Understanding the 2009 mandate is easy, analysing it is difficult. It is a vote for stability, continuity and evolution of a national polity. The silver lining in this electoral outcome is the unmistakable play of the national psyche and the emergence of a clear two-party system. The equally resounding diminution of the communist parties, which had perfected the art of political blackmail cloaking it under the veneer of secularism, has brought better clarity. So there is hope. This we welcome. We have always advocated in these columns that there is an underlying national mood that dictates the verdict in any national election. But the mandate is not entirely to our satisfaction or expectation.
The results have stunned political parties and pundits equally. Before the counting of votes we were deluged by experts opinionating that the national election is nothing but the aggregate of 28 state elections. All of them predicted a hung House. The outcome, they said, would be the result of the “sixth” round of election where cynical power-brokers would bargain and barter on the spoils to form a central government, essentially to grab the national pie. There is no place for ideology in politics any more, declared the chat shows.
This view gained sustenance also from the experience of 2004 where the severely fractured mandate resulted in the formation of the unwieldy UPA, which accommodated criminals, turncoats and communists under the banner of secularism. The general belief was that this round the fragmentation of the polity would enhance the role of regional satraps and the Left to make a repeat of the 2004 power game. The overuse of caste, regional and individual aspirations as a substitute to national politics received a body blow in the 2009 mandate.
The bit players cravenly queuing up with unsolicited support letters to the new government is an amusing sight. One reason for the smaller parties like BSP, SP and RJD to offer support to the Congress is the fear that the ongoing investigations into their disproportionate assets would take a dangerous turn under the newfound confidence of the ruling party. One can only hope the Congress will not misuse its mandate to wreak vengeance and destabilise opposition governments. The opposition parties have offered constructive cooperation to the government in all its developmental efforts. But the Congress has a long history of taking recourse to undemocratic methods to further its partisan interests.
The 15th Lok Sabha is unique in many ways. The election is both a leveller and a cleanser. The Congress never expected the kind of victory it got. The BJP was certain about bettering on its 2004 tally. The Left is shell-shocked that its number is the lowest ever in the Lok Sabha. The Congress for the first time in 19 years has come closer to its performance in 1991 when PV Narasimha Rao headed a minority government. The BJP’s best performance was in 1999 when it got 182 seats and in 2004 it fell to 135 and now it is down to 116. This is less than its 1991 tally. Fifty-two seats less than its in-house exit poll assessment of the BJP number. The party has clearly gone horribly wrong in its understanding of the mood of the voter. So has this journal. We expected the BJP to do much better. The pro-Congress outcome in the election does not make the issues of lackluster performance of the UPA irrelevant. The UPA could have done a lot more in areas like education, infrastructure, health and social welfare. The BJP failed in effectively communicating this to the voter. The party will surely introspect and undertake hopefully a stern and merciless dissection of its shortfall. There are people who hasten to write a requiem for the party. There is no evidence to show that the ideology of the party has failed. There is also no evidence that the Modi campaign or the Varun Gandhi speech damaged its prospects. The BJP has actually failed in presenting itself as a better alternative offering stability and a national vision. This has more to do with its mismanaged campaign and organisational weaknesses. Overdependence on hi-tech and affluence more than that on grass roots constituency-level management damaged the party prospects. Politics is played out in the field, not in air-conditioned chat rooms. There is a disconnect between the party and its mass base. The BJP is often seen as a victim of adverse publicity. With almost the entire visual and print media determined to undermine its growth, the party has to evolve a long-term strategy to gain some propaganda mileage. The Congress won this election primarily on the shoulders of a friendly media. Almost every report on every channel and most of the print media depicted the Congress as doing the right thing and the BJP in poor light. The desperate BJP on the other hand has developed a self-defeating obsession for media endorsement. Perhaps this was one of the reasons for the party losing most in urban constituencies. The BJP, once known as urban middle-class party, now has more seats in rural and tribal areas. The urban middle-class disenchantment with the party started after its six-year stint at the Centre. Much of it has to do with its shabby, misplaced enthusiasm for economic liberalisation, which hurt the middle-income group. This aspect needs elaboration and deeper study. The BJP has to reassure and cultivate its constituency without being defensive or apologetic about its identity as a party with a difference.
A great lesson of this election is the beginning of the end of the coalition era, which was the reigning idea of the nineties. People have become sick of coalition talk. The craze will be for parties with a pan-Indian vision and presence. Instead of wasting time coaxing and cajoling recalcitrant partners national parties like the BJP can now concentrate on building up the organisational structure in states where it is weak. The BJP has to expand its catchment area and reaffirm its ideological purity. If it is to emerge as an alternative to the Congress it has to shut its doors on all those who want to reshape it as a Congress B-team.