Foreign Affairs

India polls demystified

March 10, 2012

Due to sheer coincidence, an earthquake shook New Delhi a day before the results of the assembly elections in five states were announced. Many took this as a signal that a political tsunami would sweep away the dreams of major ruling party, the Congress, in the polls. The prediction, to the dismay of the Indian grand old party, turned almost true. The results shattered Congress’ dreams of reviving its base in the highly significant state of Uttar Pradesh (UP).

Elsewhere, the western state of Goa saw the fall of Congress-led government tainted by  mining and other corruption scams. The main opposition party at the centre, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), gained a comfortable majority to rule this tourist hub. The hopes of Congress to form government in Punjab also went awry as the voters retained the incumbent ruling coalition of regional party Shiromani Akali Dal and BJP in the leading position. It was the first time Punjab decided to continue with an incumbent government since the reorganisation of the state in 1966.

Uttarakhanda did bring a bit respite for Congress, but with immense difficulties. Congress, which is only a seat ahead of BJP, does not have a majority and is forced to woo difficult opposition parties and independents to form a government there. The volatile northeast state Manipur with an absence of a strong opposition bloc, however, proved to be a gentle breeze over Congress’ woes. The voters there chose to continue with the same party in power for three consecutive terms.

Despite the consolation prize, the verdict of the latest assembly polls, in a nutshell, went hugely against Congress. ‘Anti Congress’ was the bold headline by the leading daily Indian Express, corroborating a ‘rout in UP, defeat in Punjab, Goa ; struggle in Dehradun( capital of Uttarakhand)’. There is also nothing for another national party BJP to be happy about as it could not even retain its previous position in UP and Uttarakhand, although it managed a consolation victory in Goa and will continue to rule with its ally Akali Dal in Punjab.

The rise of regional parties, on one hand, speaks galore about the failure of national parties to address local grievances and the lack of reliable local leadership. On the other hand, it is also set to make Indian polity and policy-making more complex. India, while vying for a central stage in global arena, requires quick decision making abilities and speedy reforms. For this, consensus among political forces on significant policies is a must. Consensus is bound to be more difficult with stronger regional blocs. Recent opposition by big states ruled by non-Congress parties over the formation of National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) is an example of the complex policy environment the centre will have to manage.

The endeavors of Manmohan Singh-led government to implement its economic reform plans have repeatedly hit a snag due to a strong opposition from own coalition partner like Trinamool Congress, which emerged as the biggest force of West Bengal last year. The opposition from regional parties has, in many occasions, brought the centre on the right track. Nevertheless,  chances are that many good policies brought by the centre will fall prey to the ambition of powerful regional leaders.

The assembly elections results remain significant in other ways. These polls, seen as ‘Mini referendum’ for the 2014 parliamentary elections, are certain to lead to introspection and new strategies. The anti-Congress feelings reflected in these polls also spoke in volumes about people’s dissatisfaction towards United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, espcially its failure to tame rising prices and corruption scams.

The Congress is tainted with high-profile scams related to telecom licenses, Commonwealth Games and Adarsha Housing, and attacks aimed at the party are certain to intensify in coming days.  Various fronts, the opposition parties and Anna Team, among others,  have already interpreted the latest results as punishment given to the ruling party for its ‘failure to control corruption and bring a strong anti-corruption legislation Lokpal’.

The demands for mid-term parliamentary elections, too, seem to intensify as other parties (including the UPA allies like Trinamool) try to do their best to take advantage of wave against the largest party. Indicating such possibility is latest comment by the Railway Minister and a leader of Trinamool Congress, Dinesh Trivedi. He  claimed on the day after the election that there is a gathering momentum for general elections to be held sooner. The Chief Ministers of Bihar and Orissa, Nitish Kumar from Janata Dal United  and Navin Patnaik from Biju Janata Dal—both harbour ambitions of becoming the next prime minister—are likely to support the call for mid-term polls. Similarly, as it seeks to translate the support in assembly polls to seats in the federal parliament, regional entity Samajwadi Party (SP) is likely to join the chorus.

The woes for Congress do not end here. Its dismal performance in Uttar Pradesh, where the political stakes were  high, raised serious questions about the acceptance of Nehru-Gandhi dynastic politics. The high-voltage election rallies of Nehru-Gandhi scion Rahul and his populist moves to woo the farmers and backward communities did not yield positive results—Congress even lost elections in Gandhi bastion of Amethi and Rae Bareli.

So, here is the clear message of UP polls—unless Congress revises its strategy of projecting Rahul as prime ministerial candidate, the 2014 parliamentary elections could cost the party dear.

Instead of Rahul, UP found its hope of change in another young face—Akhilesh Yadav, the son of veteran ‘Netaji’ Mulayam Singh Yadav. The 39-year-old Yadav became the face of change for the voters, even though his father’s regime five years ago had a bad reputation of ‘goondaraj’. The younger Yadav promised strong rule of law and corruption control. He also committed to throw out SP’s anti-English, anti-computers platform.

Neither Congress nor BJP could capitalise on the anti-incumbency feelings pervasive in UP as Yadav did. Though Mayawati did relatively well to establish rule of law in the state and bring a breeze of economic growth, the Dalit queen paid a heavy price for a series of scams and extravagant expenditures like building her own statues.

The central lesson of the polls is that if the political class fails to fulfill its promises, it will be thrown out sooner rather than later. The polls also proved that the backward classes and minorities cannot be taken for granted as dumb vote banks. They want more economy-centered policies like bijli-sadak-pani-rojgari (electricity, roads, water and employment), rule of law and above all the implementation of the commitments made during elections.

This piece originally appeared in March 11,2012 issue of The Kathmandu Post:Here is the link: