An election to remember

One must admit that Modi was an idea whose time has come. Yet, to talk of him as an independent subject would be organisationally incomplete

May 17, 2014 03:10 am | Updated 11:45 am IST

The world’s largest election involving 815 million people ended a few hours ago. As the results were announced, there was almost a sense of relief that this prolonged ritual was over.

Initially, as the results flowed, the numbers overwhelmed you. As numbers go, Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had romped home in an overwhelming victory. This was an election that defied history, history would have been a poor guide for the results because history could not have forecast the BJP victory.

But numbers as first impressions can be deceptive. They hide the dynamics of a deeper politics.

Decline of Congress

The first and fundamental change was the decline and in fact, decimation of the Congress in several States. It is this negative fact that catalysed the positive politics of the election. The Congress barely made it as the second largest party. In fact a bundle of others is significantly larger than the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The rise of regional parties in fact signalled the second largest bundle of votes. The parties’ vote share signalled the possibility of a more creative federalism. In fact, one must add that this election was Anti-Congress rather than Pro-BJP. This was a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-supported election. As RSS representative Ram Madhav stated in an interview, the RSS had intervened twice in elections. The first was after the Emergency and the second now. One must call it an RSS victory also.

The repudiation of the Congress was almost paradigmatic. It signalled several things. It signalled the end of Congress nostalgia. It was a big NO to the arrogance of the party and a bigger NO to the dynastic continuity of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra. In the noise of this refutation, the end of the Manmohan era almost disappeared silently. A good man and a good economist found his goodness inadequate before the stifling facts of party politics. It was not surprising that no Congress spokesperson appeared to graciously acknowledge the defeat.

Inventing possibilities

As numbers go, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) made news with the BJP winning a majority in its own right. Indian elections have been secretly presidential in terms of persona. In fact, what India has elected in 2014 is “President” Narendra Modi, who dominated the election. Mr. Modi was an icon, a contender and the main issue of the 2014 election. Numbers, in fact, were a tribute to his image. One must admit that Mr. Modi was an idea whose time has come and time gives excessively to its favourites. Yet, to talk of him as an independent subject would be organisationally incomplete. Mr. Modi was the vehicle of the RSS determined to sacrifice even the leaders of the BJP to make the party succeed convincingly. In fact it is one of the greatest parliamentary electoral victories ever. It was an election where old soldiers like Mr. Advani and Mr. Murli Manohar Joshi faded away even in their moment of victory.

If Mr. Modi dominated the political landscape of 2014, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) rewrote the landscape of politics and in fact, invented new possibilities. AAP as a party was engaging at various levels of drama. AAP raised a host of new questions about drugs, nuclear energy or tribal rights which had been silenced for too long. AAP extended the range of the permissible and the possible in politics by extending its Lakshman Rekha, the outlines of the permissible. Whether it was challenging Mr. Modi in Varanasi or the slum lords in Mumbai, AAP brought a new excitement to politics. Yet, numbers were harsh to AAP, but AAP is a wager for the future.

Tactics and strategy played critical roles in determining the future of parties. Two decisions had opposite consequences. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s decision to break from Mr. Modi was a self-inflicted injury. It was odd to watch Mr. Nitish Kumar’s treatment. Here was a man who worked to develop Bihar, who stemmed the forces of disorder and yet the voters shrugged him aside for the BJP.

But the shrewdest move of 2014 belonged to Telugu Desam Party (TDP) chief Chandrababu Naidu. A once popular Chief Minister, for long in the mothballs, revived his fortune by playing Mr. Modi’s archaic twin on governance and development. Mr. Naidu presented himself as a Modi before Modi’s time, a governance man ready to recreate a whole topology of development like Hyderabad. The TDP managed to come home with votes to revive Mr. Naidu’s career.

The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) under Ms. Jayalalithaa virtually demolished the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) coming home with almost all the seats.

Two folklore figures who excited attention were West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Ms. Jayalalithaa. They remain formidable figures in regional politics. Given the logic of numbers, one does not see them influencing national politics. What they could be creative about is the politics of federalism. If “others” are the second biggest chunk of the voting population, then the region deserves political recognition. This might be one of the first acts of reassurance the Modi Sarkar might have to make. Ms. Jayalalithaa and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik recognising their interests might be tempted to join a Super NDA.

One has to write the Left off almost as an afterthought. The Left has abdicated its role as a national party content to play roles in the two States of Kerala and Bengal. Sadly, the CPI(M) seems to be suffering from Trinamool Congress (TMC) vandalism. A party which let loose a politics of goons who seeped into every level of society is at the receiving end of TMC gangs. Yet, one feels nostalgia for the Left both as an imagination and as a backup for some of the most creative experiments of the Congress. The Left leadership of Mr. Bardhan and Mr. Karat belong to a Tussauds of Marxism and one hopes the Left generates new leaders open to a new language of politics and justice. Numbers must generate rethinking in these parties.

The Samajwadi Party remains substantial enough in terms of vote share to be recognised as a party with a future but any whiff of a third alternative seems a remote possibility. The third alternative has neither the votes nor a key negotiator like Harkishan Singh Surjeet of the CPI(M). If politics is the art of the possible, the convincing BJP victory has made a third alternative a negligible entity.

Role of the city

Beyond the fate of parties, there were other issues which were central to this election. The first was the role of the city in the imagination of politics. Towns like Amethi and cities like Varanasi, Hyderabad and Delhi, each formed one chapter in the epic of the electoral politics. Varanasi in particular, played out the drama of the city. It was stunning in its roadshow spectacles revealing our elections to be the Kumbh Melas of democracy. Second, the plight of Varanasi weavers, the prospect of unemployment revealed that no development model has as yet created a satisfying answer to basic issues. The last day of voting made the entire debate of Modi-Kejriwal seem absolutely meaningless.

EC’s stellar role

The Election Commission of India (ECI) is one of the most sacrosanct institutions of politics. From Mr. Seshan to Dr. Gill and Mr. Lyngdoh, it has asserted its authority with gravitas and ease, maintaining the integrity of the electoral process; 2014, however, provided a barrage of controversies for Mr. V.S. Sampath and his team over complaints of violation and unfair treatment. Debates about Mr. Modi’s Lotus, Rahul Gandhi’s presence in an EVM booth, the prospect of booth tampering and rigging in Bengal, the denial of permission to Mr. Modi to address a rally on the last day of campaigning created a bundle of question marks around the commission. It is true that the commission was slow in response to some complaints but if one looks systemically, one realises that the ECI has pulled off a logistical miracle, an act of governance anyone can be proud of.

By this time these reports are read, politics would have shifted gears. The “change” that India had voted for has begun and losses like that of Arun Jaitley would have been lightly forgotten. Electoral struggles would have yielded to governance issues. The UPA-II would belong to history and the new Modi Sarkar would be readying itself for the rituals of power. Lutyens’ Delhi will be welcoming a new party after decades.

(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)

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