A specter is haunting the Congress Party of India, the specter of obsolescence. The scorching heat of summer may have descended on New Delhi, but cold winds are blowing across 24 Akbar Road as India’s “Grand Old Party” ruminates on its recent electoral reverses. In the key state of Uttar Pradesh, Rahul Gandhi once again failed to win over the electorate. For the second time in just over a year, a state in the Hindi heartland has rejected the charms of this Nehru-Gandhi scion in favour of a regional satrap. More tests await the Congress Party and Mr. Gandhi later this year in Gujarat and Delhi and then during the presidential elections.
This year's electoral tug-of-war has already gone decisively against the ruling party. The logical question then is which political parties have benefited. The answer to that question is uncertain. The main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), only seems weakened by the election results. Going by BJP president Mr. Nitin Gadkari's remark that an election victory in Manipur where the Congress won decisively counts for nothing in the dynamics of national politics, neither does one in Goa (with all due respect to the other small states as well).
The big winners from the March 6 elections are the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab and the Trinamool Congress by virtue of its gaining a toehold in Manipur, thereby strengthening its bargaining power at the expense of a weakened Congress. Coupled with the power enjoyed by regional parties like the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar, the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu, it is hard not to notice the wave of regional parties gaining power in state after state. With two-fifths of total Lok Sabha constituencies (the lower house of India’s parliament, or "House of the People") belonging to the above-mentioned six states, the next general election promises to change the dynamic of national politics in a major way.
There is no single explanation for the sudden change in the electoral fortunes of the national parties. Their overall gain in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections had invited opinions that in 2014 the electorate would entrust one of the national parties with a majority mandate. No one today would suggest that. Blame may be attributed in part to the degeneration of governance under UPA-II or the weakening charm of “Mr. Clean” Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh or even the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare. A combination of these factors, as well as additional ones, may help us to understand the political changes.
One explanation for the decline of the national parties is that they advocate contradictory policies. On the one hand, these parties promote neo-liberal economic policies to woo the crony capitalists who build 27 storey mansions and earn ridiculously massive profits from mining land that had belonged to the poorest of Indians and was acquired through brute state force. At the same time, these parties also continue to invoke communal identities based on religion and caste to win elections. The unpopular dichotomy of ‘two Indias,’ surviving since the days of the British Empire, has metamorphosed into an election strategy that is increasingly seen for what it is by a more conscious electorate.
First off, the tight relationship between India’s politicians and “India Inc.” has often resulted in the marginalisation of the masses. The development and growth policies pursued vigorously since 1991 have left many behind and disadvantaged. India’s poverty line is at Rs. 28.65 per capita per day. Reading the introduction to the Economic Survey 2011-12, one becomes giddy with the number of growth figures that are cited. Growth enthusiasts liken the economy to a cake; more growth allows more people to benefit from this growth. The reality, however, is that although India’s Gross Domestic Product has increased substantially, thus leading to a much larger cake, much of the increase has gone to only a small proportion of the population. India’s economic growth is driven by the services sector, in contrast to manufacturing-led growth in most of the modern European and American countries. What this implies is that “the cake” has been divided among a small proportion of educated Indians working mostly in the services sector, leaving 53.7% Indians poor (according to the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) developed in 2010 by Oxford’s Poverty & Human Development Initiative and the United Nations Development Programme supported by the World Bank). Even today, India is home to about 25 percent of the world's hungry poor. By the government’s own admission, around 43% of children under the age of five are malnourished, and more than half of all pregnant women between the ages of 15 and 49 suffer from anemia.
In the light of such crushing poverty, hunger and widespread deprivation of basic amenities that should ideally be accessible to every citizen in a modern democratic country, voters have increasingly focused on the negative aspects of the neo-liberalist project. A plethora of scams, widespread rent-seeking, the loss of government revenue as a result of favours made to corporations, as well as stagnant expenditures on social sector programs in real terms (i.e. after accounting for inflation) have all forced the electorate to reconsider which political parties they vote for. Viewed in this way, the regional parties’ electoral victories are less a positive endorsement of their positions than a negative vote against the bigger, long-standing political parties. Such trust is sometimes misplaced, as seen in the case of the former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, whose pro-technology policies at the expense of the rural poor saw him thrashed at the next elections. But in many cases, that of Nitish Kumar in Bihar or the Badals in Punjab, the development agenda has been played out in a balanced manner. Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh has also earned the voters’ trust.
Politicians are using archaic arguments and igniting communal passions to polarise the electorate and garner as many votes as possible. A notable example is the way Salman Rushdie was treated on the eve of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. The Booker-Prize winning author was threatened not to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival by religious fanatics because of the controversy over The Satanic Verses. The Rajasthan Government, not to be outdone, recreated the Mumbai Underworld and vaguely mentioned an assassination threat that did not materialize. Two months later, and crucially after the Uttar Pradesh election results, Mr. Rushdie was in New Delhi, and neither the fanatics nor the Underworld were present.
Arranged by local Congress workers, Rahul Gandhi came down to the poor huts of Dalit families in Uttar Pradesh to spend the night on a mattress. The next day after the customary photo-shoot with children was done, he rushed back to the comforts of New Delhi. Often, the leaders of India’s political parties seem inaccessible and remote.
The reason for the obsolescence of both the Congress Party and the BJP is that the sense of “noblesse oblige” that worked for the likes of Rajiv Gandhi no longer works for Rahul. Nor does Hindutva by itself win elections. For the first time since the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the BJP lost the Ayodhya Assembly constituency to the Samajwadi party. If Narendra Modi works in Gujarat, it is not simply because of his pro-Hindu image developed as a result of the genocide of 2002 but because he keeps the dhanda going smoothly in a state with tremendous commercial interests.
The future bodes well for India. People have started rejecting the economic liberalisation that has not been to their benefit. Furthermore, in an increasing number of states the archaic arguments to garner votes are being rejected out of hand. At the end of the day, the result is the same: voters are increasingly siding with whomever they feel will address their needs and concerns. India no longer worships its leaders; nobody is a demigod any more. Or, more accurately, politicians are less so, less than they ever have been. The next Lok Sabha elections shall be the coming of age of the subalterns in the Indian polity.