Some thoughts on the Indian Lok Sabha Elections 2009: [long long post]
Thought 1: It is inevitable that the significance of something as complicated as the Indian elections gets reduced to simple sentences for the sake of comprehension. The one that I have heard being repeated several times is that Lok Sabha elections 2009 are a decisive verdict against region-based politics—that somehow the Indian electorate , as a whole, has sent out a strong message against the “Give my state (and us politicians of course) a special package in exchange for the ten MPs I have and screw the national interest” wheel-dealing that has characterized the rise of the regional parties. And that “all India” parties, and more specifically the grand-daddy of them, the Congress has secured a decisive mandate for “national politics”.
A more accurate summary of the elections, in my opinion, would be that perhaps for the first time the Congress party has been able to honestly assess its own weaknesses and has been able to play the regional party alliance game in a spectacularly successful fashion. The old hubris that characterized its interactions with smaller players has been replaced by pragmatism and as evidenced in the case of Bihar and UP, canny political antennae that enabled it to go against conventional wisdom. So it would be somewhat premature to assert that the regional parties have become weaker or that the people no longer support local agendas. Rather it would be more accurate to say that the Congress has been able to leverage their strategic partnerships in a dramatically more effective manner than they have ever done before in the past and in the process use the power of regional politics to their advantage.
Laloo and Paswan are the archetypal “with friends like this who needs enemies” —the kind of roommates who are forever trying to use your things, eat your food, puke in the sink and ask you to clean and then leak your secrets out to everyone. With Nitish providing a vastly superior administration in Bihar than that provided by Laloo, it was pretty evident that he was going to win big (proving that undisputedly good performance still trumps over everything). Given this, when Laloo gave a humiliating seat assignment to Congress, it saw its chance, said “No thank you” and dropped out of seat-sharing.
This was a masterful move. Because the Congress, under all scenarios, would have little to lose by going it alone in Bihar (it is by itself a marginalized power in the state). If the Congress fell short and Laloo-Paswan did good (which was always a slim possibility), it could always count on Laloo and Paswan coming back, if they were well-compensated (go slow in cases of corruption, ministerial berths).
If however the Congress did badly and so did Laloo-Paswan, then they would be free to offer their portfolios as baits to other successful regional partners, free of the obligation of having to share their apartment with these reprobates. And now with the Congress doing far better than expected , it has the full independence to throw their roommates from hell out onto the pavement. With Laloo today, after months of Congress baiting, sounding a “Can you guys please take us back. I promise to do extra cooking turns” whimper, the Congress moral victory is complete.
Uttar Pradesh was the riskier gambit. The Congress, over the last few decades, had seen some of its greatest enervation in Uttar Pradesh losing its Dalit vote-base to Mayawati-Mulayam, the Bramhin base to the BJP and finally the Muslims to Mulayam and some to Mayawati. Which is why the pundits were stumped when the Congress decided to, like in Bihar, go it alone in Uttar Pradesh. True that the Congress were better placed in UP than in Bihar (where it barely survives) but to push away the Samajwadi Party seemed rather ill-advised.
However this time in UP with the Samajwadi Party’s vague “We are not going out but we are very good friends” relationship with Kalyan Singh of Babri Masjid demolition fame, they potentially damaged their Muslim vote-base. Mayawati’s aggressively Dalit-power rule has also effectively broken the Bramhin part of her rainbow coalition and there too the Congress picked up crucial support. She also lost Muslim support because the Muslims rightfully saw Congress as the party that would be the quicker bet for ensuring reservations than Mayawati, who was a)always an outside shot at PM-ship and b) would not hesitate to get the support of the BJP (as she has done in the past) if it gave her a crack at the top post, the desperation for which she has never made much a secret of.
And finally the “Family” went hammer and tongs to campaign in UP and proved once again how big a factor the Gandhis still are. Make no mistake. UP will be projected as an undisputed victory for the Prince and a sign that he is ready to sit on the throne of Delhi. Which may now be as soon as the next elections.
And then of course the grand alliance with Mamata in West Bengal. The story of 2009. Over the past few election cycles, the numbers showed pretty clearly that in many places the Left was voting almost the same per centage of votes as Trinamool and Congress combined. It made total political sense for the Congress to ally with Mamata and finally in 2009 the Congress was able to swallow its pride and make it happen. Even when Mamata gave it a rather humiliating assignment of seats, unlike in Bihar, they took the slap square on the face because unlike Laloo, they saw a winner in Mamata.
The alliance with Mamata was specially significant because it was only because of strong Central high command pressure that it happened. Mamata, if one recalls, was originally Congress. However her meteoric rise in the early 1990s alienated the more established Congress local chieftains in Bengal. This was more so because many of them had “under-the-table” understandings with the Left (we will make some minor noises if you allow us our area of influence) whereas Mamata was passionately anti-Left with a hysterical vengeance which she has never compromised on. And when Mamata called the local Congress chieftains out as “watermelons” (green on the outside but red on the inside), she burnt her bridges with the local Congress organization and left the party to float her own outfit. This time I am sure the local Congress Dadas must still have balked at welcoming temperamental Didi back to their fold but Pranab Mukherjee, representing the Family, made sure that Mamata, who is quick to take offense, was always treated with kid gloves.
And Mamata has paid them back not only with a massive number of seats but also with a stinging slap to the face of the Left, who have spared no effort to sabotage and bring to a standstill the UPA government at every possible opportunity over the last five years.
Dr. Manmohan Singh does not come across as a particularly vengeful man given to dancing on the graves of his fallen enemies. But somewhere somehow I feel that with the egg dripping off the face of Karat and Yechury, there is a quiet smile of satisfaction on his face.
Thought 2: On the subject of West Bengal, it was indeed frustrating to hear “experts” on TV getting it consistently wrong in their analysis. Based on my understanding of the state’s politics (having spent 23 years in that state), this vote is NOT Bengal’s rejection of Marxism as a doctrine or a rejection of the disruptive tactics that characterize “Left” politics. As I have been saying repeatedly over the last few years, Trinamool’s popularity in Bengal rests on the fact that they are now the true “Left” in that it is they who oppose industrialization and foreign investment whereas the CPM is perceived as the bourgeois party that facilitates for multi-nationals. Nandigram and Singur have established Mamata’s “leftist” bonafides to Bengal and this victory is a recognition of the fact. If Rajdeep Sardesai thinks, in his gleefully gloating style that Tripura is the last Communist bastion left, well he may do well to meet one Kabir Suman , newly-elected TMC MP from Jadavpur, who is about as radically Left as a human being can be.
Trinamul Congress today is the CPM of 30 years ago. Plain and simple.
Mamata’s big win can be ascribed to:
1. The fear of landless farmers that the government was out to grab their land, land which they technically did not own but were tenants on. Which made them legally vulnerable to any attempt to acquire the land if the owners were willing to sell.
2. The partial dissipation of the fear of CPM cadres. With the massive bashing up of CPM activists in Nandigram and Singur, the fear of the CPM has been broken in the rural areas. Villagers suddenly realize “Look they too bleed” and TMC goons, many of whom were “Marxian revolutionaries” a few months ago, are as powerful and as much a law unto themselves as the dreaded Reds.
3. Mamata’s strategy of going after the Muslim vote in rural Bengal, a constituency which turned her back on her when she was a BJP ally. It should be recalled that many of the landless laborers who formed the first line in the struggle against the Left during Nandigram/Singur were Muslims.
4. The urban white-dhoti “intellectuals” and “natyokormis” (theatre-activist-types) for whom the Left under Buddha-babu has strayed away from its revolutionary path.
5. An urban demographic (and I would count myself to be one of these) who even though they detest Mamata and her brand of destructive politics and her total lack of any kind of administrative acumen (when Mamata, whose only achievement so far in more than two decades of politics has been to close things down, promises to make Darjiling Switzerland and Calcutta London one indeed feels the urge to start laughing uncontrollably) and even though they feel sympathetic for Buddha-babu, despite his arrogance and his support for the Left cadre, do recognize the fact that is an election to the Center and not the State. A vote for the Left, they reason, would effectively be a vote for the Third Front and perhaps a vote for someone like Mayawati as a PM. Which many urbanites in Kolkata are just not willing to go along with.
They also look at the Left at the Center (Karat and Yechury) as very different from the Left at the State(Buddhadeb). While Buddha is personally honest and does try to do some half-decent things, the diabolic duo of Karat and Yechury have little sympathy among many educated Bengalis of my generation. For them, their inglorious record during the nuclear deal when they made no secret of the fact that one of the reasons they opposed the deal was because they perceived it as a gesture to threaten China and their overall arrogance and pompousness is reason enough to cut them down to size, even if it means voting for Mamata.
Come assembly election time I would be curious to see how this urban demographic behaves.
Thought 3: True that the Congress played the alliances well. True they got some good fortune in UP. But that is not the whole story. The Congress by itself played a good game. First they were able to put into place populist schemes like NREGA that translated into votes. Their loan forgiveness program has been a hit.They championed reservations which brought back many OBCs to their fold, many of whom had migrated to the Dalit parties. They have aggressively championed reservations for Muslims and the effect of that can be seen, among other places, in UP with both Mulayam and Megalomania-wati bleeding votes. Now I hope they latch onto the DMK’s scheme of distributing free TVs of course bought on taxpayer tab and go one better and hand out free DVD players also.
Thought 4: The BJP blew it. Bigtime. Normally much more nimble and pliable than the Congress with respect to local alliances, this time they started it off with their biggest mistake. By its radical activities in Orissa and by its cavalier attitude towards its relationship with Naveen Patnaik. In Mumbai, Shiv Sena and MNS ate into the “manoos” votebank while Sheila Dixit’s goodwill in Delhi wiped the BJP out in another traditional stronghold. Rajasthan was a stunning reversal and when BJP cannot even carry Gujarat with Modi at the supposed height of his powers, then yes there is a crisis.
National security is primarily an urban middle/upper class concern—the people in the villages dont care too much for it. The biggest failure of the Congress government has been in protecting its borders. The BJP had a slam-dunk issue right there for the cities. Except that they failed to articulate what strategy they had to ensure security. Repeating the old chestnut of more stringent laws (which have historically not worked) just did not cut the cake.
As a means of mobilizing the “base” some half-hearted mentions of the Mandir were made by Advani but the Mandir issue is just too 90s, like the Spice Girls, to have any further resonance. There too the BJP lost out unable to convince the electorate what it stood for as a party.
In addition, the BJP also pushed away a section of their urban middle-class constituents who can be described as “soft right wing” or “right of center” by their support for Varun Gandhi. A lot of people I know belong to this category. They dislike the Congress for their pandering and for their neglect of the urban middle class. They are aware of the Congress’s dismal record on urban violence. They are attracted to the BJP’s more solid commitment to policies (as opposed to handouts) of relevance to urban India, at least in comparison to the Congress.
The only thing that prevents them from putting their stamp on the lotus has been the radical hard Right section of the party. Vajpayee, with his demeanor as a statesman and a moderate, was a master at bringing this section over to the BJP.
L K Advani in contrast totally dropped the ball and pushed these “undecided but Right leaning” right into the Congress lap. When he had the opportunity to take the high road on Varun Gandhi’s inflammatory speech and present the “softer face”, he chose to stay more or less silent thus confirming the “right of center” voter’s worst fears.
In the final analysis, I would say this definitely cost the BJP.
Another thing that cost the BJP among the urban elite was its relentless vituperative personal attacks on the Congress—from “budiya” to “nightwatchman”. In a country where respect for elders is still a virtue, this kind of rather crass attack on people like Dr. Singh, who is universally considered to be a man of high moral character regardless of whether you agree with his politics, was also a bit of a PR disaster for them.
A lot of introspection needs to be done by the BJP party bosses. Serious questions should be raised about their leadership. A new generation of leaders with flair and urban appeal need to be brought in (like Arun Jaitley) to compete with the Rahul Gandhis, Shashi Tharoors, Jyotiraditya Scindias and the Kapil Sibals.
However to those thinking that these elections have definitively finished the BJP as a national force , then I would say you are making a costly mistake on the order of magnitude of the ones that the BJP has made this time.
Thought 5: Jaya Prada has won her seat and so hopefully woh “suicide ka plan drop kar chooki hain”. I am personally so happy at this that I cannot help but sing “Aa Khushi Se Khud Kushi Kar Le” (song from “Darling”).
Thought 6: The Great Suman has been “khamoshed” by the Shotgun. Thank you God. Losers and Sekhars anyone?