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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 26, June 13, 2009

General Election 2009—A Gentle Breeze of Change

Saturday 13 June 2009, by Sanjay Pulipaka

The flavour of national politics in India seems to be changing. The performance of State governments and the nature of caste coalitions at the State level used to determine the election outcome of the parliamentary elections in India. Therefore, the verdict in the general elections used to be an aggregate of State level verdicts, which seems to be not the case with General Election 2009. This is not to say that State level issues are no longer important in determining the outcome of parliamentary elections. The infighting in Kerala and the ghosts of Nandigram in West Bengal seem to have had a negative impact on the performance of the Left parties in both the States. Good governance by Naveen Patnaik, Nitish Kumar, Shiela Dikshit have helped their respective parties to perform exceedingly well in Orissa, Bihar and Delhi respectively. In spite of these strong State-level tendencies, General Election 2009 may have been impacted by a nationwide trend that favoured the Congress party.

Leadership Anxieties

During the month long election process, many people observed that the 2009 General Election did not have one or two major national issue that would define the outcome of the elections. As the election results were declared, it became evident that large sections of the population were longing for a stable government. During the last one year, the continuation of the Union Government was always under threat due to the persistent tense relations between the Congress and Left parties over the nuclear deal. Such persistent instability in the context of economic downturn and increased security threats seems to have put off many ordinary people. Further, the fact that close to a dozen individuals were getting portrayed as the possible Prime Minister seems to have generated anxiety among voters. This anxiety appears to have prompted many to choose the Manmohan-Sonia-Rahul troika to lead the country given the experience of the last five years. The fact that the Congress party was able to project a combination of leaders who were known for their policy brilliance, political acumen and youthfulness gave the Congress party an added advantage. On the other hand, the BJP seems to have sorely missed the towering personality of Atal Behari Vajpayee, who had the unique ability to pull together many leaders with diametrically opposite views under one political umbrella.

Discerning Voter

This election also witnessed emergence of a new discerning voter. In some States where the Assembly elections were also held with the elections for Parliament, voters engaged in cross-voting. For instance, in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly constituencies, while the Congress got 36.07 per cent of votes, the TDP-led grand alliance got 34.93 per cent votes. This means the Congress party received 1.14 per cent more votes in the Assembly constituencies. In parliamentary constituencies, the Congress received 38.95 per cent votes and TDP alliance got 33.92 per cent. This means there was a swing of 5.03 per cent votes in favour of the Congress in the parliamentary constituencies. The voting percentages in Orissa also demonstrate that the voters are making different choices in State and parliamentary constituencies. Probably, the advent of multiple news channels has increased the density of political discussion in our society. The greater media penetration in society is helping voters to make more educated choices in the elections.

BJP—Contracting Base and Incomplete Vision

The election results came as a big disappointment for the BJP. In these elections, the BJP was always on the tough road to power. The BJP neither had a strong presence nor strong pre-poll allies in States such as West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, which together account for 143 parliamentary seats. In Orissa, the BJP’s relationship with the strong regional party, the BJD, broke down just before the elections. Given this electoral arithmetic, the BJP had to perform exceeding well in the big north Indian States such as UP. However, in UP, the BJP was locked in a strong contest with parties such as the SP and BSP and it failed to rise up to the occasion. More importantly, the absence of a strong BJP presence in much of south India, except in Karnataka, constrained the choice for voters who were keen on voting for a national party.

Apart from its inability to expand its base in some parts of India, the BJP is finding it difficult to reach out to a new generation of voters. General Election 2009 witnessed the entry of some 4.3 crore first-time young voters. This younger generation was not politically socialised during the Ayodhya movement. This new generation grew up in the midst of “India Shining” and “aam aadmi” political slogans. Further, the BJP’s Hindutva so far has not been able to convey its blueprint on how it intends to rejuvenate the Hindu society and address some of the ills, such as the caste system, that are plaguing it. Given this lack of socialisation in the Ayodhya movement and an inability to convey a positive grand vision, the new generation of voters are finding it difficult to strongly relate to the BJP’s political discourse.

Communists’ Miscommunication

The election results have prompted the Left parties to go for deep introspection. While the defeat in Kerala was understood as a consequence of infighting, the results in West Bengal came as a shock to the leaders of the Left parties. Even in States such as Andhra Pradesh, where the Left parties were aligned with strong regional parties such as the TDP, their performance was below par. An important reason for the decline of the Left parties has been their skewed political communication. While the local units may have focused on social and economic issues, the national leadership appeared to be obsessed with India’s foreign policy. While the Left might have had some genuine concerns, it failed to communicate the contours of its new approach to foreign policy without reference to China. Further, the language deployed by some of the leaders of the Left parties ended up increasing the anxiety of the middle classes.

‘New Age’ Politics of Congress

Nothing succeeds like success. Zillion factors are being cited as the real reasons for impressive show of the Congress party in the elections. The leadership of Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, and Rahul Gandhi’s youthfulness, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), loan waiver scheme, people’s longing for political stability, need to strengthen secular parties and so on are being cited as contributing to the success of the Congress party. All these might have definitely played a significant role in ensuring the Congress party’s victory.

The Congress party’s victory in the elections is also being attributed to the young voters who reportedly favoured the party. The Congress party in the recent past has been calling itself as the party for the young and started a new discourse based on age. By projecting a new dichotomy—young versus old—the Congress is seeking to create a new and big vote-bank that will cut across caste, religious and linguistic barriers. The capacity of this new dichotomy to transcend the existing cleavages in the long run is yet to be tested. By talking about political empowerment of the youth, the Congress party is demonstrating that it will not merely respond to frameworks created by other parties. Rather, it is willing create a new framework for political engagement. However, in the long run, the Congress party cannot ignore the demands for social justice. The trick lies in mixing youth based politics with empowerment of those sections which have hitherto been marginalised. Congress leaders must also keep in mind that there is a distinct danger that the “young-versus-old” debate may move from the political realm to the social realm, resulting in the problem of ‘ageism’ that is plaguing some of the Western countries.

Riding on a Gentle Breeze

Election 2009 did not result in tectonic changes in Indian politics. Rather we are witnessing a gentle breeze of change across the political landscape with voters displaying preference for a stable government and a little tilt towards a national party. The Congress party benefited from this gentle breeze and is now in government with greater confidence. In the immediate aftermath of the election, all the initial discussions seem to be revolving around an urgent need to speed up the economic reform process. Given the global economic recession, along with economic reforms, there is an urgent need to strengthen the infrastructure and create employment generation activities. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should start reinventing the government to make it people-friendly. There is an urgent need to implement administrative reforms to bring the government closer and accountable to the aam aadmi.

The author is a Fellow at the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies (MAKAIAS), Kolkata. He can be reached at sanjay.pulipaka(at)yahoo.com

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