By Swapan Dasgupta
For a country confronted by two formidable challenges—an economic downturn of colossal proportions and a security threat stemming from a turbulent neighbourhood—the outcome of the general election is reassuring for two reasons. First, the election has led to a stable government that will not have to succumb endlessly to the irritations of coalition politics and the threat of a mid-term breakdown; and secondly, it has produced a broad national mandate and not been reduced to a clumsy aggregate of different state elections.
The second point is particularly significant in view of the fears that the idea of India was not being translated into political reality. The election result should go some way towards forcing our leaders to be mindful of regions but also think nationally.
Regardless of the fact that there was no outright majority for any pre-poll alliance, Election 2009 was an unqualified victory for the Congress. Contrary to initial fears of greater political fragmentation, the Congress has succeeded in renewing itself quite spectacularly. It has won seats from all corners of the country and its gamble of distancing itself from regional players with personalised agendas has paid handsome dividends. Its decision to persist with Prime Minister’s image of innate decency has proved a success, as has been its emphasis on the youth vote. In hindsight, the decision to have no truck with the Left was applauded by the people of West Bengal and Kerala. No wonder, Mamata Banerjee was unquestionably the woman of the match.
In 2004, the Congress didn’t win the election, the BJP lost it. Election 2009 is the nearest India has come to a positive mandate since Atal Bihari Vajpayee won the day in 2009. With an estimated nine per cent swing in its favour, the Congress will be justified in treating the verdict as its victory.
Predictably, a mandate of this nature comes with onerous responsibilities. Spared the torture of having to constantly accommodate sectional demands, the new government has no choice but to perform. Having won the “weak” versus “strong” debate conclusively—the PM’s contribution to the victory should not be underestimated—Manmohan Singh must now live to the faith reposed in him and actually exercise the tough options. Will he take steps to curb a fiscal deficit that has become unmanageable? Will he inject a sense of urgency into the security establishment so that terrorists, and not citizens, become the hunted? The voters have been very generous to an incumbent government which allowed too many things to drift in the past five years. But the season for excuses ended on Saturday afternoon.
This has been a terrible election for the BJP. It is not merely that a truncated NDA performed worse than in 2004 but that two consecutive general election defeats has shown up its shortcomings more starkly. The BJP was lax about reading the writing on the wall in 2004 and lulled itself into believing that anti-incumbency would do the trick. It tried to juggle between the imperatives of a modern party with a strong policy thrust and the comforts of old certitudes. The end result was an identity crisis that led to the loss of allies, its absence from a large swathe of India and the truncation of a hitherto reliable middle class vote. In the 1990s, the BJP was the natural party of the youth; today the Congress is the beneficiary of India’s demographic transformation. The party must ask why the children of BJP voters aren’t comfortable voting for the BJP.
After the 2004 defeat, the BJP desisted from asking the hard political questions that arise after a defeat. The belief that organisational consolidation alone can secure victory is self-deluding. The party’s surge in the 1990s and the Congress’ awesome performance in Uttar Pradesh weren’t on account of organisation. Voters are moved by politics. In the process a ramshackle organisation gets thrown up. The BJP must once again ask the question it once addressed but has conveniently forgotten to ask of late: is it content to being a sectional player or does it want to be a serious contender for power?
If it wants to be a serious challenger to the Congress in the coming years, the party would avoid preaching to the converted. There is a vast constituency in India that is instinctively uncomfortable with the “Congress culture”. Yet, it is uneasy with a party that shows a lack of intellectual depth, shows inconsistency (as on the nuclear deal) and is perceived to be preoccupied with peripheral issues.
As a democracy, India needs both a strong government and a robust opposition. Unfortunately, this election has only thrown up only one of these. Fortunately, even that is a huge step forward.