A stronger mandate to govern

Print edition : October 23, 1999

THE thirteenth general election - the third election in three years - has yielded a rather decisive mandate to the political party of the Hindu Right, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and its 23 regional allies of varied character and background, to govern In dia from the Centre. The close to 300 seats that the coalition headed by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has won represents a striking reversal of the political trends that were witnessed for much of the period after the BJP assumed the reins, in Apr il 1998, as head of a smaller coalition that included some of the more volatile elements in India's regional politics. No single big factor, or even a few factors, can help explain the 1999 outcome.

If there was a Kargil effect that unexpectedly boosted the stock of Vajpayee and the BJP across much of the country, this was clearly no Kargil election, as the results in the battleground States of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab underlined. Further, the Kargi l effect was in visible decline during the latter part of a voting exercise spread over a whole month. If it was the 'able' Prime Minister's winning image that scored generally, then that image took a beating in a few States (Karnataka, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh) and elsewhere seemed less important than alliance arithmetic (Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Maharashtra) or the independent electoral clout of senior regional partners (Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal). If there was a strong anti-incumbency factor at w ork at the State level (Bihar, Punjab, Karnataka, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, and also Maharashtra), Andhra Pradesh seemed to witness the opposite, a pro-incumbency wave, the reversal of 1998 for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu seemed to reward in cumbency, and no overriding anti-incumbency mood could be noticed among the voters in the Left-ruled States of West Bengal and Kerala.

An analysis by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) of how India voted in 1999, which is being carried in two parts by Frontline, calls attention to "the vagaries of our electoral system" that account for much of "what looks lik e a coherent majority". If in recent times political India has been hostage to instability, the vote for 'stability' this time is hardly robust. There has been no swing either towards the BJP (its vote share declined by 1.8 percentage point from 1998, al though it must be noted that it contested 50 fewer seats this time) or towards the BJP and its current allies (their combined vote share declined by 1.5 percentage points from what they won in the twelfth general election). In fact, in 1999 the Congress( I) contested 20 fewer seats than in 1998, but improved its vote share by 2.7 percentage points. The triumph of the BJP-led alliance implies neither a polarisation of the votes in its favour nor the emergence of a bipolar national electoral process. In fa ct, the electoral space occupied by non-BJP, non-Congress(I) 'third force' parties has remained more or less intact. Further, in an election that saw some 360 million out of 605 million eligible voters cast their ballots, no correlation could be detected between the level of voter turnout and the success of any major party or grouping. Mid-term elections tend to produce a lower-than-average turnout of voters, but the 1999 voter turnout, while being nearly three percentage points lower than the turnout i n 1998, was higher than in seven of the earlier general elections. Only the vagaries of the Indian electoral system (as Yogendra Yadav points out in his lead analysis of how India voted in 1999) combining with the self-inflicted split in the Congress vot e in Maharashtra provided the BJP-led coalition its comfortable victory margin.

HOWEVER, there are two striking qualitative factors behind the thirteenth general election outcome. The first is the rather remarkable fact that the Vajpayee government proved more resourceful and popular in the caretaker mode than when it ruled f or a year with the backing of a working majority in the Lok Sabha; this change in fortunes can be explained largely by Kargil and the response to it, coming on top of the sympathy that was generated by the fall of the government. And this change in fortu nes is linked to the second factor: the BJP's main opponent at the national level, the Congress(I) led by Sonia Gandhi, can be said to have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

In November 1998, the Congress(I) won impressive victories in the Assembly elections in three battleground States, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Delhi. In December 1998, an ORG-MARG public opinion survey published by India Today (December 28) pre dicted that if elections were to be held at that point, the Congress(I) and its few minor allies would win 45 per cent of the votes and 305 Lok Sabha seats compared with 26 per cent of the votes and 135 seats for the BJP and its numerous allies, and that potential voters favoured Sonia Gandhi over Vajpayee, by a four percentage point margin, for Prime Minister. From that point, it was downhill all the way for the main Opposition party.

The 1999 election is as much about Congress ineptitude under the helmswomanship of Sonia Gandhi as it is about the BJP's Kargil-assisted rally against the odds. The strategic miscalculation that came straight out of the September 1998 Pachmarhi session o f the Congress(I) was based on an almost dogmatic belief that under Sonia Gandhi's leadership, the Congress(I) had managed to reverse its long-term decline, had no need of new allies or coalition partners, and was completely capable of powering its way b ack into the Central government at any time it chose. This belief was contradicted by various objective indicators and had an underlying arrogance to it; its sole virtue, it seemed, was the relative absence of opportunism compared with the BJP's re-empha sised willingness to accommodate all and sundry, major and minor regional allies, in the hunt for power. The strategic miscalculation led to implementing a game plan for the fall of the Vajpayee government without thinking through the nature of an interi m secular and democratic alternative that could hold the reins until such time as fresh elections could be forced. The Congress (I) 'high command' seems simply to have assumed that when the party chose to take charge, all secular and democratic parties i n the system would fall in line, or be swept aside as irrelevant by inexorable historical forces.

In her first post-election statement, Sonia Gandhi acknowledged the major setback suffered by her party and called for "introspection, frank assessment and determined action". But the humiliation suffered by the Congress(I) in the thirteenth general elec tion will serve some purpose only if an honest, objective and non-sycophantic assessment is made that begins with the high command's primary accountability for the debacle. The main opposition party must enter into serious discussion and consultation wit h potential cooperators and fellow-travellers on a broad and principled agenda of rolling back the advances made by the Hindu Right and its extraordinary assemblage of opportunist allies.

MEANWHILE, no illusions need be entertained about what the Hindu Right stands for and what its policies and practical actions are likely to be. Communalism as a political mobilisation strategy has made disturbing progress in the last decade and the force s of the Sangh Parivar are going to be enthused, not reined in, by the 1999 triumph of the BJP. The belief that the Prime Minister is a consummate moderate, and that the composition of the National Democratic Alliance will be an effective check on the ha rdline Hindu Right, could lead to serious political miscalculations among those committed to the core values of secular democracy. Prime Minister Vajpayee's government did not at all do well last time when it came to defending secularism and the interest s of minorities against concerted attacks by RSS-controlled fanatical organisations. Will it be any different this time?

The second immediate area of concern is national security and nuclear policy. With nuclear weaponisation ushered in by the Hindu Right, the risks and hazards for the region have increased considerably. The draft Indian Nuclear Doctrine, which has been an alysed in detail in the columns of Frontline, indicates the dangerous and economically burdensome path that the pro-bomb lobby wishes the government to take. In the hands of the BJP and the RSS, the idea that much more needs to be spent on nationa l security and modernising the military machine is indistinguishable from militarism and the chauvinist logic of a sub-continental arms race. Handling troubled relations with Pakistan in this risky climate will pose a tough challenge to the new governmen t.

The third area of challenge is the economy. There are three strikes against the economic liberalisation and globalisation policies as they have been developed by successive regimes since 1991. The first is that they erode and weaken economic sovereignty, India's pursuit of its own economic path and policies without external tutelage. The second objection is that the economic policies are anti-people, that is they hit the livelihood and basic conditions of the working people of India and increase mass po verty. The third is that they are retrogressive in terms of economics. Prime Minister Vajpayee has asserted, somewhat enigmatically, that the economic policies of the past have become hurdles to faster growth and need to be changed; he has also referred to a tremendous popular demand round the country for a faster and more equitable development. What this implies for the economic policy of the government will be watched closely.

Finally, a major challenge for the BJP will be to manage the tensions and contradictions within the 24-headed NDA. Many of the regional parties in the alliance, such as the Telugu Desam Party and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, have their distinctive regi onal identities and aspirations. Conflicts, minor as well as major, could arise on agendas and interests within the coalition. Can the BJP, a party with a unitary and centralising vision, get used to the imperatives of, and demands made by, federalism in both the constitutional and political sense. How long can it manage the contradictions, both the contradictions between the hard-core Hindu Right and some of the major allies, and the internal contradictions within the Sangh Parivar? On the answer to th is question essentially will depend the stability and longevity of the new Vajpayee government.

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