BEHIND THE NUMBERS
This is one election result that has gone down well with the international media and observers. Most India watchers have welcomed the decisive mandate for the Congress. And why not? This has been the Congress’s best showing, in terms of seats, in several years. But the general reading of the poll results seem to be off the mark. The mandate is being commonly interpreted as a vote for stability and economic reform and a rejection of centrifugal policies as represented by regional parties and castebased populism. This has found resonance in India too. One commentator in these pages described the election as a “game changer”. And L K Advani has said the results foreshadow a two-party system. But the results don’t necessarily support these claims.
Let’s look at the simple arithmetic. The two national parties – Congress and BJP – have together got roughly 47 per cent of the votes, almost the same as the last elections. So the regional parties and the Left still got a combined vote of over 50 per cent, which does not reflect either bipolarity or a resounding vote in favour of the Congress. The real difference this time was the 10 per cent lead the Congress had over the BJP as compared to 4 per cent last time. This was partly responsible for the Congress winning 206 seats. However, the Congress vote share is almost the same as in 1996 and 1999 and nearly 8 per cent less than in 1991.
A striking feature of this election was the strong showing of regional parties, such as the JD(U) and the BJD, which were the governing parties in their respective states. The JD(U) under Nitish Kumar won 20 seats in Bihar and Naveen Patnaik’s BJD totted up an impressive tally of 14 in Orissa. This goes to show not only the continuing strength of regional outfits but also a decline of anti-incumbency, in situations where parties are seen as delivering on governance. Even the DMK bucked the usual trend of anti-incumbency in Tamil Nadu by winning 18 seats as opposed to the AIADMK’s nine.
Indeed, the narrative of a decisive mandate to national parties breaks down when we look at individual states. Uttar Pradesh, where the Congress won an unexpected 21 seats compared to nine last time and increased its vote share from 12 to 18 per cent, is rightly being seen as representing a revival of the party in the Hindi heartland. But most people are ignoring the fact that though the BSP did far worse than expected, it actually increased its vote share in UP by 2.7 per cent to 27.4 per cent. That it won only 20 seats points to the complicated electoral math in UP. At the same time, the Congress revival in UP was offset in neighbouring Bihar where the party won only two seats after it decided to contest on its own.
There were local factors at play, too, in some states. In Maharashtra, for instance, without Raj Thackeray’s MNS hurting the Shiv Sena, the Congress might have won fewer seats. And in Andhra Pradesh, film star Chiranjeevi’s party helped the Congress better its performance from last time though its vote share fell from 41.6 to 39 per cent.
Some analysts have argued that the relatively good showing of the Congress is different from earlier occasions in that the latter were preceded by a major national event. In 1971, Indira Gandhi won a landslide soon after the Bangladesh war; in 1984, the Congress got its biggest mandate ever following Indira’s assassination. But the Mumbai attacks possibly played a similar role. This mandate could be seen as a rejection of the BJP’s divisive politics especially when it sought to politicise the threat of terrorism. 26/11 and its aftermath also led a substantial number of Muslim voters to vote for the Congress instead of parties such as the Samajwadi Party and fringe Muslim outfits.
Finally, the impact of the Congress alliance with the Trinamul Congress – the largest constituent in the UPA with 19 seats – in West Bengal has largely been overlooked in the analysis of election results. The alliance in West Bengal – where the Congress capitulated to the Trinamul’s demands by contesting the bare minimum seats – is a good example of the Congress giving in to the immediate exigency of getting higher numbers in Parliament rather than concentrating on long-term revival. At a time when anti-Left sentiment was at its peak in West Bengal, the Congress chose to cede the opposition space to the Trinamul. It is ironical that the Trinamul, which has over the past year advocated an anti-development and anti-industry line, is a crucial constituent of the Congressled government, which is now expected to steer a path of economic reform.
While the election results might well have been, in the words of a political scientist, the “best possible outcome for India”, here’s a sobering thought. When the Congress won its highest ever majority in 1984, there were justified expectations that it would usher in sweeping changes. But the Congress government failed to live up to expectations. The experience of 1984 should act as a warning for soaring expectations.
Posted by Kiran Batni on May 29, 2009
Ronojoy Sen, a visiting fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, Washington, D.C., writing in today's Times of India, reiterates our message that the comeback of "national parties" is a myth. We give the full article of Mr. Sen here, since there is much to to take away from it (highlighting is ours):