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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 26, June 13, 2009

Outcome of General Election 2009

Saturday 13 June 2009, by P R Dubhashi

The Unexpected Results

The results of the general election for the fifteenth Lok Sabha belied all expectations and predictions. Most of the exit polls predicted that the Congress would emerge as the largest party but would be nowhere near an absolute majority —not even the UPA, that is, Congress + Trinamul Congress + NCP + DMK. The best hope of the Congress was to get 160 to 170 seats. In actual fact it crossed, for the first time since 1991, the two hundred mark and bagged 206 seats. The UPA caputured 261 seats, just 11 short of an absolute majority. On the other hand, the so-called Third Front and Fourth Front came a cropper. On the eve of the elections, the RJD led by Laloo Prasad, Lok Janshakti Party led by Ramvilas Paswan and Samajwadi Party led by Mulayam Singh Yadav came together and formed a block known as the Fourth Front. They contested all the 120 seats (Uttar Pradesh—80, Bihar—40) leaving the Congress out in the cold. The Lok Janashakti Party was wiped out and its leader, Paswan, himself got defeated in Hajipur which he had once won by an unprecedented majority. The RJD leader, Laloo, once the uncrowned king of Bihar, was defeated in the Pataliputra constituency and managed to defeat Rajiv Rudy of the BJP in Saran by a small margin. His party had a pathetic performance. It won just four seats. The Samajwadi Party managed to win the highest number of seats in Uttar Pradesh but just one more than the Congress which recorded a big comeback.

The Leftist parties took the lead in forming the non-Congress, non-BJP ‘Third Front’ in which they managed to draw in a sundry assortment of regional parties like the TDP, TRS in Andhra Pradesh and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu. They also showed publicly their solidarity with the BJD of Naveen Patnaik in Orissa which had broken away from the NDA. The BSP did not formally join the Third Front but its undisputed leader arranged for the Third Front leaders a dinner at her residence where Prakash Karat of the CPM read out, for her enlightenment, the manifesto of the Third Front. For this generosity of Mayawati, Karat acknowledged her claim for possible future Prime Ministership were the Third Front to form government—he thought it would be capturing more then 100 seats. Pawar of the NCP, while still in the UPA, was seen hobnobbing with the leaders of the Third Front lest he should not lose the advantage if the Third Front’s ambitions were to materialise. The AIADMK leader, Jayalalitha, was expected to sweep in Tamil Nadu decimating the DMK thereby totally reversing the 2004 results justifying the theory of extreme swings in Tamil Nadu politics. But this did not happen. The AIADMK improved its position from zero to nine but the DMK held on winning 18 seats. The PMK of Dr Ramdoss, the proverbial king-maker of Tamil Nadu, deserted the DMK and was reduced to zero. The Telugu Desam, which was expecting to stage a come-back, was in for a bitter disappointment and so also the Telangana Rashtra Samiti of Chandrashekhar Rao. The Congress under Y.S.R. Reddy once again came on top.

It is the Leftist parties which got the biggest thrashing. From sixty seats in the outgoing Lok Sabha, they were reduced to less than half. The CPM lost its thirty-year bastion of unchallenged supremacy in West Bengal. From 35 seats in West Bengal the CPM and its allies were reduced to 15 trailing behind the Trinamul Congress with whom the Congress had aligned. In Kerala, with its pattern of swinging pendulum, the Leftist alliance lost to the Congress-led alliance but the defeat was deadly—the communist alliance got just four seats out of 20.

All the exit polls predicted that the NDA would trail behind the UPA and the BJP behind the Congress and yet depending on its own exit polls the BJP hoped to get 160 to 170 seats and the NDA 215, thinking to be the frontrunner in forming the government. But the BJP was in for a bitter disappointment. Instead of getting twenty more seats over its last results it lost twenty winning just 116 seats and the NDA was below what the Congress got on its own.

What Accounts for the Results?

While the elections were taking place, all observers of the political scene stated that there was no ‘wave’. Now they are saying that there was an invisible ‘surge’ in favour of the Congress party. What accounted for this surge?

The situation was by no means conducive for the Congress party. The memories of the brazen and ferocious terrorist attack on Mumbai on 26/11 were still fresh in the minds of the people and the earlier fierce attacks on Delhi were by no means forgotten. The attack on Mumbai betrayed the shortcomings in government, which despite a series of terrorist attacks on major cities like Bangalore, Ahemedabad and Jaipur, had apparently learnt nothing and made no improvements in the security apparatus. The intelligence was woefully lacking. The police was ill-equipped. Laws were inadequate. There was no well-considered comprehensive strategy to deal with terrorism. Despite the warning given by the expert report about attack from the sea, the Navy and Coastal Guards could not prevent the sea invasion by the terrorists. The ten well-equipped terrorists could hold Mumbai, the financial capital of India, to ransom. The NSG took time to reach Mumbai from Delhi and spent 72 hours to free the city from the horrible grip of the ten terrorists. The Home Minister, Shivraj Patil, had to resign under public pressure on the ground of incompetence while the State Home Minister and Chief Minister had to vacate their posts for their thoughtless utterances and behaviour. These points were brought into sharp focus by an independent candidate like Meera Sanyal. The Shiv Sena and BJP squarely blamed the Congress for making Mumbai a repeated victim of terrorism. Yet the Congress won all the six seats in Mumbai as also the seats in neighbouring Thane. The Congress also won all the seven seats of Delhi. Apparently the voters exonerated the Congress from the ravages of the terrorists.

The economic situation was also not very favourable to the government. The Congress hoped to gain from the high economic growth rate but it sharply came down in the wake of the new recession. The government initially claimed that India will be insulated from the effects of recession. Indian banking, it was claimed, was sound thanks to a good regulatory system. Sonia Gandhi even gave credit to Indira Gandhi for nationalising the banks. When the adverse effects of recession on the Indian economy become visible, when export sectors like gem and jewelary of Surat, leather goods of Kanpur and garment business in different parts of the country suffered a setback and even the flagship of economic growth—the IT sector— started losing business from the overseas banks and multinational companies, the government had to admit the arrival of recession and took measures like reducing CRR and lending rate to improve liquidity and fiscal measures to reduce excise duty across-the-board. These measures were found inadequate and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to promise an additional fresh package, which the UPA Government would take were the voters to bring it back to power.

In the context of the measures to revive the economy the question of bringing back funds parked in non-taxing ‘safe havens’ came to a head. In that context the fact came out that huge funds were held by some affluent Indians in the Swiss Bank. Lal Krishna Advani publicly asked the Prime Minister to bring back these funds and blamed the government of inaction. He thought it would be a big election issue and voters will punish the government for its inaction but this did not happen.

Another issue come handy for the BJP and other Opposition parties when the CBI suddenly withdrew the international ‘red corner notice’ issued against the notorious Italian businessman, Quattrocchi, of Bofors fame. The Law Minister, Hansraj Bharadwaj, publicly justified it saying that the decision was taken on the advice of the Attorney General, Milon Banerji. It was the same Banerji under whose advice the CBI did not appeal to the Supreme Court against the High Court judgement exonerating Quattrocchi in the Bofors case. Earlier the CBI had unfrozen the assets of Quattrocchi and now the withdrawal of red corner notice was the last step to completely free Quattrocchi. The Prime Minister himself stated that the Indian legal system authorities should not be seem to be harassing Quattrocchi when there was no valid legal case against him. This created an outrage but apparently the ordinary voters remained unmoved.

The leader of the BJP and NDA repeatedly attacked Manmohan Singh as the weakest Prime Minister in Indian history. When this was interpreted as a personal criticism of a decent and dignified person in public life, the BJP explained that this was not a personal criticism but of a system where the incumbent of the position was not an elected member of the Lok Sabha and was nominated to the post by the Leader of the Congress party, Smt Sonia Gandhi, who had the last word in every important decision. This devalued the post of the Prime Minister. But apparently this did not carry any weight with the ordinary voter. He saw Sonia and Manmohan getting along well with each other and there was no working at cross purposes. The cohabitation of Sonia as the head of the UPA and the political system and Manmohan Singh as the head of government (though under the guidance of the former) was accepted by the common man and thus the BJP‘s criticism stood blunted.

Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh rebutted the criticism of a weak government by turning the tables on the BJP and Advani as the Home Minister in the NDA Government by referring to the ‘Kandhhar’ episode and the attack on Parliament during the NDA regime. The Kandahar episode was never properly explained by the BJP. Only later, stung by the Congress criticism, Jaswant Singh explained that Advani had opposed the release of the three dreaded terrorists in exchange of the 150 passengers in the hijacked aircraft. Apparantly all parties, including the Congress, wanted the highest priority to be given to the safe release of the captured passengers; hence the release of the terrorists had become inevitable. There is as yet no convincing explanation why the then Minister of External Affairs, Jaswant Singh, had to himself accompany the dreaded terrorists. All in all people apparently feel that the fight against terrorism should not be treated as a party issue, all parties had to join hands in fighting terrorism.

‘Strong government and decisive leadership’ was the slogan on the basis of which the BJP (and NDA) presented themselves under the leadership of Advani. This apparently did not carry weight with the people. This was because the BJP never presented before the people any convincing and comprehensive agenda. The party could not give content to ‘good governance’ and ‘development’ which would attract the people. The BJP itself had not given sufficient thought to it in a manner which would be distinct from the UPA approach. Nor has the BJP been able to explain its linkage with the RSS ‘ideology’. “How is that ideology connected with the government and development?” In my Marathi article published on 20/5 after the BJP defeat I stated that the BJP should undergo ‘kayakalp’, a complete ‘root and branch change’. The BJP did not do any soul-searching but simply lingered on hoping to come back to power in 2009. It did not pay any attention to its role as an ‘Opposition party’ but conceded it to the Left parties which were giving ‘outside support to the government’. It was seen in Parliament to be obstructive and obstreperous. When 2009 arrived it was not seen as a party ready to come back to power. In course of the election propaganda, it was seen to be speaking in many voices. Narendra Modi was seen to be positioned as an alternative to Advani for Prime Ministership. While Advani wanted the party workers not to be overconfident and strident and speak with moderation, young Varun went berserk in his constituency in Pilibhit creating embarrassment for the BJP.

Under the leadership of Prakash Karat, the CPM and other Leftist parties went ahead forming the Third Front of non-Congress and non-BJP parties. It turned out to be ‘a non-starter’ and a ‘parking lot’. Post-election, the CPI-M leader, Sitaram Yechuri, had to be admit that the Third Front was ‘a cut-and-paste’ job not based on any ideological and programmatic coherence. After the results were announced, it rapidly disintegrated. Now in addition to soul-searching the Left parties have to save themselves from a defeat in the homeground of West Bengal and Kerala.

The Leftist parties have to blame themselves for coming to this sorry pass. While supporting the UPA Government from outside, they played the role of the Opposition—opposing the ‘economic reforms’ and ‘the Indo-American nuclear deal’. On the latter point, they withdrew support to the UPA six months before the expiry of the term of the Lok Sabha. Apparently this did not go down well with the electorate. How can a party simultaneously play the role of supporting a government and also opposing it? Nor could the Leftist parties convince the people about the harmful consequences of the so-called ‘economic reforms’ and the nuclear deal.

The reason for the failure is the lack of credibility of the Leftist parties in their own home ground, namely, West Bengal and Kerala. The goal of industrilisation as a means of stimulating growth and creating employment was perfectly laudable. But the way the Buddhadeb Government went about doing it was not. Buddhadeb perhaps thought that he could be Bengal’s Den Xiaopeng and could wrest productive land from farmers using force for the Nano project in Singur and the SEZ in Nandigram. He forgot that what could be done by an authoritarian Government in China cannot be done in India. where a Leftist Government has to function in a democratic environment. Mamata Banerjee and others like Medha Patkar were able to successfully mobilise people‘s agitations against the State and party coercion which forced the government to beat a retreat from which it did not recover till election time.

In Kerala the CPM made an ugly display of internal rivalry between Chief Minister Achuthanandan and party Secretary Vijayan which has continued even after the resounding electoral defeat; this does not bode well for the future of the party.

The results of the elections were a triumph for the leadership of Sonia Gandhi. In 2004 she succeeded in making the Congress the largest party surpassing the BJP and cobbling together a coalition called the UPA which could run the government for its full term of five years. By refusing to be the Prime Minister after the 2004 elections, she gathered, rightly or wrongly, the hallow of renunciation. And now she has brought laurels for the Congress and UPA which almost reached the magic figure of 272. No wonder the UPA drew more outside supporters placing it in a very safe position of forming the government without being exposed to the ugly machinations of regional parties. This is no mean triumph for the leadership of a lady, a foreigner who came to Indira Gandhi’s household as the bride of Rajiv Gandhi. She was not interested in politics and keen to keep her husband Rajiv away from politics. But destiny wished otherwise. Rajiv was forced to succeed Indira Gandhi as the Prime Minister after her tragic assassination. He himself become a victim of the LTTE in the course of an election meeting at Sriperembudur. This was a tragic blow to Sonia Gandhi. She survived it, keeping away from politics and concentrating on bringing up her small children—Rahul and Priyanka. Narasimha Rao was invited out of retirement to lead the Congress in 1991 and serve as the Prime Minister of a minority Congress Government. He kept Sonia away but after the Congress defeat in 1996, the Congress started disintegrating without any leadership. It was at this critical moment that the Congress people approached her to lead them. She was reluctant. She was not groomed for political leadership. She was not much educated. She was not good in Hindi. She haltingly read Hindi speeches written by speech writers. Opponents made fun calling her a ‘reader rather than a leader’. And yet she overcame all these limitations. She galvanised the party with a rare sense of determination and uncanny sense in political decision-making. Slowly the party came to life. If 2004 was a success. 2009 was a triumph.

The role of Rahul Gandhi was also decisive. He became the symbol of the youth in the Congress party. He was able to catch the fancy of the young who constitute the large majority of the population. He rightly placed emphasis on building up the party in all the States, especially in Uttar Pradesh, India’s heartland. This was not an easy task. His visit to the huts of the poor and the Dalits in UP were ridiculed. His failure to win seats in UP in 2004 was projected as an example of his immaturity. He was not particularly good in giving speeches in Hindi nor in learned ideological discourse. Yet he overcame all these limitations and became the party’s star campaigner as well as decision-maker. It was he who took the bold decision that at the national level Congress will go it alone and enter into arrangements only at the State level. In doing so he had the long term goal of building the Congress as a strong all-India party, especially in the Hindi heartland, rather than the short-term goal of winning seats. His strategy proved absolutely right and yielded rich dividend. His experiment in building a young leadership at the grassroots, specially in Punjab, UP and Gujarat, showed tremendous success. Now he is concentrating on this task in all parts of the country rather than joining the government. Surely a bright political future awaits him.

Political and Governmental Stability

It was expected that after such a decisive verdict India will have a cohesive and stable government. Perhaps this was what the electorate wanted. To be sure, voters whether at national, State or even local level, do not sit together and vote for a stable government. But undoubtedly this has been the result of the collective decision of the voters in all parts of the country. The nation has heaved a sigh of relief that it has escaped ugly political negotiations and an unstable government.

But they were in for a jolt. The DMK made exorbitant demands about the number of berths in the Cabinet and when those were not conceded, grandly announced that they would only give outside support. This created a minor hiccup but was overcome, as expected, by a further process of negotiations. This episode was a warning that cohesiveness cannot be taken for granted and parties like the DMK and Trinamul can be truculent and the NCP can cunningly make its own political calculations.

The stability of the government is, however, not an end in itself. It has to be used for working out a comprehensive set of policies and programmes to deal with major challenges facing the nation—terrorism in all forms, turbulence in the neighbourhood, ongoing recession, social and economic inequalities, poor infrastructure, climate change and its consequences, urban degradation and slums, rural poverty and its ramifications, unsatisfactory educational and health services etc. Manmohan Singh is heading a team of 79 not all of whom are equal to their tasks. Galvanising administrative organisation at all levels and freeing it of corruption and lethargy constitute a stupendous undertaking.

The functioning of Parliament leaves much to be desired. Constant turmoil on the floor of the Houses has brought the political class into disrepute in the eyes of the citizens of the country. It is to be hoped that following these elections the parties have learnt a lesson and will behave with a sense of responsibility. The main Opposition should work out a ‘shadow Cabinet’ so that its leading members can participate in the functioning of Parliament with knowledge and a sense of responsibility.

Dr P.R. Dubhashi is the former Vice-Chancellor, Goa University, and an erstwhile Secretary, Government of India. He can be contacted at e-mail: dubhashi(at)giaspn01.vsnl.net.in

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