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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 24, May 30, 2009

Lok Sabha Poll 2009: UPA Returns to Power

Tuesday 2 June 2009, by Kamala Prasad


The election to the 15th Lok Sabha has thrown up some surprises. Predictions have been proved unrealistic. It is time to put the outcomes in perspective.

The leader of the winning coalition has called the outcome “historic”. Manmohan Singh, though not fighting for a seat, has declared it a “massive mandate”. The Congress party General Secretary and in charge of UP State has read in it signals for an end to the era of regional, identity parties. If these readings are valid, then, the election should herald a structural break from the past. How realistic are these assertions?

WHY Historic?

A truncated UPA can rightly claim victory. In fact the Congress picked up an alliance on the eve of the election in West Bengal. But two of the participating parties, the RJD and LJSP, parted on the issue of seat-shares in Bihar. The Samajwadi Party in UP, which had joined the coalition late on the crucial issue of the Indo-American nuclear power deal to save the coalition from collapse, also separated on the same issue. Members of the Bihar party pleaded that they remained committed to the UPA and continued to be in the Ministry. In effect then the Congress party claim, that it alone decides who is part of the UPA and who is not, remains a classic reading of the meaning of “coalition Dharma” and so historic for parties across the political spectrum to debate for the future. Contrast the meaning in comparison with the past for clarity of the term ‘historic’. The 1967 elections to both the Lok Sabha and the State Assemblies (held simultaneously) could fit the sense—North Indian States and Tamil Nadu started their journey of the coalition system at the State level. West Bengal had a more chequered struggle before it settled on a stable coalition system in 1977. The 1977 election outcome was historic at the Central level for a similar reason. It heralded the end of the Congress hegemony on power at the Union level after three decades of continuous run. The 1989 election outcome fits the definition since it heralded the start of the coalition system at the level of the Union Government and there is no break in it even after this election. In short, then, there is nothing historic about the outcome of the current election.

Meaning of the Mandate?

India has been running, for some time, a two-coalition system. The NDA has been worsted and conceded defeat. But the “massive mandate” must rest on some parameter more substantial than this fact. One has to look back again. The 1971 mandate to the Indira Congress was a massive one in terms of seats as also in terms of issues on which the election was fought. On the question of issues again the 1977 verdict delivered a quality mandate. The 1984 result was a clear and massive mandate in terms of seats won. The 1989 one was a really fractured mandate but it related to issues of corruption, affirmative action and alternative coalition system. The present verdict is neither “massive” nor is it a clear one.

Massive is clear enough. Absence of clarity applies to issues in the election and the end sought. From all accounts this was an election without issues. As campaigning proceeded national issues, political as well as economic, receded into background. It became merely an existential struggle between the Congress and the BJP. Allies fought their own battles. There was no cohesion among them. In fact, insofar as the UPA was concerned, questions were raised about the choice of the post-election leader too. To the extent the leadership issue is no longer being raked up, the Congress party has received the mandate within the alliance through the strategy of big partners trying to defeat the smaller partners. Finally, despite all this, the UPA does not have a majority. It has to take either some smaller party or Independents to obtain a stable majority. In respect of the game of numbers, the election has thrown up a confusing mandate.

When it comes to policy, the confusion is already in the open. Business and corporate India are already setting the agenda. The Congress party, on the other hand, had unfolded a largely ‘populist’ agenda without reference to any firm source of income. There is expectation raised about further ‘stimulus’ to overcome the recessionary trends. According to the Planning Commission, in the year gone by such stimulus should have added two-to-three percentage points to finally project the GDP growth of 6.5 per cent. In this fiscal, the projection so far is for a five-to-six per cent growth for the GDP. The government would be moving on the slippery path of living beyond means. We would be back to where the Congress started with economic reforms with “fiscal consolidation” as the top agenda. And there is the demand raised for accelerating “reforms” that is desired by the corporate sector and these would include steps that reduce the cost of bank lending. Lack of policy debate either in manifestoes or in campaigning will cost us dear. That is the meaning of the mandate.

Future of Regional Parties

Does the mandate signal the decline of regional parties and their final withering away? The UPA has in its fold the original and genuine regional party, the DMK. It will depend on the NCP and TMC, the offsoots of the Congress but now regional parties. The BJP will take all measures to retain the conglomerate called the NDA with a host of regional parties. Thus, the present dispensation does not show any decline in the regional parties’ existence or growth. If anything, a regional party in Bihar has done very well; another in Orissa has shown its clout without the help of any national party. In Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK will now be represented in the Lok Sabha. The Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab, BSP in UP, AGP in Assam remain in business and ruling in UP and Punjab.

It would seem that Digvijay Singh was relating decline to the performance of regional parties in AP, Maharashtra, UP and Bihar where the Congress has gained at their cost. This is premature. The Congress performance in AP is significant but the emergence of the Praja Rajyam party has something to do with it. In Maharashtra, the MNS, a splinter group of the Shiv Sena and a party with very strident agenda, has delivered some solace to the Congress. When the MNS opened its campaign against North Indians in the State it was suspected that the ruling Congress-NCP alliance government had something to do with this development. The BSP has retained the strength it had in the last Lok Sabha. What is more, it has increased its vote share. The SP has lost seats but remains the largest seat-getter in the State. The Congress has made gains at its cost but the factors that led to this development were internal. In Bihar, the RJD and LJP were predicted to lose heavily. Their joining together and splitting with the Congress had nothing to do with it. The beneficiary in the State is the other regional party, the JD(U). The Congress has slipped in its seat share to just two. And yet, it would be shortsighted to write their obituary since they stand on strong social bases and identity politics. The Congress’ wish is wishful at best and far off the mark otherwise.

Congress and the Rest

The Left parties, most significantly the CPI-M, has lost heavily. From a tally of about sixty in the last Lok Sabha the Left formation has been reduced to just 25. The Congress had been indicating till the end of the campaigning that it was prepared to do business with the Left if needed. But after the election results were out Congressmen have been expressing happiness at its debacle. Worse still is the reaction of the business lobbies and mainstream media as though the Left is untouchable. This should be surprising as though assuming that the Congress is a party without ideology of its own and its policies are to serve just business interest. The reality, past and present, would indicate otherwise. In the past, Communists had offered support to Congress governments at crucial points. The UPA sustained power for more than four years on support from the Left. It did not ask for anything in return except some sense of following sensible policies that were inherent in the gradualist process of “economic reforms” in India. In a way, the Left role has been to give advance warning about risks in the process that should be taken as integral to reducing social tensions. Parliamentary accountability remaining what it is, such soundings are needed in our demo-cratic system.

Let there be no mistake about the “middle path” politics and economic reforms, as Narasimha Rao noted once. During this election, the Congress party in its radio promotion publicity focused on the bank nationalisation of 1969 and the mass welfare activities such as NREGP undertaken by the UPA to which the Left contributed. India has received laudatory references for not getting into a mess during the current global recession and the Left contribution to this development has not been insignificant. Surprisingly, Kamal Nath has taken credit for the government advancing assistance to banking undertakings shattered by the global meltdown whereas in India the banks are advancing resources to the government to meet its welfare commitments! The Left’s consistent policy objection to accelerating dilution of equity in public sector banks must receive credit for it. The Left would seem to remain relevant in the country in the light of private business not quite responsive to welfare needs. The Left sustains, in this scenario, the Left-of-Centre image of the UPA.

Why did the Left lose so heavily? The reasons are essentially internal. In the larger State of West Bengal its government pursued the misguided policy of rapid industrialisation. What is more, it showed lack of sensitivity to the farmers’ strong resistance to forcible land acquisition. Further, its irresponsible cadres engaged in aggressive support to the government’s misguided policy and the State Police remained either a mute spectator or an active supporter. The government lost the sustained support of the rural constituency it had strengthened. It was alienated from its urban intellectual base as well. All this provided the TMC a readymade opportunity to drive a wedge between its natural constituency and the party. Finally, the lower cadres had been corrupted by long years of the party being in power and the party finally awaited the fate that has brought it humiliation. In Kerala, the continuing face-off between the Chief Minister and the State party chief remained without solution. A disciplined party provided the strange spectacle of cadre energy dissipated in internal war rather than devoting to party strength. The tiny State of Tripura did not suffer from either disability and has retained its sway. Let it be noted that the massive decline in popular vote was in West Bengal; in Kerala there was no such erosion. In fact, the CPI was able to increase its vote share relative to the 2004 election.

There was the failure of the central party structure to intervene effectively to douse local fires. It failed further in seeking the opportunity for expansion in new areas through alliance with parties of all descriptions. Behind all this, there was confusion and no clarity of its goals. It was organising opposition against the Congress and yet giving signals that it will under no circumstance compromise with the NDA. It did not present the picture of a serious party in pursuing its core objectives. In substance, then, the Left proved to be its own worst enemy. This being the position, Communists should not be written off. They retain the capability to fight back and regain their ideological edge and welfare relevance. The Left should, perhaps, seek rejuvenation in agreeing to consolidation of Communist outfits that are inclined to pursue representation politics. That may be the path to expand its sway in other parts of India where they are working as fringe parties. They should try to reclaim the intellectual edge that they have lost recently.

Election and Development

One of the issues hotly pursued is that of the contribution of governmental activities to electoral performance. This factor has been sharply focused in the victory of the Congress in AP, of the BJP-JD(U) in Bihar and the BJD in Orissa. There is substantial truth in this formulation. At the core is, however, not development but how the government machinery interacts with the beneficiaries and how the political establishment establishes rapport with the masses. But this edge comes from a tight control over the law and order machinery. Naveen Patnaik was able to surmount the adverse impact of the Kandhamal riots by snapping his relations with the BJP that was seen to be behind it. Nitish Kumar has kept the BJP under tight leash and the latter has played ball. AP is a more complex scenario and not that straightforward.

But, if development alone is so critical, then a party in Opposition cannot hope in the Indian context to gain power. Initial analysis of vote share by parties would indicate that the scenario is more complex. Vote share contribution is shared by caste as being of continuing relevance; commitment to affirmative action, a variant of which the Congress has unfolded in the new focus on Muslims; at least some show of tackling corruption at the administrative as well as political levels and quick response framework to tackle public grievance. No political party may pass the test. That being so, the strength of alternative economic offerings and political empowerment strategy by parties in the Opposition are relevant. Mayawati did not meet this criterion and has been frittering away her energy and State resources without any clear objective that people can observe as serving their interest. This election has not thrown up any party that can meet this challenge. The reason why incumbency is being renewed in State after State is due to absence of political alternatives. This is a sad state of affairs. There is some lesson in the two large national parties garnering just two per cent more popular vote than in the last election in 2004. The Congress also has not done well nationally as a superficial reading of additional seats and vote share in specific pockets would indicate.

As a result, the larger Congress win is on negative vote more than on positive vote. A reason why the party is strongly focusing on the personality of Rahul Gandhi is just that. Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and even Priyanka Vadra have been played up much by the national media as well. There is heavy investment in propping up the dynasty and strengthening the case for dynastic succession. It is difficult to judge how much contribution has really been made by these and other personalities to the Congress victory. The image of the Congress party with very limited talent has been strengthened by the outcome of this election. There is no doubt that the BJP has proved incompetent in focusing on more real issues and wasting much less energy in negative campaigning. Its dividend from a socially divisive agenda cannot go up any further. And its loss from diminishing return has given that bit of extra mileage to the Congress. It should not be ignored that these two parties are pursuing a common agenda of promoting a two-party system in which they should be the two poles. The negative campaigning of the BJP has served that objective well.

The author, a distinguished administrator, is a former Chief Secretary of Bihar (now retired).

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