Analysis of the 2009 General Elections: Contrasting views

As is perhaps to be expected, not all analysts agree on how we should interpret the results of the recently concluded general elections. Of the early analysis, I have been struck by three commentaries on the elections which form the subject of this post. The first is that offered by Pratap Bhanu Mehta which conforms to the dominant trend in commentaries, and celebrates the success of the Congress’ victory in fairly unequivocal, near euphoric terms: There are moments in the life of nations that are harbingers of deep changes. The Congress has achieved what even so many of its friends thought was unthinkable: not just a return to power, but a return with such aplomb. No amount of psephological quibbling can take away from this achievement. They put a lie to the proposition that this was not a national election, but a sum of state elections. The swing towards them across large parts of the country is too significant to be dismissed as a conjuncture of lots of local factors … This election is also an indicator that the era of votebank politics as we have known it is over. Parties that placed undue confidence in the fact that they had secure vote-bases amongst particular political groups have been given a severe blow. … It is too soon to say that caste and identity have become irrelevant for politics. They may seem so because the policy agendas that came out of that politics are now deeply entrenched; yet its logic is also involuting, creating new coalitions as in Bihar. It is inevitable that there will be a search for new paradigms. But the post-Mandal age of identity votebanks is over. Yogendra Yadav’s newscolumn is less exuberant, at least on the scale – and potential impact – of the Congress’ victory. He begins his analysis with the following caution: The verdict is out, but the mandate is hazy. If the verdict is loud and clear, the weak and hesitant voice of the mandate does not lend itself to simple headlines. It is easier to say what this mandate is not. It is necessary to emphasise this, since there is a real risk that the people’s mandate may be misread. Towards the end of his column, Yadav sets forth an intriguing prescriptive claim: on the need for the Congress to “invent a new Left within” itself: The real significance of this electoral verdict lies in a major shift in the political landscape. The last two decades have witnessed an expansion of the third space in Indian politics. The Left and many regional parties occupied this non-Congress, non-BJP space. The expansion of this third space brought new issues, new leaders, and a fresh energy to politics. Included here are the pro-Mandal movement, the various campaigns against the “new” economic policies and the agitations on questions of jal, jungle and jameen (land, water, forests). Ironically, the expansion of this space has been matched by the shrinking of the Third Front. As a result, this space, almost by default in this election, has come to the Congress. The real challenge for the Congress now is to inherit this legacy that has fallen into its lap. In the last five years, the Congress failed to address the politics at the grass roots, address those who are at the bottom of the pyramid. Yet, it has secured their votes. The Congress now has to create policies that respond to the needs of the poor and build a durable political constituency. It has to internalise the impulses that have been articulated by the regional parties. It has to revert to being a grand coalition and accept that the need for such coalitions is inbuilt in our society. Is the Congress aware of this historic opportunity? Reverting to the Sonia-Rahul chants and typical Congress-style sycophancy is no substitute for organisation building. Worse, it could succumb to the temptation to go in for unbridled economic reforms, now that there is no Left to check it. If the Congress is serious about its future, the party needs to invent a new Left within it. The party does not need a new ideology: it just needs to take its own election manifesto seriously. Atuk Kohli’s column reads like a direct counter to the celebratory accounts offered by analysts such as Pratap Mehta, as is evident in its title: What are you calling a ‘historic mandate’? Kohli’s piece focuses on some of the statistics thrown up by the elections, and offers some sobering footnotes to the conventional narrative that is developing about these elections: A closer look at the election results, especially at the share of popular vote received by political parties, reveals important national and state level trends. While the Congress and the UPA have secured a commanding lead in parliamentary seats, Congress’s share of the popular vote in 2009 increased only by some two per cent over its share in 2004. So a ‘historic mandate’ this is not. Congress’s victory is as much a product of alliance politics and the first-past-the-post electoral system as it is a result of enhanced popular support. Congress ran on a platform of ‘inclusive growth’. The improvement in Congress’s electoral fortunes then must be understood as a vote for continuity in this pattern of development. Over 2004, the BJP’s share of popular support declined by a little more than three percent. The BJP avoided a focus on Hindutva in this election and campaigned instead on issues of governance. The context of a slowing economy and terrorism with Pakistani links should have helped the BJP. The fact that it did not ought to be a matter of concern for the party. And then there are the communists. The proclaimed demise of the Left may turn out to be premature. In spite of losing seats, both the CPM and the CPI maintained their relative shares of the popular vote between 2004 and 2009. The combined share of the vote of the Congress and the BJP in 2009 is about the same as it was in 2004 (some 48 per cent). This means that more than half the voters continue to vote for parties other than the two main ones. Congress’s victory notwithstanding, the electorate has not switched away from voting for a variety of local parties based on caste, class, religion and charismatic individuals. The underlying fragmentation of the electorate is thus real and continues. As to the substance of the mandate, Congress’s national gain is mainly at the expense of the BJP. Since the Congress ran on a mild left-of-centre platform, and since the communists have pretty well held their own, the popular verdict has shifted the country slightly more to the left. Kohli is, incidentally, a respected academic commentator on issues relating to democracy, development and poverty in India. (Some of his publications are available at this link). The statistics on the number of crorepatis and criminals in the new Lok Sabha (hattip: Nanopolitan) should also provide pause to those who are claiming that these elections are ‘tranformative’. It will be interesting to see how others weigh in on these elections in the days to come.

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1 comment
  • ‘But the post-Mandal age of identity votebanks is over.’

    Not at all. Today almost all parties are committed to Mandal type reservations.Identity politics has enough malleability and that it changes so often, that it could be misread by commentators depending upon their whims and fancies. The numbers do not always tell the whole story as
    in over all % the difference is hardly 5%. Parties that lost heavily in one election have staged dramatic comebacks later.In this election PMK lost all the seats it contested but it is too premature to conclude that it will
    decline further in future. Given the fact that both BJP and Congress could hardly muster, together, not even 55% it is difficult to read the mandate as Mehta has done.In Kerala and WB left lost heavily , and it had been pointed out that was their making. After 5 years the tide may turn in their favor. Post 67 and Post 77 there had been any number of alignments, groupings, disintegrations and new alliances, both pre-poll and post-poll.This makes any analysis based soley on numbers less credible. Congress suffered a setback in 67 and by 71 the picture was different. But in 77 it suffered another setback and bounced back in 79. The weakness/strength of one alliance and its credibility with people decides the victory/defeat of another alliance.
    So there has been an ongoing churning for many years and that
    churning is far from over.This is my reading of the 2009 elections
    and the verdict of the people.