Elections that shaped India | An ‘upset’ victory in 2004, and the rise of the UPA

As the clock ticks down to the general elections of 2024, The Hindu takes a look at the historic elections that have shaped the polity and political landscape of our nation since Independence. In this piece, we trace the rise of the UPA governments in 2004 and 2009.

April 09, 2024 12:50 pm | Updated April 15, 2024 04:27 pm IST

Newly sworn in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh being greeted by Congress President Sonia Gandhi after the swearing in ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, on May 22, 2004. CPI leader Somnath Chatterjee is also seen. File

Newly sworn in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh being greeted by Congress President Sonia Gandhi after the swearing in ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, on May 22, 2004. CPI leader Somnath Chatterjee is also seen. File | Photo Credit: Shanker Chakravarty/The Hindu

The curtains came down on the “Vajpayee years” with a dramatic shift of power in 2004. The ruling BJP confidently advanced the general elections to capitalise on the popularity of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and a perceived “feel good factor” based on the government’s economic achievements through a mega “India Shining” campaign. The Congress countered with a pitch promising to protect the interests of the common man— the ‘aam aadmi.’ Pollsters predicted a win for the BJP-led NDA but the final verdict defied their electoral calculations, surprising both the victor and the vanquished.

The Congress resurrected, delivering a significant blow to the NDA. Congress President Sonia Gandhi turned down the PM post, instead nominating Manmohan Singh, who became India’s first non-Hindu PM and led the Congress-led coalition, christened the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), for the next 10 years.

The Congress-led UPA received the mandate once again in 2009, albeit with different alliance partners, defeating a BJP-led NDA coalition of a different formulation.

Reluctant PM calls a snap election

Buoyed by BJP’s success in the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh in late 2003, a faction within the party began pushing for an early general election. It believed that NDA’s electoral success in the three States, along with a general sense of economic well-being across the country, provided a favourable environment for a victory.

Though Mr. Vajpayee was reluctant to call a snap poll, as his long-time aide Shiv Kumar Pareek claimed in an interview with news agency IANS, he accepted the party’s recommendation during the BJP’s National Executive meeting in January 2004. He sought a renewed mandate to march “even more confidently” towards making India a developed nation by 2020, hoping for a “new government in place by April.”

File photo: BJP leaders crowing PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee at an election meeting in Nagercoil, 2004.

File photo: BJP leaders crowing PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee at an election meeting in Nagercoil, 2004. | Photo Credit: A. Shaikhmohideen/The Hindu Archives

The day after Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam unfurled the tricolour at Rajpath to mark India’s transition to a democratic republic, PM Vajpayee met with the President to seek an early dissolution of the Lok Sabha. 

On February 6, nearly eight months before the expiry of the NDA government’s five-year term, President Kalam dissolved the 13th Lok Sabha, paving the way for the Lok Sabha elections months ahead of schedule. Concerns arose that a premature dissolution would prevent the Election Commission (EC) from holding free and fair elections. While the poll body announced the schedule in the same month, it did not align with the NDA’s desire to establish a government by April.

‘India Shining’ vs ‘Aam Aadmi’

In the days that followed, the BJP rolled out a mega media blitz, “India Shining,” portraying it as an “unprecedented peacetime resurgence in national pride.” The party highlighted the booming economy and a “feel good factor.” “The BJP will contest on three major issues — speedy and equitable development, PM Atal Bihar Vajpayee’s leadership — his character, calibre, capacity and conduct — and India’s growth and development, making the ‘feel good’ factor into ‘feel great,’” party president Venkaiah Naidu remarked. The party pitched “peace with Pakistan” as a plank to woo voters, optimistic that the successful SAARC summit in Islamabad, which paved the way for renewed dialogue with Pakistan, would strengthen the coalition’s electoral prospects. It also tied up with strong regional players— the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh.

The Congress, meanwhile, adopted a reactive approach, highlighting flaws in the government policies and its failure to address issues related to agriculture and infrastructure. The counter-campaign relied on the condition of the common man, and saw rhetorical slogans such as ‘aam aadmi ko kya mila’ and ‘Congress ka haath aam aadmi ke saath’. The Congress was critical of the BJP campaign, suggesting that the “feel-good” sentiment was limited to the elite and business segments of society. “The Congress successfully identified itself with the poor, pronouncing the BJP to be the party of the rich,” political scientist Baldev Raj Nayar wrote in Asian Survey. 

Other Opposition parties also criticised BJP’s campaign: the DMK even approached the EC, alleging that the ruling party was misusing the taxpayer’s money to further its ends. “India is not shining but only shedding tears of poverty,” exclaimed MDMK’s Vaiko after more than 20 women were killed in a stampede at a saree distribution function organised by BJP’s Lalji Tandon in Mr. Vajpayee’s constituency Lucknow.

Political analysts predicted NDA’s return to power with a reduced majority of around 300 seats. An editorial in The Hindu read, “The overall findings of various opinion and exit polls incline towards the formation of a BJP-led minority government at the Centre — but with the contest unexpectedly open and interesting, there will be new opportunities for political India to prove the cynics wrong by setting healthy democratic conventions.”

But the PM reportedly had an inkling of what was to follow. “Sarkar toh gayi. Hum haar rahe hain (The government is gone. We are losing),” Mr. Vajpayee told his aide after returning from a campaign in Lucknow.

While confidence slowly dropped in the BJP camp, the Congress joined hands with powerful regional players in States where it no longer was a dominant force, pitching together a “secular” alternative to the NDA. This included the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP), among others.

Also Read | Economics explains why the Congress won handsomely and the BJP lost

The great upset

After months of hectic campaigning by the two alliances, India went to polls on April 20. The elections took place in four phases from April 20 to May 10, 2004, setting the trend for subsequent summer elections in India. These polls saw several firsts—it was the first general election for the newly formed States of Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand, EVMs made a debut, and contestants had to disclose their education, assets and criminal record for the first time.

A total of 5,435 candidates contested the polls for 543 seats. Overall, 58.07% of voters exercised their franchise. The counting took place on May 13, and the results surprised one and all.

The BJP won 138 seats with 22.16% of the vote, while the Congress emerged as the single largest party with 145 seats and 26.53% of the vote. The Times of India dubbed the outcome as the “greatest upset of all time.”  

The Congress recorded big gains in Gujarat, Delhi and its alliances in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Bihar. Rahul Gandhi won his first election from the family seat of Amethi in UP. However, for the first time since Independence, the party failed to open its account in Kerala. 

The BJP won fewer seats than in 1999, suffering big losses in Bihar, Delhi, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Haryana and UP. NDA partners AIADMK, TMC and Janata Dal (United) suffered heavy losses in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Bihar, while TDP also suffered a “spectacular debacle.” The Left recorded its best-ever performance with 60 seats, placing it in a significant position to influence the economic, political and foreign policies of the new government.

The verdict captured the growth of regional parties which won a total of 37% of the total vote, with the Samajwadi Party (35 seats) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (19 seats) emerging as key players. 

BJP loss, not Congress win

Some interpreted the results as a manifestation of anti-incumbency, while others saw it as a rejection of economic reform. Overall, the outcome was perceived more as a loss for the BJP rather than a victory for the Congress.

There was consensus on two reasons for the unexpected outcome of the 2004 elections — the “India Shining” slogan and the BJP’s decision to advance the polls. The party overlooked the growing anti-incumbency sentiment and dissatisfaction among the poor, instead relying on its success in the Assembly elections. The slogan thus created a significant credibility gap for the BJP by appearing to disregard the struggles of the majority of voters in rural and urban areas. An analysis by the policy institute Chatham House suggested that by implying the government had already achieved success, the election focused on service delivery, which fuelled anti-incumbency sentiments against underperforming MPs from all parties. 

According to The Hindu’s analysis, factors which influenced the 2004 outcome included incumbency challenges at the State level, alliance dynamics, and caste and community loyalties, particularly in states like Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, and Bihar. The “divisive policies” pursued in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh and the aftermath of the Godhra riots also had an impact.

These local issues played a more significant role in shaping the overall outcome than the BJP had anticipated. The attempt to turn the election into a contest between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi, presented with a question mark, further hurt NDA’s prospects.

The rise of UPA

The Congress emerged as a focal point, uniting around 14 regional parties with the outside support of the Left to form a post-poll coalition known as the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). A Common Minimum Programme (CMP) was chalked out between the Congress and the Left to outline common goals and ensure inclusiveness in governance. 

After much speculation and deliberations, Sonia Gandhi declined the top post, citing an “inner voice.” On May 22, 2004, Manmohan Singh, an Oxford-educated economist and the architect of major economic reforms, became the first Sikh Prime Minister of India. Thus began the era of the UPA.

File photo: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh greets his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee ahead of the swearing-in ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi.

File photo: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh greets his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee ahead of the swearing-in ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi.

Road to 2009 and shifting alliances

Once in power, the Congress government established a steady, if not remarkable, record of governance. The Congress benefited from a period of sustained economic growth, amidst a burgeoning global financial crisis. Pro-people legislations such as the Right to Information (RTI) Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREGA) Act were passed during this time as well.

The historic Indo-U.S. Civil Nuclear Deal was also inked during this time, solidifying India’s position as a nuclear power. This move, however, saw the Left parties withdraw their support to the UPA. They strongly opposed the deal, believing that it would give the U.S. too much influence over India’s foreign policy and nuclear weapons programme.

Alliances overall were changing in both the UPA and NDA camps, moving away from national alliances to tie-ups with regional players. One reason proposed for this was that “the experience of coalition governance over the last decade has shown that it is coalition partners rather than coalition makers who call the shots when it comes to government formation and portfolio allocation”— a situation unfavourable for the coalition maker.

In January 2009, the Congress clarified that there would be no national-level alliance, with seat-sharing adjustments limited to the State level. It tied up with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra and Goa, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) in Tamil Nadu and the All India Trinamool Congress in West Bengal. In Jammu and Kashmir, the J&K National Conference replaced the PDP as an ally. In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Congress contested alone.

The BJP took a similar route. It tied up with JD(U) mainly in Bihar (with two seats in UP), Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) in parts of Uttar Pradesh, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in Assam, Shiv Sena (SS) in Maharashtra, Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) in Haryana and Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) (SAD-B) Unlike 2004, it had no alliance with the TDP and AIADMK, and Biju Janata Dal, its ally in Odisha, also quit the NDA.

The Left parties, such as CPI (M) and CPI, formed a Third Front, with other parties such as the TRS (a Congress ally in 2004 in AP) and the Janata Dal (Secular) (only in Karnataka). The so-called Fourth Front comprised of parties not a part of these three blocs— such as the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Lok Janashakti Party.

The Congress’ electoral campaign focused on its successes in governance and its support for the common man, with its manifesto citing the slogan “aam aadmi ke badhte kadam, har kadam par Bharat buland.” It asserted that the contest between the Congress and BJP was “not just a fight between two political parties,” but “a clash between two competing visions of Indian nationalism, between two competing visions of what India should be.”

The 2009 polls and an unexpected result

The polls for the 15th Lok Sabha took place in five phases between April 16 and May 13, 2009. The Delimitation Commission 2008 had redetermined boundaries, with the delimitation of 499 new constituencies; this had also impacted electoral alliance calculations. The turnout in these elections increased as compared to 2004, standing at 58.19%.

The Congress and BJP had pulled out all the stops in their campaign - an RTI filed later with the EC revealed that the Congress had spent ₹343 crores and the BJP ₹448 crores during these polls.

When the results were announced, it was a victory for the Indian National Congress again. The party had notched up 206 seats to surpass its performance in 2004, or any year since 1991, the last time a single-party, minority government was at the helm. Congress retained its base in Andhra Pradesh, and notched a victory in Rajasthan. Its alliances in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Jammu and Kashmir and Kerala paid off. The party also re-emerged as a key player in UP; the single largest party in UP, however, was the Samajwadi Party, with 23 seats of 80.

The BJP notched 116 seats, ceding ground in key Hindi belt States such as Rajasthan to Congress, and not gaining the required numbers in UP or MP. It won in Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka, but saw disappointing performances from its poll partners, except JD(U) in Bihar. The Hindu noted that the Raj Thackeray-engineered split in Shiv Sena, which created the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), “played a role” in the merger of Congress and Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra.

The Left Front fared miserably in West Bengal and Kerala, failing to win a majority for the first time in more than three decades. Commentators pointed to its lack of a clear alternative economic model and failures in governance as causes for its downfall.

Manmohan Singh returned as Prime Minister, the first PM since Indira Gandhi to have completed two full terms, and the first since Jawaharlal Nehru to be reinstated after completing one full term. It was also the first time in 25 years that a government which completed a full term had gotten re-elected.

The win, however, was a surprise to commentators, and perhaps the party itself. In an article for the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar argued that upon closer scrutiny, the Congress victory was ”ambiguous” and “owed a lot to movements that were not of its making.” The authors note that the BJP’s mood was reflected in the statement by M.V Kamath in The Organiser that the elections represent “tectonic change” but that “Congress should consider itself just lucky to have come to power for no sound discernible reason.”

The victory was reportedly “not so spectacular in terms of the popular vote share,” either. The UPA added 40 seats to its total over 2004, but nothing to its vote share, which declined marginally by 0.13 percentage points. The Congress, however, added 61 seats to its 2004 total, crossing 200 for the first time since 1991.

Three factors were noted as favouring the Congress: first, a small increase in the proportion of votes for the Congress, combined with a drop in the share of popular votes for the BJP; second, the loss of key allies for the BJP, which widened the gap between the two blocs; and third, the rise of Congress votes was distributed in such a way that it yielded a disproportionately large number of seats in States where it was up against the BJP or Left Front.

Notably, underprivileged voters did not vote decisively in favour of UPA over NDA. It was rather that the NDA “failed to hold its core social constituency in a state of high mobilisation and began losing more where it had a lot to lose: among men, upper castes, upper and lower middle classes, educated voters, and in urban areas.”

Eventual downfall of the UPA

Despite the seemingly ambiguous nature of its win, the UPA finished a second term in office. It, however, did not return for a third. Factors such as a slowing of economic growth and corruption scandals severely eroded the public’s trust in the government. The Aam Aadmi Party, founded by Arvind Kejriwal in November 2012, further spotlighted the extent of corruption prevalent in the country, pointing to scams such as the 2G spectrum scam and coal allocation scam.

Manmohan Singh did not contest as prime ministerial candidate for a third term, stepping aside for Rahul Gandhi to take over the reins of the party. About his opponent, BJP’s Narendra Modi, Mr. Singh said in an interview to The Hindu: “It will be disastrous for the country to have Shri Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister.”  

His dark predictions did not prevent what was to come in 2014—an overwhelming win for the NDA and the BJP, and the downfall of the UPA and with it, the Indian National Congress. And the rise of Narendra Modi to power.

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