that in the past made up the United/Third Front? Given their indifferent experiences with structuring coalitions in the past, many of them have now hitched their future to the two major formations – the Congress led UPA and the BJP led NDA. The fate of the Samajwadi Party and the BSP, despite impressive performances by both in Uttar Pradesh, may strengthen this trend. Not that being part of major coalitions is without its negatives since their leverage depends on the electoral weakness of both the Congress and the BJP. The stability of our electoral system will depend upon the joint ability of both kinds of political formations – those with a thin but widespread appeal and the others with a concentrated social base – to keep their respective ambitions in check and move towards consensual functioning.

Finally, the Congress. Despite surprise gains in numbers it remains weak in the Hindi heartland. Not only is its organisation in shambles, it has been reduced to a paler variant of its earlier ‘catch-all’ character failing to garner majority support in every social segment. Ideologically too, it continues in a shadow zone facing the challenge of reworking its understanding of reforms to achieve greater synchronization with its electoral support base, primarily the less well-off.

The surprise caused by the electoral verdict was overshadowed by the refusal of Sonia Gandhi – the leader of both the Congress and the UPA – to assume the post of prime minister. And while many of us may blanch at the overuse of sacrifice and renunciation and the unseemly comparisons drawn with Buddha and the Mahatma, even more the vulgar display of obsequious loyalty in the telecast meeting of the Parliamentary party to ‘persuade’ the leader to reconsider her decision, it needs to be admitted that this was an unprecedented political and symbolic move. It pushed the ideologues foregrounding the ‘native-born’ on the defensive, enhanced Sonia Gandhi’s prestige and standing and, for all but the die-hard cynic, reintroduced the notion of morality and public service in the political domain. It also facilitated the ‘election’ of Manmohan Singh, widely respected technocrat-politician but with a questionable ability to win elections, as prime minister.

The country is once again being governed by a coalition regime marked not only by external support of the left parties but by a prime minister who is not the ‘elected’ leader of the single-largest party. And as much as the Congress will be hampered by its low numbers in Parliament it faces the challenge of reworking the delicate relationship between the party (represented by Sonia Gandhi) and the government (headed by Manmohan Singh), this alongside managing a coalition.

This is a new situation for the party. Traditionally, whenever the Congress has been in power, the same person has held the post of the party president and prime minister. With Sonia Gandhi enjoying greater political salience (she is also the chairperson of the committee tasked with overseeing the implementation of the Common Minimum Programme), media reports about the suggestion by the law minister that having been given a cabinet rank she is entitled to call for any official file despite not having taken an oath of secrecy, if true, are disquieting. Are we, once again, reverting to the familiar syndrome of the ‘supreme leader’, and sidelining procedural correctness by claiming popular mandate?

Hopefully a strong opposition will temper the enthusiasm of the ruling dispensation – be it in attempting to engineer radical policy shifts or in pursuing personalised agendas. Yet, unless the regime in power moves decisively towards meeting the everyday concerns of the electorate, its honeymoon period will be short. The stalling of the new Parliament in its first week of functioning on the issue of ‘tainted’ members of the cabinet provides a precursor to the stormy days ahead. So does the initial hiccup in ministry formation, with the ‘allies’ holding out for their due share. A post-Congress polity demands from the Congress the ability to outgrow its traditional mindset – seeing itself as the natural party of governance and every other formation as merely limited/regional/ethnic. Such an attitude can only hamper effective functioning of a coalition.

More urgently, the Congress needs to re-invigorate its party organisation, independently and not by riding on the coat tails of the government. It has to learn to live with and creatively work two autonomous centres of power. In doing so it will need to shed its feudal baggage emblematic of a rajwada and evolve a democratic and Republican political culture, giving legitimate autonomy to regional leadership and organisational activists. Simultaneously, it has to respond to an altered global environment and work toward making India more competitive. The challenge of managing globalisation, democratically, in a billion plus plural polity offers no easy choices.

Overall, the shift in polity epitomised by both the electoral verdict and post-verdict governance arrangements constitutes a major challenge for our institutional political structure and imagination. While there is considerable relief at having, peacefully, voted out the earlier regime, future directions, for the moment, remain uncertain. This issue of Seminar engages with some key questions thrown up by the general elections, 2004.