DELHI, OPINION ASIA — The outcome of the just-concluded 2009 national poll in India reflect continuity because the verdict was clearly in favor of an incumbent coalition government that presages political stability. Equally, the results are indicative of change because voters rejected regional parties, opting instead for the local allies of the two pan-Indian parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The emerging trend is the consolidation of two conglomerations of parties, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) with the Congress at the heart of the former and the BJP anchoring the latter. It can now be emphatically said that no future government will be formed without these two pan-Indian parties, which may not muster a majority in Parliament on their own but will nonetheless hold the key to government formation. With 206 seats in a house of 543 seats, the major partner, the Congress is comfortably placed to independently steer the future of India until the next elections.
Both the BJP and left parties failed to sustain their support base. The BJP endeavored to pursue a national agenda that appeared to be socially divisive, drawing on the age-old socioeconomic cleavages. The fate of the left was sealed to a large extent because of its insistence on an anachronistic ideology that was clearly at variance with the spirit of the contemporary era.
The UPA government was brought back to power because of its efforts in seeking to build “an inclusive India” bridging the gulf between the rich and poor, between the forward and backward castes and classes, and between a highly developed India and its appalling backwater. This verdict can therefore be interpreted as a rejection of the politics of negativism and exclusion. By raising their voice against the politics of identity in ethnic, caste and community colors, voters seem to have upheld the importance of developmental issues in garnering mass support.
Interestingly, the electoral victory of Congress was actually an aggregation of its success in specific Indian states. Congress remained an unassailable party in Andhra Pradesh, largely due to the pro-people policies of the incumbent Congress government in the state. It has revived its fortune in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and recovered its base in West Bengal and Kerala. And crucially, the success of Congress’ partners in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal sealed the UPA’s success.
In contrast with the 2004 national poll, the BJP-led NDA lost miserably in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Its gains in Karnataka, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh were not adequate to compensate for losses in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. In summary, Congress gained 61 seats in comparison with its 2004 tally of 145, while the BJP lost 22 seats from its 2004 tally of 138 seats.
It is a truism that political issues raised in an election campaign remain critical in securing votes provided these are adequately backed by real performance. That the BJP performed well in Gujarat and Chhattisgarh was reflective of meaningful governance by the BJP-led state government. In fact, this was a trend previously observed in the 2008 election to the state assemblies of Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. The incumbent governments of Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh were brought back to power because of a good record of governance. The trend continued in the 2009 election: meaningful governance was rewarded.
Similarly, the reversal in the left bastions of Kerala and West Bengal suggest the failure of the left to sway the masses with ideological gimmickry. What caused a serious dent in the left’s support base, particularly in West Bengal, was the imposition of Special Economic Zones for rapid industrialization at the expense of local farmers. The message that land was being taken away from the poor to create jobs for the middle class was the Achilles heel for the left parties in this election.
Quite simply, the poll outcome was largely shaped by local issues and the success of the incumbent government to deliver. There were certain concrete steps that the Manmohan Singh-led government undertook to meaningfully articulate its development agenda. Undoubtedly, the adoption of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act of 2006 providing every rural family 100 days of work, created a support base for the Congress that translated into votes.
Likewise, the Farm Debt Waiver (2008) neutralized opposition to the Congress especially in western India where the incidence of farmer suicide was highest. By providing social security for the unorganized sector accounting for 85 percent of India’s workforce, the UPA government also conveyed its genuine concern for the underprivileged.
Another legal stipulation that tilted middle-class support in favor of Congress was the acceptance of the Right to Information Act by the UPA government in 2005. Armed with this act, citizens are now empowered to discharge meaningful roles in governance.
Taken as a whole, one can conclude that the UPA government, to win over various sections of the people, put forward and implemented schemes that extended the coalition’s political mileage.
Given the critical importance of the Congress and BJP in constituting a stable coalition government, it is not an exaggeration to argue that India is probably heading toward a system where these two parties will continue to remain the most crucial political players. This is not an achievement to be scoffed at for a polity in which parties emerge not necessarily because of ideological clashes but also because of personal bickering and petty squabbles over power.
Bidyut Chakrabarty is professor of political science at the University of Delhi, India.(www.opinionasia.org)
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