STABILITY and continuity with secularism. If Verdict 2009 were to be summed up in a short phrase, this is it. Large sections of the electorate across the country voted to bring back the regime of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and brought it within striking distance of the simple-majority mark of 272. Though the numbers thrown up by the results would, technically, imply a hung Parliament, there is little doubt about the mandate given to the Manmohan Singh-led government to run its course for five years, without too many pressures and problems from smaller parties and allies.
The UPAs tally of 262 seats, with the Congress itself accounting for 206 of them; the huge gap between it and its nearest rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA); and the virtual decimation of the non-Congress, non-BJP formation led by the Left parties underscore this mandate.
The NDA got only 157 seats, with the BJPs own score being 116, while the non-Congress, non-BJP formation was reduced to 72. The Fourth Front, which sought to develop a separate political identity in order to enhance its bargaining power with the Congress and the UPA in a post-poll situation, was also brought down, to just 27 seats.
The message, clearly, is that none of the regional and smaller parties that hoped to play a decisive role in the 15th Lok Sabha, and through it in the formation of the next government, will have much of a say. The verdict is such that the UPA has the opportunity to form the government by choosing its allies at its own will and convenience and, at a pinch, even with the support of independents who do not have specific political affiliations.
Obviously, this result has gone contrary to the perceptions that held sway among the political class and observers throughout the election process. The main perception was about a hopelessly hung Parliament. Even the Congress, which is now basking in the glory of a spectacular victory, had shared this view and gone about looking for new allies for a post-poll scenario. That search had even taken it to the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United), which has been a consistent partner in the NDA for the past decade and a half.
Midway through the process, Sharad Pawar, UPA Minister and president of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), made bold to predict that the Congress would get 150 to 160 seats and that the UPA would have to take the support of the Left parties to form the government.
This and other similar projections had to be discarded outright after the verdict, which paved the way for the re-election of an Indian Prime Minister who completed a full term for the first time in 47 years. The last Prime Minister to be re-elected was Jawaharlal Nehru, in 1962.
Analysing the result rather dramatically, Subodh Kant Sahay, Union Minister and Member of Parliament representing Ranchi, likened it to a collective sigh of relief of the people. He went on to add: It is a sigh that marks stability in government, a sigh that provides the Congress and the UPA enough political strength to go forward with their policies without fear and hesitation, a sigh that provides liberation to the Central government from the pressures and machinations of smaller parties, a sigh that hopes for good governance.
There is little doubt that such dramatic and poetic interpretations would continue to emerge from within the Congress in the present context. But a more objective assessment of the verdict will have to focus on a number of related factors.
The primary factor, by any yardstick, has to be the overriding view among large sections of the electorate that only the Congress can provide a stable, secular government. The second factor relates to the track record of the Manmohan Singh government, particularly its social sector initiatives such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and the bank loan waiver.
The third crucial factor is the shift of the Muslim vote towards the Congress in the Hindi heartland in general and in Uttar Pradesh in particular. The community felt increasingly disenchanted with the parties it supported in the past two decades, including the Lalu Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
That the election issues highlighted by the NDA, such as internal security and the bringing back of black money from Swiss banks, failed to generate popular appeal was also a factor. The internal security plank fell flat because the earlier NDA regimes had also witnessed several internal security challenges that were not countered properly, such as the attack on the Parliament House and the Kandahar hijack.
The leadership provided by Sonia Gandhi to the Congress and the UPA as a whole was also a factor that raised the UPAs prospects. The Rahul Gandhi effect supplemented this, especially in Uttar Pradesh. Finally, the presence of several regional spoilers, who took the form of new political parties and essentially weakened the adversaries of the UPA, also helped produce this verdict.
The BJP campaign for the elections was particularly non-productive. The party sent mixed signals even on its leadership by projecting Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as a potential Prime Minister midway through the elections. This caused great embarrassment even to Lal Krishna Advani. The manner in which Advani condoned Varun Gandhis communal utterances in Pilibhit also did not go down well with the electorate. The open tussle between party president Rajnath Singh and general secretary Arun Jaitley over the organisational preparations for the elections in Assam and some of the caustic comments made on Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh by Modi and other leaders also boomeranged.
The cumulative impact of these issues resulted in the Congress making gains across the country at the expense of most of its political opponents, who belonged to disparate groupings such as the NDA, the non-Congress, non-BJP formation, and the Fourth Front.
The Congress thrashed the BJP electorally in Rajasthan and Delhi and wrested a number of seats from it in Madhya Pradesh. The Left parties were crushed by the Congress juggernaut in their bastions of West Bengal and Kerala. The Congress and its ally, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), came up with surprisingly good performances in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu respectively, at the cost of the Third Front parties, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu.
In both these States spoilers in the form of new regional parties helped the UPA constituents. The Chiranjeevi-led Praja Rajyam damaged the TDPs chances considerably and the Vijayakant-led Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) divided anti-DMK votes in Tamil Nadu. Initial estimates indicated that the Praja Rajyam boosted the Congress tally in Andhra Pradesh from an expected 20 seats to a striking 33. Praja Rajyam apparently cut more into the votes of the TDP-Telangana Rashtra Samiti-Left front combine than into that of the Congress.
Interestingly, UPA constituents who chose to part company with the Congress and fight the polls separately suffered electoral reverses. The Fourth Front, formed by Lalu Prasads RJD, Ram Vilas Paswans Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and Mulayam Singh Yadavs S.P., was the biggest such sufferer.
While the LJP failed to open its account, the RJD and the S.P. had to endure considerable losses from their earlier tally. In the process, the Congress notched up impressive gains by going it alone in Uttar Pradesh. The Congress gains in Uttar Pradesh also dashed the hopes of the BSP that its leader Mayawati would play an important role, perhaps even as Prime Minister, in national politics.
Only in two States the political opponents of the Congress withstood this assault: the Nitish Kumar-led NDA in Bihar and the Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Orissa.
Many of the factors that ultimately helped the Congress developed during the election process. In the early run-up to the polls, a number of regional parties, such as the TDP, the AIADMK and the BJD, moved to the non-Congress, non-BJP formation led by the Left parties. This created the impression that the economic policy shortcomings of the Congress and the UPA government caused by the pursuit of policies of liberalisation and globalisation and the inability to control prices would form the central points of Election 2009.
However, this did not develop on expected lines, essentially on account of the public perception that the constituents of the Third Front would not be able to plough together with a common policy. The fact that there were too many prime ministerial aspirants in the grouping strengthened the impression about potential disunity among its members in the future. Moreover, the social sector initiatives of the UPA government sent out the message that the Congress would do a balancing act as and when required.
Commenting on the political situation during the run-up to the elections, veteran political analyst Hariraj Singh Tyagi told Frontline (Cover Story, April 24): It is widely acknowledged across the country that Sonia Gandhi is the tallest leader in this election and the Congress is the largest party with moderate, middle-path views. That perception is bound to stabilise in the days to come, helping the Congress improve its individual tally. This, in turn, would make all these regional forces to once again fall in line with the leading party of the UPA. The verdict has indeed set the Congress opponents and allies thinking about how they should address the supreme gains of the party and about the new political manoeuvres it would make in the future on the strength of these gains.
The BJP is already in a state of disarray on several counts. It did not expect to lose so badly to the Congress, with a difference of nearly 100 seats. The partys prime ministerial candidate has made it clear that he would not take up the position of Leader of the Opposition. A stiff and bitter race has already started within the party to fill the vacancy. Several Gen-Next leaders, including party president Rajnath Singh, former president Murli Manohar Joshi and former Union Ministers Sushma Swaraj and Jaswant Singh have thrown their hat into the ring.
The Third Front is also showing signs of disintegration, with the AIADMK, the TDP and the BJD deciding not to attend a joint meeting scheduled for May 18. The Left parties, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which were mauled electorally in their strongholds of West Bengal and Kerala and handed one of their worst defeats since Independence, admitted that they need to go in for serious review and introspection on the defeat. The components of the Fourth Front too seem to be on the path of parting ways, with the Congress warming up to RJD leader Lalu Prasad and squarely rejecting the overtures of Mulayam Singhs S.P. The LJP cannot even make an overture because it has no representation in the Lok Sabha. The BSP, too, would be forced to introspect on the kind of social engineering it would have to adopt to keep the party intact while preparing for a prospective political assault by the Congress.
In the midst of this rise of the Congress as a strong party with a national presence, the UPA constituents, including the tantrums-prone Mamata Banerjee and the enduring prime ministerial aspirant Sharad Pawar, may not dare to cause too many problems to the Congress, at least at the beginning of the new tenure of the government. However , the biggest challenge before Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and the more powerful Rahul Gandhi would be to live up to the faith reposed in them by the people. The continuance of the new political gains will, in reality, depend on how far the Congress succeeds in doing this.