A Closer Look at the Mandate
The success of the Congress and its UPA partners at the hustings have put it in a position to call the shots: fair-weather friends and many foes alike queued up to offer letters of support to the Congress. As we go to press, the Congress and UPA have formed Government; albeit not without some tensions within the UPA partners over ministries.
Let us take a closer look of the performance of the major political players in this election, and the implications of the verdict.
The Rise of Congress and the UPA…
Winning 206 seats, the Congress added 61 seats to its 2004 tally, and also increased its vote share by 2% (to 28.6%). The result came as a surprise to many; certainly, even to the Congress, which, on the eve of the counting, was in overdrive mending fences with estranged friends and seeking out new ones, clearly preparing for the possibility of a hung Parliament.
UP, of course, is the state where Congress registered the most dramatic revival, bagging 21 seats with 18.3% vote share as compared to 9 seats with 12% vote share in 2004.
In Bihar, too, the Congress’ decision to contest independently paid off, where the party won over 10% of the vote share, and which may set the stage for a possible future revival of the party.
Tamilnadu was another state where the UPA alliance surprised the pollsters, with the Congress-DMK alliance defying the expectations of an AIADMK sweep, and registered a decisive win, despite the fact that its erstwhile allies in the 2006 Assembly polls shifted to the AIADMK alliance this time. In Andhra Pradesh too, the Congress emerged dominant both in the Assembly elections as well as in the Lok Sabha. In Maharashtra, too, where expectations were that the Mumbai terror attacks and consequent anger against the Congress-led State Government might benefit the Shiv Sena-BJP combine, the Congress-NCP had a good showing. It is true that in these states, 'spoilers' like Vijaykanth’s DMDK (Tamil Nadu), Chiranjeevi’s PRP (Andhra Pradesh) and Raj Thackeray’s MNS (Maharashtra) cut into opposition votes and helped the Congress. However the fact remains that had there been a sufficiently decisive wave of resentment against state governments ruled by the Congress and its allies in these states, the ‘spoilers’ might not have been able to ‘spoil’. In the case of Mumbai, MNS candidates came out ahead of the Shiv Sena on 8 seats, helping the Congress secure victories – in the South Mumbai seat, in particular, Milind Deora’s narrow win owed much to the MNS role. The results bear out the observation made by many progressive voices at the time of the MNS assaults on North Indian immigrants: the Congress-led State Government, which could have nipped the MNS phenomenon in the bud by decisive steps to curb and punish MNS violence, did not do so on the shrewd calculation that the MNS phenomenon might work to its electoral advantage by dealing a blow to the Shiv Sena-BJP and dividing the anti-Congress vote.
In Gujarat, too, the Congress did reasonably well, winning 11 seats as against the BJP’s 15. BJP might have stayed ahead, but the “Modi magic” did not result in the kind of gains the BJP had been expecting. In Madhya Pradesh too, in spite of the popularity of CM Shivraj Singh Chauhan, displayed in the recent Assembly elections, the Congress won 12 seats, while the BJP won 16 seats – a major drop from the 25 out of 29 seats it won in 2004. In Akali-BJP-ruled Punjab, too, the Congress increased its tally of Lok Sabha seats (8 out of 13 as compared to 2 in 2004) and a better improvement in vote share than that of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and BJP alliance.
The Congress also swept the Congress-ruled states of Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi. The Congress clean sweep in Uttarakhand is certainly a decisive rejection of the ruling BJP State Government led by B C Khanduri. The BJP had won the last Assembly elections riding a wave of reaction against the ostentatiously corrupt Congress Government led by N D Tiwari; but popular resentment – for instance the anger of educated unemployed youth against the refusal of the Khanduri government to fill up some 65,000 vacant posts, benefited the Congress this time.
One clear trend in favour of the Congress was the return of its traditional voters to its fold: dalits, tribals, Muslims and a section of upper castes. This time, the Congress won 44 reserved constituencies in the Lok Sabha polls, whereas, in the last two general elections, it was the BJP which had got the highest number of such seats. In Gujarat, in particular, Congress victories in Bardoli and Valsad indicate a return of tribal voters to the Congress fold.
The shift of Muslim voters away from the SP and BSP in UP and RJD in Bihar towards the Congress is also notable. In Delhi, too, Muslim voters favoured the Congress. In Madhya Pradesh, the voting percentage of Muslims is said to have gone up to 65-70 per cent and even up to 90 per cent in some areas, and this benefited the Congress in a large number of seats.
The fact of Congress resurgence has met with different interpretations and responses. On the one hand, you have the pro-corporate ideologues exultantly declaring the mandate to be a vindication of neoliberal and pro-US policies, and a rebuff of ‘anti-development’ and ‘anti-US’ forces, especially the Left. The Left, they say, has been punished for clinging on to obsolete ideas of ‘imperialism’ and for being a drag on liberalisation policies. Such interpretations and responses are patently self-serving and self-contradictory too. For instance, the pro-corporate ideologues have got a chance to indulge in wholesale Left-bashing precisely in the wake of the crumbling of the CPI(M)’s W Bengal fortress. But can such ideologues tell us why did the CPI(M) lose West Bengal? Precisely because people of W Bengal voted overwhelmingly against CPI(M)’s espousal of pro-liberalisation policies like SEZ and corporate land grab, and its arrogant repression of peasants’ movements, branding them as ‘anti-development’! In fact, the CPI(M)’s refusal to stick to the basic Left principles cost it dearly – allowing the TMC and even Congress to cash in on the powerful peasants’ assertion and democratic sentiment against state repression. Far from proving the demise of the Left agenda of anti-imperialism and resistance to pro-corporate ‘development’, the debacle of the CPI(M) in W Bengal in fact is a living example of the power of people’s movements against pro-imperialist and pro-corporate economic policies, and a lesson to the sections of the Left that betray the people and rally with the corporates.
On the other hand, you have a section of liberal intelligentsia declaring an epitaph for the Left, and exhorting the Congress itself to now take on a “left” mantle upon itself. What of such fond hopes that the Congress will make itself over in a ‘Left’ or social democratic mould? Or the suggestions that the Left would do well to confine itself to tendering ‘positive’ advice for the Congress in its ‘new Left’ avatar, relinquishing the ‘negative’ politics of protests? The Congress, shrewd party of India’s ruling class, did no doubt project a range of ‘human face’ measures – NREGA, loan waiver, Forest Rights Act, manifesto promises of Rs.3 a kg grain, etc, - and notwithstanding a huge deficit in the political will, budgetary backup and actual implementation of these measures, they served to cushion the worst political fallout of the economic crisis imported by the Government on Indian soil as a result of its pro-imperialist economic policies. But if NREGA etc... are a reality, so are the SEZ Act and other policies of corporate land grab, FDI in crucial sectors of the Indian economy, shrinking of the PDS system, espousal of a model of corporate-led, jobless growth, withdrawal of the state from social spending and opening up of agricultural sector. Short of outright reversal of these policies, nothing can stem the flood of joblessness, farmers’ suicides, hunger, unrest over land grab – and it would be delusional to see any signs of wavering in Congress’ commitment to these policies. People may have voted for the stop-gap human face measures: but they certainly have not voted against the struggles demanding reversal of the anti-poor policies. The ‘safety net’ displayed by the Congress in times of severe crisis no doubt served it well in the elections: but as the crisis deepens, a safety net with more holes than rope is likely to be greeted with more determined struggles for policy reversals: struggles that only a committed and revolutionary Left can champion.
Following the Congress victory, US President Barack Obama praised Manmohan Singh, calling him a “wise leader.” An American policy researcher (Jeremy Carl, ‘The election’s real winner,’ Indian Express, May 23, 2009) has declared Washington to be the “real winner” of the elections! While conceding that “the vote revolved around domestic issues,” he exulted that elections, as viewed from America, were “an absolute triumph” and “the composition of the new Lok Sabha will have a substantial effect on India’s burgeoning relationship with America.” In particular, he said US policy makers were “delighted” by the “marginalisation of anti-American forces,” especially the communists, and by the “emergence of a new generation of potential future leaders of a US-India alliance”, like the US-educated Rahul Gandhi. Carried away by their exultation and arrogance, such ‘Voices of America’ end up revealing some of the ominous portents embedded in this verdict, that democracy- and sovereignty-loving people of this country can ignore at their peril.
...And the Fall of the BJP
The BJP’s seats in the Lok Sabha fell from 138 in 2004 to 116; and the party’s share of the national vote, unchanged since 1998, declined by 3.5% this time. Undoubtedly, the BJP is undergoing a massive crisis of identity and initiative. ‘Mission Advani’ ignominiously failed to take off, not just Varun but even poster-boy Modi turned out to be a burden for the BJP. Communal frenzy failed to be a national vote-getter in this election. Even in Jammu, the BJP’s candidate who led a frenzied campaign on the ‘Amarnath shrine’ issue, found it was not enough to propel him to power. Shivraj Singh Chauhan, CM of Madhya Pradesh, went on record after the elections to suggest that harping on the demand for Afzal’s hanging did not benefit the BJP. So the emotive issues like terrorism or Amarnath, deployed by the BJP in this election as a desperate bid to revive a ‘Hindutva’ plank, failed to capture the voters’ imagination. Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Raman Singh, successful BJP Chief Ministers though they may be, are not capable of vesting the BJP with some distinct identity.
Third and Fourth Fronts
Mayawati, ever since her spectacular victory in the UP Assembly polls of 2007, had projected herself as future Prime Minister. This time, too, she was wooed by the “Third Front” as its potential post-poll PM, and she spent much campaign time looking towards the national stage. However, the ground beneath her feet was shaken with the results, since her position in UP itself proved to be precarious. Here, while the BSP improved its 2004 tally of 19 by one seat, it actually trailed third in the State, behind the SP’s 23 and the Congress’ 21. While the SP’s seats came down sharply from 36 in 2004 to 23, this fact must be seen in context of the fact that after the SP’s drubbing at hands of a resurgent BSP in the Assembly polls, the SP’s performance is actually an improvement, in that it has actually remained ahead of the BSP.
Mayawati’s continued patronage of mafia and criminal politicians; the violent track record of her Ministers, elected representatives and leaders; the murder of a Dalit candidate from a rival party at the behest of an upper caste candidate of the BSP; the Mayawati administration’s preoccupation with statues of Madam rather than on fixing minimum support prices for farmers or ensuring land, dignity, rights for Dalits – all these have severely eroded her credibility and goodwill in the State. The BSP’s overall seat tally might have marginally increased since 2004, but the fact is that it did not retain many of the seats won by it in 2004. Even BSP’s well-wishers have been forced to concede that Dalits in UP are beginning to feel betrayed in the ‘bhaichara’ (Brahmin-Dalit ‘brotherhood’) deal, and have sent out the message that they do not like being taken for granted as a captive base. According to one journalist, “A CSDS post-poll study of the 2007 assembly elections had said that the BSP had got 80% Dalit votes – that is, 4 in every 5 Dalits. This time, the figures obtained by the BSP say that 62.2% Dalits voted for the BSP. That is nearly a 25% drop. It also means that other parties put together took away 38% of Dalit votes! This includes 12% to the Congress. The rest 26% or so has to be divided between the BJP, SP and the myriad Dalit independents and small parties. But this statistic is of the votes Dalits cast. There is no way of ascertaining what percentage of Dalits who voted in 2007 did not come out to vote at all this time, but most in UP agree it must be around 25%.” (Shivam Vij, ‘UP’s Dalits remind Mayawati: Democracy is a beautiful thing’)
There was also a visible shift in UP’s Muslim vote from the SP towards the Congress. Some have sought the explanation for this in Mulayam Singh’s tie-up with BJP renegade and Babri “demolition man” Kalyan Singh. A more likely possibility is that the SP sensed this impending shift and opted instead for a tactic of OBC consolidation via Kalyan Singh. Mayawati’s gimmicks like slapping NSA on Varun Gandhi did not result, as she hoped, in drawing this vote towards herself: perhaps such gestures were not enough to wipe out the recent memory of witch-hunt of Muslim terror suspects in Mayawati-ruled UP.
Perhaps the worst blow, however, was to the so-called ‘Fourth Front’ – the erstwhile UPA partners RJD and LJP, along with the SP. The RJD’s vote share in Bihar hit an all-time low of 19.3% from 30.7% in 2004 - a drop of 11%, it could win just four seats, and Laloo Prasad himself could win only one of the two seats he contested. Ramvilas Paswan, who has won repeatedly from Hajipur and had the dubious distinction of having been a Minister in every hue of Government since 1996, was ignominiously defeated.
The CPI-CPI(M)-led Left Front
The CPI(M) Politburo statement said that the party has won 16 seats with a vote share of 5.33 per cent which is marginally less than the 5.66 per cent it got in 2004. The decline in W Bengal is much more sharp – 5%, while in Kerala it shows a drop of 1%. In Tripura, where CPI(M) retained the two seats, the vote share declined from 68 per cent in 2004 to 61 per cent this time. The party Politburo has indicated both “national and local” factors for the debacle. “National” factors appear to be a euphemism for the central leadership’s decision to withdraw support from the UPA Government, and the decision to project a Third Front; while “local” appears to stand for issues like Singur and Nandigram, and factionalism in Kerala.
The “national vs local” debate within the CPI(M) is a case of “none so blind as those who will not see.” Both sections of opinion are willfully glossing over how and when the “local” and “national” sins converged over the last three years. Is it not true that when the Left Front Government in W Bengal aggressively embraced corporate land grab and shed the blood of protesting peasantry at Singur and Nandigram, the party Politburo, far from intervening to correct the course, supplied spurious theoretical justifications for it, branding the protestors as “Narodnik” and so on? Singur and Nandigram are not merely “local” factors – rather they took a national toll on the credibility of the CPI(M). Even where the Nuke Deal issue is concerned, it is not the withdrawal of support in itself that discredited the CPI(M). Rather, the full force and urgency of this belated but correct step got blunted by their own track record of the four and half years of support to the UPA Government, in which the CPI(M)’s ‘protests’ on a range of issues including price rise remained pretentious while it actually voted with the UPA to pass anti-people policies like the SEZ Act and Patents (Amendment) Act. The resulting cynicism about the CPI(M)’s postures of protest, as well as the way the CPI(M) used the Nuke Deal as a bargaining tool to buy Congress’ silence on Nandigram, further eroded the credibility of the CPI(M)’s eventual step of withdrawal of support.
Coming to Kerala, there are some who interpret the verdict as part of the “usual” pattern in the state, which rejects the UDF or LDF in turn. The extent of damage appears to be deeper, and cannot be reduced to the “usual” explanations. Even the attempt to blame the debacle on the severe factional fight within the CPI(M) in the state is misleading. The fact is that factionalism in Kerala is not of the usual variety – rather it reflects some deeper issues and concerns. In this election, for instance, the decision of the CPI(M) to brazen out the issue of corruption charges against the State Secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, by brushing it under the carpet and blocking the permission for CBI enquiry against him, seems to have boomeranged. The CPI(M)’s decision to try and attract disenchanted Muslim voters back to the fold by backing the controversial cleric Madani from Ponnani, also seems to have backfired. The continued severe tension within the LDF partners and even with the JD(S) were also a factor in the Left’s poor performance. And in Kerala too, tribal land issues and the CPI(M)’s loss at Pathanamthitta, centre of the Chengara land struggle, is significant.
The 2009 elections marked a rebuff for the communal agenda of the BJP-NDA, and also the marginalisation of a range of parties which had peddled an anti-people agenda under cover of identity assertion. Even the Congress victory, contrary to corporate media claims, is no blank cheque for unbridled liberalisation; rather, issues of livelihood, land, and justice are likely to grow in urgency in days to come. Another notable and encouraging feature in this election is the all-round rejection of criminals-turned politicians. The range of parties did not hold back from fielding such candidates or their proxies, but most of them were firmly rejected by the electorate. The way in which the mandate belied the hype about ‘celebrity politicians’ like Chiranjeevi or Vijaykanth is also welcome. The results show that unlike the MGR-NTR phenomenon of yesteryears, which articulated powerful Tamil and Telugu regional aspirations, Chiranjeevi or Vijaykanth have a fairly limited appeal after all, which does not transcend their narrow caste base and fan network, and could not truly champion even the anti-incumbency upon which they sought to bank.
Notwithstanding the present euphoria of the verdict amongst the ruling classes and its ideologues, the verdict in fact opens up new challenges and opportunities for revolutionary Left and people’s movement forces in the context of the impending intensification of the grip of pro-imperialist, pro-liberalisation policies on the economy and polity, and unfolding of greater vulnerability of all underprivileged sections.