Five years ago, Indian voters comprehensively shredded the predictions of their country's chattering class, toppling the then ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government and sweeping to power the centrist Congress party. Analysts, pollsters, and journalists at the time all expected a BJP triumph, believing too readily the hype surrounding the BJP's promise of an "India Shining". The country's electorate - the largest in the world - proved them woefully wrong.
Once again, the Indian voter has upstaged the Indian commentator. While many predicted that the ruling Congress-led coalition would shade this year's national elections, none foresaw the emphatic victory that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh claimed this weekend. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) - comprising the Congress and its remaining regional allies - won 263 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha (the lower house of parliament), a measly nine seats short of the required majority. Congress leaders need only cherry pick small, convenient parties to make up the deficit.
The Hindu nationalist BJP and its allies, under the umbrella of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), return to the opposition after only mustering 158 seats, trailing by a yawning chasm of over one hundred MPs. They now look on morosely as Congress builds a coalition government likely to be the strongest and most stable in over two decades of fractious politics.
A false dusk for Congress
If one believed the ubiquitous media narrative ahead of this election, such an outcome would have been unimaginable. We were told that Congress - the 124-year old party that won independence from Britain in 1947, but held dynastic sway over India for over four decades thereafter - was in irreversible decline. We were told that regional and identity-based parties would continue to siphon away disillusioned voters, further splintering India's vast political landscape. We were told that India was doomed to governments with increasingly weak mandates, governments dependent on anarchic, unreliable coalition allies to maintain their fitful hold on power.
The results disclosed on Saturday suggest otherwise. Nearly one out of three voters (28.5 percent) chose the Congress party, a substantial sum given that Indians had to find their way through a blizzard of 1,055 contesting parties. Its own tally of 206 seats is Congress' highest since 1991, when it won 244. While Indian electoral politics can be intensely local and parochial (voters often cast their ballots with their religious, caste, ethnic or linguistic identities in mind), Congress' success is being understood as a vote of approval for its last five years of leadership.
The UPA government allowed the lightning pace of economic growth in India to tick along, while ensuring the country remained in large part sheltered from the buffeting winds of global recession. In the face of criticism from free-marketeers and governance sceptics, it invested in the gargantuan National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, a project of unprecedented size that begins to make up for India's egregious lack of a social welfare net. And it demonstrated coolness in the wake the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, resisting hot-headed calls for military pressure and action against Pakistan.
If the elections of 2004 were a rejection of the hyperbole of the BJP, this year's polls seem to have rewarded the UPA's restrained, sober rule with an indisputable mandate. Some Congress leaders have spoken of the victory as ushering in a moment of "renewal", but in truth it is one of triumphant reinforcement. In New Delhi today, elected Congress MPs joyously backed Manmohan Singh's return as prime minister for a second term. They know that there will be much more scope in the next five years for their initiative, their strategy and their agenda.
It is a chastening prospect not lost on Congress' fickle, erstwhile allies. Parties that jettisoned the UPA in the run-up to the election now plaintively seek re-entry into the ruling coalition. In the north central state of Uttar Pradesh (India's most populous state), the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have pledged their unconditional outside support (at the least) to the UPA. Both parties were stunned by the success of the Congress after it won 21 seats in Uttar Pradesh, a feat attributed in large part to the party's intensive grassroots campaigning under the state leadership of Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
The fortunes of the BSP, in particular, also grate against the pre-election narrative. Many analysts speculated about the possibility of Mayawati, the iconic BSP leader and chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, becoming prime minister. She and her party represented the supposed ascendance of alternative, centrifugal trends in Indian politics, galvanising the support of marginalised groups and capitalising on the failings of the big parties. The BSP's disappointing results around the country have now left its leadership in the midst of gloomy soul-searching, with Mayawati pledging to return to the purely caste-based agenda that had won her success in the past.
In neighbouring Bihar, the dismal showing of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) - the latter of which was effectively wiped off the map - prompted further promises of support for the newly victorious UPA. Both parties' leaders had held prominent ministerial posts in the last UPA government, before ditching the Congress ahead of the polls in what turned out to be a disastrous decision. Now, local Congress workers insist that any serious reconciliation with the RJD and its colourful and controversial leader Lalu Prasad Yadav would only derail hopes for a Congress "revival" in Bihar. Far from relying on their regional allies, the Congress may be better off without some of them.
Congress leaders may take particular pleasure in the stunning decimation of the Left. Last summer, India's Communist parties withdrew their outside support for the UPA and threatened to topple the government altogether over the Indo-US nuclear deal. The Left will be unable to launch such a bold bid in the next five years after being crushed in their strongholds in the eastern state of West Bengal and the southwestern state of Kerala. Their representation in parliament plummets from 59 seats to a dejected 24.
Events in West Bengal, where Communists have been in power since 1977, were particularly striking. The Trinamool Congress (TC), the main opposition in the state, increased its block in the Lok Sabha from a solitary seat to 19, while the state's ruling Communist party dipped from 35 seats to 15. Disillusionment with the Communists' heavy-handed management of the divisive development projects at Singur and Nandigram most likely contributed to the party's downfall. Key leaders are set to resign as the Left cuts its losses.
Also licking its wounds is the BJP. The Hindu nationalist party remains the second largest party in parliament and the core of the opposition to the new government, but morale within the party has plunged. Its shrill, often ad hominem attacks on the Congress failed to rouse voters. Its petty politics over the Indo-US nuclear deal - a policy that it would have certainly pursued if in power - undermined its credibility. And its continued ties to atavistic extremist groups (like the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra) alienate India's many non-Hindus and young people tired of religious politics. For the sake of Indian democracy and for its own good, the BJP must discard these unsavoury allies and reinvent itself as a truly centre-right party, shorn of its fanatic fringe.
Strength at the centre
As the implications of the election results sink in across India's vast and diverse political landscape, optimism amongst Indians has surged. The country's stock markets saw frenetic activity yesterday and today, some indexes reaching astonishing highs. With Congress in such a strong position, Indians look forward to a stable government that will finally be able to shape coherent, determined domestic policy in the many areas that require its attention.
Congress' emphatic victory will also come as welcome news to western powers. Europe and the United States want India to play an increasing role as a responsible stakeholder in the international system. A Congress-led government, unburdened of the anti-imperialist ideology of its former Communist allies, will be better able to navigate the global stage. The alarming growth of insurgency, terrorism and instability in neighbouring countries in south Asia also demands clear-thinking and decisive strategy from New Delhi. A weak government, constantly looking over its shoulder, would not be up to the task.
Amidst all the hope, one must sound a cautionary note. India has had its fair share of strong Congress governments in the past, not many of which could be deemed successful, even in the most generous terms. The regionalisation and fragmentation that has characterised the last twenty years of Indian politics arose from the systemic failings allowed by grey ladies like the Congress party. Congress leaders should not only use the stability of the government to advance policy objectives, but to build a more inclusive politics, to deepen Indian democracy from the bottom-up. This would be the best way to honour the privilege of the mandate of a billion people.
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