Fifteenth Lok Sabha Election in India – Exploring the “Mandate”

Sukla Sen/ 9 July 2009

The Union Budget was presented just three days back. So now we know how the new regime has interpreted the mandate. But that must not stop us from making our own explorations. Here we attempt a close look at the things in what follows.

A Uniform Message

Even at the obvious risk of sounding somewhat off-key, or even blasphemous, it is necessary to put on record that the search for a uniform message, coming from diverse directions, in the (aggregated) electoral verdict of the last Lok Sabha election (as mediated through and captured by the present “first-past-the-post” (FPTP) system), whether for or against “reforms”, or “secularism” or “inclusive growth” or whatever is somewhat deceptive; given the fact that different people, different segments and, most of all, different states voted in noticeably divergent ways. And it is even more so as this was no plebicitrical election. No single issue was overwhelmingly dominant - like “Garibi Hatao”, Emergency, Bofors, Babri, Hindutva etc. etc.

This election was rather tame and, by common consent, an “issueless” one. Admittedly because the prospects of the “Hindu Nationalist” BJP coming to power had widely been perceived as rather feeble. The psephologists, and then exit polls, in general, predicted a small lead for the Congress over its main challenger BJP. But given the fact that such polls and predictions in India are notoriously unreliable and the narrowness of the predicted “defeat” for the BJP, the hot months of April-May held some considerable suspense nevertheless. No one, however, expected any lilacs springing up out of the dead land, at the end of the day.

The Great Relief

Eventually, when the actual results started trickling in on the morning of May16, as we all know by now, they brought in some significant surprise, broadly in keeping with the trend set since 1967. Of the rather pleasant variety. The Congress did much better than expected. (It did pretty much better than what its own exit poll had reportedly predicted: 206 against 165 plus.) Not only that, it remarkably improved over its recent performances. But what actually counted is that the BJP did much worse. Its aggressive posturing on “terrorism”, more than backed up by ugly beatings of the war drum by a leading media group, and, intermittently high-pitched - even if somewhat unsure, cries of Hindutva failed to reap electoral harvest on the national scale. In the process, however, the parliamentary Left, which had peaked in the preceding poll and played a much-larger-than-life role in the post-poll scenario, stood decimated.

But, the surprise and sense of relief, to be sure, was decidedly less striking than in the previous election in 2004, held against the backdrop of the yet to be forgotten promise to roll the “Gujarat model” out to every corner of the country. And of course far less than in 1977. That is just to put things in perspective.

Three Myths

A major campaign line unleashed by the media since May 16, regardless of the fissures within, is that this election virtually marks a new dawn – a dawn of bipolar politics. The facts, as they stand, are, however, very different. In 2004 election the Congress and the BJP together had polled (26.53 + 22.16 =) 48.69% of votes cast. This time the corresponding figure is (28.55 + 18.80 =) 47.35. Last time these two top contenders together had garnered (145 + 138 =) 283 seats out of total 543. This time they have cornered, between themselves (206 + 116 =) 322. So while there is in fact an appreciable rise in the number of seats gained, 13.78%; the %age of vote share has declined by 1.34 % points or 2.75% of the %age of votes polled last time. More importantly, the distance between the two top contenders, both in terms of percentage of vote share and number of seats actually won, has considerably widened. That’s surely no decisive shift towards bipolar politics.

The second campaign line is that this election has seen the rebirth of the Congress as “the national party”. The “natural party of governance”. (Never mind the obvious conflict between the first and second claim.) Again, despite remarkably better – and far better than expected - performance by the Congress, the actual reality is far more complex. The Congress vote percentage, in the first three general elections – 1952/57/62 - hovered within the narrow range of 44.7 – 47.8 %. The major jolt came in 1967. It dropped to 40.8. The peak seat share in the first three elections was 75.1% and the lowest 73.1. In 1967 it dropped down to 54.4. The second largest party, not the same one all through, polled around 10% of votes with seat share going up from 3.3% (in 1952) to 8.5% in 1967. In 1971, under the impact of “Garibi Hatao”, the Congress significantly improved its position: 43.7% (votes) and 68.0% (seats). Then came the great debacle of 1977. It plummeted to 34.5 (votes) and 28.4% (seats). The best performance since, and in fact ever, was in 1984, in the wake of Indira Gandhi assassination and the Sikh massacre following: 49.1 (votes) and 78.6 (seats). To cut a long story short, today it stands at 28.55% of votes and 37.94% of total seats. No doubt significantly better than its worst ever performance in 1999: 28.3% of votes and 21.0% of seats (and 1998: 25.8% of votes and 26.0% of seats). But nothing to warrant the claim of “rebirth”. By no stretch. Even the second largest party has gathered around double the percentage of vote as compared to that during the stable hey days of the Congress party from 1952 – 62.

The third myth which was being vigorously pushed and propagated is that the electoral verdict this time is in favour of “economic reforms”. More so as the Left, the perceived roadblock, now stands decimated. Notable in this context is that a leading media group, which had earlier been trying to drum up war hysteria on the eve of the election in the wake of the spectacular terror attack in Mumbai in late November obviously to the advantage of the BJP, now started floating/proposing names of the likely Finance Minister to push the “reforms” agenda. Never mind that in the wake of the global economic downturn, “neoliberalism” – the reigning economic doctrine on the global plane since early eighties propelling “reform” – has lost much of its sheen. Its two main backers, in particular, are now forcefully advocating a change of tack, even if only in a limited way. Mercifully enough the trick did not work, rather astonishingly. There is now awareness even within the ruling circles that the NREGA and massive waiver of farm loans played a crucial role in the latest electoral success of the Congress Party. While the actual track records of Indian rulers over the last six decades or so leave little room for optimism, the Presidential address delivered to the joint session of the parliament on June 4 last unmistakably captures and reflects this awareness. The Budget, somewhat surprisingly, has further underscored the message of the Presidential address.

The Defeated BJP

As regards the performance of the second largest (national) party, the results were truly disappointing from its point of view. Here it is necessary to keep in mind that it is not only the party of “Hindutva” but is also widely perceived as the force which, if elected, would give a real forceful push to the agenda of “economic reforms” – notwithstanding the rather formidable reputations notched up by the Manmohan-Chidambaram-Montek Singh trio. And it failed, rather pitifully. (Though not nearly as miserably as the Left.) As compared to the last time, its vote share has come down from 22.16 to 18.80%. And, seats from 138 to 116. The distance from the Congress, in terms of number of seats, has risen from a wafer thin margin of 7 to a considerable 90. And to put things in perspective, since its reincarnation in 1980, its best performances were in the years 1991 (vote share: 20.1%, seats: 120), 1996 (vote share: 20.3%, seats: 161), 1998 (vote share: 25.6%, seats: 182), 1999 (vote share: 23.8%, seats: 182). It came to power at the head of a coalition called NDA in 1998, after its failed attempt in 1996. And further consolidated its position in 1999 – rather paradoxically aided by the Kargil War caused by its sheer incompetence, after the premature collapse of the coalition it had been heading.

If in 1984, its picking up of the slogan of “Gandhian Socialism” at its inauguration four years back, got linked to its devastating debutant performance of winning miserable 2 seats and scoring a mere 7.4% of votes and thereby paving the ground for a quick shift of gear to hard Hindutva, combined with some truly pragmatic adjustments to gather useful poll allies, resulting in a truly striking rise and rise in its electoral fortune, then 2004, with the masthead slogan of “Shining India”, marked the turning point – its further journey downward. The party is evidently confronted with some fundamental problems. On the one hand, it has to combine Hindutva with the imperatives of alliance building. Without Hindutva it cannot expand – cannot consolidate and fire up its core constituency, and on the strength of that proliferate. And without coalition building it cannot breach the threshold level of strength in the parliament necessary to capture “power”. And without the (active) backing of state “power” it cannot pursue its Hindutva agenda in any meaningful manner. And coalition building demands moderating the Hindutva pitch. That’s a Catch 22 situation. It is not easy to climb out of the trap. Conceivably only a vigorous and successful plunge for Hindutva can make that possible. But how does one build up the cranking momentum without a sympathetic “power”? There is also another problem which is far less recognised.

The Hindutva politics itself has all at the same time two very divergent dimensions. On the one hand, it is deeply conservative. Stoutly upholds and promotes a hierarchically, and asymmetrically, structured socio-political order in tune with the “traditions”. On the other, it also embodies militancy of street mobilisation. Mobilisation based on rabid hatred and open violence against designated “enemies”. And the RSS, the parent organisation of which the BJP is the mass political front, acts as the ideological/moral(!) fulcrum. The RSS, largely insulated from the vicissitudes – compulsions and “corruption” – of electoral politics, remains firmly wedded to its Hindu Rashtra project – the project of appropriating and dismantling the “secular democratic” republic of India and supplant it with a “Hindu” nation state. And militant street mobilisation is an inalienable element of this profoundly counter-revolutionary project. This, in a way, tends to conflict with the “conservative” instincts. But, far more importantly, with a palpable rise in living standards of the Indian “middle class” over the last two/three decades, the lure of militant politics whether of the Right or Left variety – has lost much of its appeal. Not that there are no other mitigating factors. But that’s a growing problem the BJP/RSS will have to nevertheless contend with. And one manifestation would perhaps be intensifying tussle between “moderate” conservatives and radical proponents of Hindutva.

Stalinist Left in Distress

Now let us have a look at the electoral debacle of the Left. On the national scale the number of seats won by the four Left parties, constituting the Left Front, has come down from 59 to 24 – down to about two fifth. That’s a drastic reduction. The seats of the leading partner, the CPI(M) has been reduced from 43 to 16. The vote share has dropped from 5.66 to 5.33. But that’s somewhat deceptive. In its bastions, West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura vote shares are down far more appreciably.

The case of West Bengal, where the Left Front is uninterruptedly in power for the last 32 years, is the most dramatic and illustrative. Here, in terms of vote share, the Left Front has lost 7.5% points (and the TMC has gone up by 10.2% points). The CPM alone lost 5.5% points in vote share, dropping from 38.6% to 33.1%, and its allies in the Left also shed 2%, so that the front’s combined vote share came down from 50.8% last time to 43.3% this time. As against that, Trnamool + Congress polled (31.18 + 13.45 =) 44.63%. (And Trinamool’s junior ally, SUCI, maybe somewhere between 1.25 and 1.5%.) As a consequence, in terms of seats, the CPI(M) is down from 26 to 9. And the three allies from 3 to 2 each. As per one reported estimate, the Trinamool-Congress combine has now established lead in as many as 183 assembly segments whereas only in May 2006, the Left Front had been voted to power in the state for the seventh successive time, with 235 out of the total 294 seats in its kitty. That’s a dramatic reversal of fortune by any standard. The electoral tying up of the Trinamool and the Congress is only a part of the story. The Left’s loss of leftist identity, which had earlier formed the bedrock of its accession to “power” and further consolidation during the initial years through land reforms and playing a supportive role to trade union struggles, through Singur, Nandigram and the likes and exponentially escalating brute arrogance of power are the other two key elements. The huge joke called the “Third Front” scrambled together by the Karat and co., involving alliances with the likes of Chandrababu Naidu, Jayalalitha and Mayawati, must also have had further eroded the “leftist” credibility and credentials.

Given the iron grip of the Left – the CPI(M) for all practical purpose – over the state, this sudden reversal cannot but be a prelude to its dramatic collapse in the next assembly election two years hence. Paralleling the virtually overnight crumbling of the Stalinist regimes in East Europe about two decades back, between 1989 and 91. Only the Trinamool, or rather its mercurial leader, can now act as the grand saviour. Be that as it may, Bengal, as it appears, is inching towards a bloody and turbulent future. The indications are too strong to be missed.

The Others

As regards the parties other than the Congress and the BJP (and the Left), who are mostly dubbed as regional parties, it’s a mixed and complex story. In so far as the combined seat share of the Congress and the BJP has gone up this time, as has already been noted above, they have suffered some decline. But in terms of vote share the picture is somewhat different. And even in terms of seats while the RJD and the LJP have been dealt with severe blows, the BJD, the JD(U) and the Trinamool Congress have performed quite creditably. The DMK, in Tamil Nadu, has done much better than predicted. And in terms of vote share, the debutants Praja Rajyam party in AP (16%) and the MNS in Maharshtra, and in Mumbai (21%) in particular, have more than made their marks.

Relevant Sidelights

This time the representation of women in the Lok Sabha has gone up from 45 to 58, an all-time high, and yet stands at a paltry 10.68%. The Muslim, representation, amid victory cries for secularism, has gone down from 36 to 28. An all-time low, mere 5.16% as against the population of over13%.

The states have exhibited considerable divergences in voting patterns. (In India, the states vote as broadly coherent units notwithstanding regional variations within. To clarify, the variations within a particular state are at a considerably lower level as compared to that between two neighbouring states. The state-based parties provide a part of the explanations.) For examples, contrary to the broad trend, the BJP did pretty well in Karanataka and Himachal Pradesh. (And it just got washed away in next-door Uttarakhand.) Somewhat similarly, the CPI(M) could manage to retain its position in tiny Tripura despite erosion in vote share. In UP, the Congress upped its vote share by 6.3% points (more than expected) to 18.3% and yet bitter rival BSP also gained 2.7% (even if less than expected) to 27.4%.

Back to the Mandate

All in all, the aggregate results have swung significantly in favour of the Congress – through the weakening of not only the main challenger but also many of its erstwhile “meddlesome” and “troublesome” allies. Never mind that the pro-people measures taken by the previous government – visibly under pressure from some of these “troublesome” allies and, arguably more than that, “civil society” groups – have understandably stood it in good stead. The Forests Rights Act, national pension scheme for the self-employed and others, the amended Domestic Violence Act, Right to Information Act etc., and the NREGA and waiver of farm loans in particular. The aggregated “mandate”, this time, is apparently for some “moderation” – as expressed through the rejection of the Right and decimation of the Left. Perhaps, also to an extent, for “good governance” – as distinct from “pro-people” governance. Sheila Dixit, Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik, Yeddyurappa are arguably the major markers. An indication of the deepening social-political weight of the burgeoning “new” middle class – under structural transformation – in transit from “agitational” to “aspirational” mode. It’s, however, an intricate and complex picture.

But, to be sure, there is nothing sacrosanct about such “mandates”. Notwithstanding cacophonous clichés as regards the innate “wisdom” of the quintessential Indian voter, if this time the mandate is for “moderation”, or in 1977 it had been, in a far more dramatic way, for “democracy”; then in 1984 India had voted spurred by and hugely endorsing genocidal rage and hatred. Also let us think of 1999 general election or 2002 Gujarat assembly election. Just to illustrate the vacuity of this oft-repeated inanity.

Those who are concerned about and engaged with the progressive transformation of society towards a more humane order will, however, have to take a hard look at the reality as it actually stands by wiping off the mist in the eyes.

That’s the basic requirement for going further ahead.

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