Stunning blows

Published : Jun 03, 2011 00:00 IST

The most important message from the results of Assembly Elections 2011 is that the voter can no longer be taken for granted.

in New Delhi

THE results of the April-May 2011 round of Assembly elections in four States and the Union Territory of Puducherry contain many historically pertinent signals for the various players in the national polity. Geographically, this round covered only two corners of the country West Bengal and Assam in the East and Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry in the South and accounted for roughly one-fifth of the strength of Parliament, but the messages that the results sent have relevance for the whole country.

More specifically, there is a thematic dimension to the verdicts and this is bound to recur in elections across the country in the days to come.

At the level of realpolitik are the dramatic defeat of the Left parties in their long-standing bastion of West Bengal and the serious setback for the ruling Congress at the Centre in terms of sustaining the political gains it made in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. The defeats in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry and the wafer-thin majority in Kerala have played an important part in the realpolitik reverses for the Congress. A close look at these reverses takes one to the thematic issues.

Central to the thematic messages in the verdict is the reiteration that the Indian electorate, which has underscored its maturity from time to time, does not brook political cynicism and stasis in governance. There is also the message that the adaptation mechanisms political parties employ to keep up with the changing times have to imbibe and reflect the fundamental life concerns of the common people. Besides these, the outcome also points to the influence, in some regions, of conventional sectarian considerations on the basis of caste and community and issues such as anti-incumbency.

Political cynicism and the popular rejection of it was most dominant in Tamil Nadu, where the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and its ally, the Congress, sought to brush vital governance issues and corruption under the carpet through a mixture of populism and welfarism'. Even in Kerala one of the strands in the campaign of the Communist Party of India( Marxist )-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), which was pipped at the post by the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), was against treating corruption and other deviations in politics as the norm, and this generated tremendous popular response. The point about the mismatch between the adaptation of new-age mechanisms and addressing the fundamental concerns of the people presented itself strikingly in West Bengal where the Left Front's efforts to bring in industrial investment in a predominantly agrarian society backfired.

In statistical terms, the Congress and its allies won in West Bengal, Kerala and Assam, while regional parties that are not aligned with the Hindutva-oriented principal national opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), triumphed in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. The Jayalalithaa-led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leads the new government in Tamil Nadu and is a part of the winning combine in Puducherry.

The most striking results were, of course, in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. In both States, people opted for a regime change, routing the governments led by the CPI(M) and the DMK respectively. In West Bengal, the Left Front regime, which had been in office for a record 34 straight years, crumbled under the political assault of the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress-Congress alliance.

For the Left Front, the 62 seats it won marked a dramatic descent from the 235 seats it had in the outgoing Assembly. The context of the 2006 Assembly election results had marked a historical peak for the Indian Left in terms of its strength in the country's legislatures and Parliament. At that time, the Left parties ruled in three States (Kerala and Tripura being the other two) and also had an all-time high of 60 members in the Lok Sabha, with the CPI(M) alone accounting for 44 of them.

This strength in numbers put them in a position where the then Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was dependent on the Left parties for its survival. Naturally, the Left's broad ideological and political positions were increasingly considered and accepted at the national level. But from this high point in parliamentary politics the Left is now down, in a matter of five years, to holding power only in Tripura.

An important reason for this descent was the failure to convince people, both in terms of governance and in terms of political-organisational manoeuvres, that industrialisation would not impinge on the economic and social benefits they derived from agriculture or rightful ownership of land. This, in turn, was perceived to have caused a stasis in governance covering many sectors.

The Left Front government's track record over the three decades since 1977 had evoked widespread adulation, especially with regard to its path-breaking initiatives in the agrarian sector, including land reforms. All Left Front governments were also free of major corruption charges. However, after the 2006 election victory, the focus shifted to the industrial sector.

Immediately after the 2006 verdict, the Marxist economist Prabhat Patnaik pointed to the possibility of serious contradictions emerging while effecting the shift ( Frontline, June 02, 2006). These contradictions did emerge, principally as conflict between the farming community and the government in several parts of the State. Extremist forces, including Maoist groups, capitalised on this. In the turbulent situation that arose as a consequence, the Trinamool Congress-Congress combine benefited politically and in the electoral arena as well. The 2011 election results showed emphatically that the CPI(M) and its allies were found wanting in managing the contradictions they faced since 2006.

Tamil Nadu

In Tamil Nadu the return to power of the AIADMK marks a defeat for the political cynicism of the ruling DMK and its partner, the Congress. The M. Karunanidhi-led government did take initiatives aimed at strengthening industrialisation and improving human development indices, but the five years were also marked by several corruption scandals both at the State level and at the national level, where the DMK was part of the government. The DMK leadership and rank and file also faced sustained criticism for overbearing interference in all walks of life in the State.

Clearly, the party, its alliance and its leadership faced a lot of flak at the way it managed both governance and the party machinery. On its part, the leadership sought to overcome this by employing rank political cynicism, which manifested itself primarily as showering of economic sops on different sections of the population. The sops were received apparently with pleasure by the people, but these were not a factor when it came to judging issues of politics and governance. It was this discernment, combined with the urge for change, that led to the massive victory for the AIADMK alliance.


Puducherry also witnessed a verdict against political cynicism and attempts to use populism to overcome flak for corruption and misgovernance. The ruling Congress suffered a shock defeat at the hands the All India NR Congress (AINRC) led by former Congress leader N.R. Rangasamy. The AINRC got 15 seats and its ally, the AIADMK, five in the 30-member Assembly.


Kerala, however, recorded a study in contrast to the DMK's pursuit of political cynicism. The LDF under the leadership of CPI(M) Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan fought a principled election battle and produced a close contest. The LDF highlighted the government's development track record and the Chief Minister's own crusade against corruption, generating widespread appreciation. This, in turn, upset the UDF's hopes of gaining an easy victory in keeping with the State's tradition of changing governments in successive elections.

The tradition continued, but the intensity of the battle was such that the UDF could barely manage a majority of two seats, winning 72 seats in a House of 140.


Assam, too, presented a study in contrast to the brand of political cynicism displayed by the ruling party in Tamil Nadu. Here, Congress Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi represented the non-cynical approach to politics and governance against the overtly regional Asom Gana Parishad, the minority-politics of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), and the Hindutva-oriented BJP. Electorally, this meant Gogoi returned as Chief Minister for the third time.

In spite of the positive victory in Assam and the gains made in West Bengal and Kerala in the company of allies, the Congress' national leadership has no reason to be happy over Assembly Elections 2011. In both West Bengal and Kerala, the leader of the ruling coalition at the Centre is at the mercy of its allies. While in West Bengal it is decisively the minor partner of the Trinamool Congress, in Kerala it will be under pressure from powerful smaller parties such as the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the Kerala Congress (Mani group). The IUML has 20 seats and the KC(M) nine, whereas the Congress tally has fallen to 38. Clearly, turbulent times lie ahead. For the Congress, the results the loss of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry and the unimpressive win in Kerala are all the more disappointing when compared with the 2009 Lok Sabha election results. In that election, the Congress and its allies literally swept these States, raising visions of impressive victories in the 2011 Assembly polls. But the corruption scandals and misgovernance took away the Congress' advantage. The scandals that rocked the Manmohan Singh-led UPA-II government included the 2G spectrum allocation scam, the Antrix-Devas deal, the misappropriation of funds and corruption in the conduct of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and the blatant violation of rules in the construction and allotment of apartments in the Adarsh Housing Society in Mumbai.

Apart from the Assembly elections, the byelections in Andhra Pradesh also produced a major reverse for the Congress. Here, a break-away group of the Congress, the YSR Congress formed by Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy, former Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy's son, trounced its candidates by huge margins in the Kadapa Lok Sabha seat and the Pulivendula Assembly seat. The rise of the YSR Congress is indeed a major threat to the demoralised Congress regime in Andhra Pradesh, South India's largest State.

The cumulative effect of all this is bound to reflect at the level of day-to-day governance at the Centre. The Congress' regional allies, the Trinamool Congress, the IUML or the KC (M), have emerged stronger than the Congress after the latest round of Assembly elections. This is bound to make them more demanding and aggressive.

In spite of these reverses, sections of the Congress and some representatives of a number of industry and business groupings, see medium- to long-term positives in the current verdict. According to them, the results have conclusively broken the backbone of the Left in Indian politics, which, in turn, will lead to a greater tilt towards bipolarity in national politics.

Many regional parties used to rally around the Left from time to time in order to embarrass and bargain with the two mainstream parties. Now that the Left has lost power in its bastion, these regional parties will behave and confine their choice either to the Congress or the BJP. In that sense, the results are positive despite the reverses we have suffered, said an Andhra Pradesh-based Congress leader-cum-industrialist. He added that he and many others like him in the Congress and the BJP, as well as some trade and industrial bodies, were of the view that this firming up would take place by 2014, when the next Lok Sabha elections are due.

Certainly, this is a point that the mainstream Left, particularly the largest party among them, the CPI(M), will need to look at closely and introspect as to how the non-Congress, non-BJP parties committed to secularism and the struggle against neoliberalism can be effective. On its part, the CPI(M) leadership has initiated meetings of its top organisational committees to analyse the reverses it suffered. Sections of the Left are of the view that the Kerala election experience provides a direction and the broad contours for a concrete plan of action for the advancement of people-oriented politics.

There is also the view among a number of political observers that predictions about the end of tripolarity will not come true because the project itself has all the characteristics of a cynical political calculation and does not take into account the political dynamics triggered by people and their leaders. After all, it is pointed out, the rejection of political cynicism is the primary flavour of the 2011 Assembly verdicts.

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