Debating India

UPA

Challenges Ahead

Sukumar MURALIDHARAN

Friday 18 June 2004, by MURALIDHARAN*Sukumar

An unprecedented coalition of social forces that have lost out under the neo-liberal economic regime has given an unequivocal mandate for change and brought the Congress back to power. Failing to tread the path to an alternative economic policy will amount to a betrayal of the mandate and send the party into wilderness once again.

in New Delhi

AS fraught with emotion and political histrionics as the prelude was, the assumption of office by Manmohan Singh, as head of a 68-member Council of Ministers, followed a fairly predictable script. There were few surprises in the catalogue of names that the master of ceremonies at Rashtrapati Bhavan read out. Where unproven and untested names came in, they were seen as necessary concessions to the logic of coalition politics. And as far as the Congress was concerned, positions in the Ministry were reserved for those of proven loyalty to the organisation and its ruling dynasty. This familiar cast of characters constituted just the dose of reality needed to bring the curtains down on the political theatre of the preceding weeks.

The internal power calculus of the Congress was evident in many of the Cabinet choices, particularly in the inclusion of two individuals who had been defeated in the recent Lok Sabha elections. Although losing at the hustings has never been a serious constraint for ministerial aspirants, a cooling off period is normally prescribed just to ensure that no serious affront is perceived to the expressed will of the voter. That custom has been dispensed with.

Another category of appointment that created some unease was the elevation of several leaders with pending criminal prosecutions against them. Among Manmohan Singh’s first public statements since taking office was a spirited defence of the right of such individuals to hold ministerial responsibilities until they are proven guilty. But with the Left registering its displeasure and the Opposition readying for battle, the matter is unlikely to die an early political death.

Manmohan Singh’s assumption of office marked the brief punctuation of a raging debate about the nature of the electoral verdict. For those of finicky terminology, it seemed incorrect to read any kind of mandate in the verdict. But for those steeped in ardour for the Congress dynasty, the verdict was an unequivocal affirmation of Sonia Gandhi’s claim to prime ministership. Although few chose to say it out aloud, there were elements within the Congress allies who were uneasy with this effort to run away with the ball. These initial apprehensions were suppressed since few wanted to vitiate the initial bonhomie of a victory won against seemingly insuperable odds.

Having for long left the field clear for the theatrics of Sushma Swaraj and Uma Bharati, the top leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party stepped in a week after Manmohan Singh’s swearing in, with its own considered judgment. There was no positive mandate inherent in the verdict, pronounced Opposition leader-designate L.K. Advani. What was evident instead was a national outcome that was the aggregate of several conflicting regional verdicts. Advani cautioned against reading the election results as a "mandate for any alliance, much less for any single party and certainly not for any individual". Having won a mere seven seats more than the BJP, the Congress was obliged to follow the path of "maximum consensus" not merely within its alliance, but also with the Opposition.

Consensus, of course, is a highly prized virtue in politics, though going beyond generalities, certain troubling questions surface with Advani’s adumbration of the theme. What would it involve, for instance, to arrive at a political consensus on the need to hold Narendra Modi accountable for the atrocities that Gujarat witnessed in early 2002? And if Advani now is prepared to concede that the "India Shining" campaign was perhaps the greatest political dud in recent times, would he also admit that the ardour with which the BJP pursued it through the election campaign pointed to a collective belief in the politics of mass illusion? Would the BJP now be willing to be part of a political consensus over the reasons why the campaign backfired? Would it be willing to admit that its campaign was in fact a gross insult to millions whose lived experiences directly contradicted its central message?

AFTER all the inflated claims about the mandate of the Lok Sabha elections have died down, the hard facts remain: both the Congress and the BJP have lost significantly in popular vote share. In fact, the two principal adversaries lost almost identically, shedding about 1.6 percentage points share of total votes cast. The difference is that the Congress contested far fewer seats in 2004 than in 1999, while the BJP contested a significantly larger number. The Congress managed to consolidate its strength in fewer constituencies and recruit the electoral influence and goodwill of an unprecedentedly large number of allies, to increase its success rate. The BJP was beguiled by its own propaganda and fell victim to the hype of its campaign advertisements.

A further statistic that should dampen all extravagant claims by both the perceived winners and losers: the Congress and BJP-led alliances have both won just in excess of 35 per cent of the total number of votes cast. In fact, the BJP and its allies have won a fractionally larger share.

It was perhaps the Congress’ greatest stroke of inspiration in many years to tear up the Pachmarhi declaration and shed all delusions that it is the indispensable party of governance, capable of acquiring a popular mandate on its own strength. Inspiration was fuelled in part by panic. Disorientation was the dominant mood within the Congress after the debacle in three Assembly elections in December 2003. The decision by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance to advance the Lok Sabha polls heightened the sense of alarm. And the propaganda blitzkrieg that followed did little to assuage it.

The key to the Congress’ success clearly lay in the smart alliances it struck in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Jharkhand. In Maharashtra, it shed all ambiguity and struck up a prudent pre-election deal with Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party. Banished was the sense of offended dignity it had for long nurtured over Pawar’s rebellion against Sonia Gandhi.

More than any previous contest, the 2004 elections were characterised by varying geometries of interests. This aspect is most evident in the political fortunes of the Left front, which has confounded expectations and won a record number of seats. In Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, the Left fought as part of multi-party alliances that included the Congress. In Kerala and West Bengal, the Left fought on its own, its principal adversaries being the Congress and its allies. Although to all intents committed to support a Congress-led government at the Centre, the Left won the vast majority of its seats in opposition to the Congress.

A majority of States saw bipolar contests between Congress and BJP-led alliances. Significantly, the BJP won unequivocally in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where memories of the Congress’ record as the party in authority were fresh. Honours were evenly shared in Gujarat and Maharashtra. In the former, the incumbency disadvantage manifested itself rather rapidly, though the BJP’s unprecedented sweep of the State Assembly is just a year-and-a-half old. In Maharashtra, it took the early brokering of a deal between the NCP and the Congress to outweigh the disadvantage they could otherwise have suffered after close to a full term in power in the State.

Each of the States that the BJP-led alliance lost overwhelmingly - Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand and Delhi - has its own tale to tell. Yet it is significant that where the contest involved three or more players, a credible non-Congress alternative to the BJP seems to have harvested a rich crop of votes - as with the Left in its southern and eastern redoubts, and the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh.

It has been a significant outcome in Karnataka - the party that was in the State was voted out, though in concurrent elections to the Assembly, it did not fare as badly as in the contest to the Lok Sabha. The Janata Dal (Secular) of former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, which had no part in the incumbent governments - whether at the Centre or in the State - has been handsomely rewarded in the Assembly, though its profile in the Lok Sabha remains rather modest. This kind of a fine-grained distinction between national and State level contests, has largely gone unremarked in the torrent of post-poll analyses. But it is not the first time that the people of Karnataka have exhibited this variety of discriminating electoral behaviour.

FUNDAMENTALLY, two statements can be made with little risk of contradiction about the 2004 verdict. The "India Shining" hype for one, has been exploded, and the BJP’s effort to convert the elections into a presidential-style contest between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi failed. There is some evidence, from the National Election Studies cell at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi, that the forceful projection of Vajpayee’s personality did win the NDA some electoral mileage. But the logical obverse of this question: whether an unambiguous projection of Sonia Gandhi as the Congress-led alliance’s prime ministerial candidate would have won it any extra votes, remains unanswered. The CSDS data does show that the Congress would have additionally won something of the order of 2 percentage points in terms of popular vote, if Sonia Gandhi had firmly disavowed all ambitions of being Prime Minister. But before too much is read into this result, it needs to be tested for statistical significance.

Yet, a related question crops up: would it have been prudent for the Congress to advance Sonia Gandhi’s renunciation of the claim to prime ministership - to the beginning of the campaign? There has undoubtedly been an upwelling of goodwill over Manmohan Singh’s appointment to head the government. Would the prior declaration of this intent then have served the Congress well in the elections just concluded? That is a counter-factual question that bears all the potential to stir up intense passions within the Congress. As it embarks on another tenure in power at the Centre, the Congress still seems averse to the notion that durable electoral success hinges on energising its linkages with mass politics, rather than in dependence in perpetuity on dynastic legitimacy.

The Congress goes into power after a lapse of eight years, after performing a sequence of tortured contortions: the leader of its parliamentary wing has been appointed by the party president rather than elected in accordance with customary democratic procedures. Sonia Gandhi, as party president, has, while forswearing any position in government, been elevated to the newly minted position of chairperson of the parliamentary party.

From this vantage point, she has established a clear principle of ascendancy over the Ministry. Even if the course of politics over the next few months compels Sonia Gandhi to sheath the sword that she holds over Manmohan Singh, internal processes within the Congress raise serious questions about the future of democracy in the hands of a party that does not trust itself to be democratic.

These apart, the Congress also seems overcome by a variety of political amnesia. To emphasise elements of continuity, when the electorate has given an unequivocal mandate for change, may be a sensible strategy to buy time, when the capital markets have evidently reserved judgment on whether the government should dismiss the people and elect another people.

But to speak of going about things in a "business-as-usual" fashion, unmindful of the sections that have lost out over 12 years of neo-liberal economic policies, is clearly to betray the unprecedented consolidation of social forces that brought the Congress back to power after a well-deserved eight years in the wilderness. Several contingent political difficulties litter the path to an alternative economic policy. But the long-term consequence of failing to tread that path may well be political irrelevance.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

Pic 1: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at Shakti Sthal, the samadhi of Indira Gandhi, in New Delhi on May 23.

Pic 2: MANISH SWARUP/AP; Congress president Sonia Gandhi at Vir Bhoomi, the samadhi of her husband and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, on May 21, his 13th death anniversary.

Pic 3: DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP; CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet.

Pic 4: DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP; CPI(M) leader and Member of Parliament Somnath Chatterjee, who has been offered the Lok Sabha Speaker’s post by the ruling alliance.

in Frontline, volume 21, Issue 12, Jun. 05 - 18, 2004.

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