Verdict 2004 is surely as momentous as the defeat of Indira Gandhi and the Emergency in 1977. There have been more decisive outcomes, in terms of yielding a clear majority in Parliament, like Indira Gandhi’s triumph in 1971 and Rajiv Gandhi’s landslide victory in 1984, but no election other than 1977 has arguably articulated the voice of the Indian people as clearly as 2004. The message is unequivocal: India firmly rejects the economic, social and political agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance Government.
To explain the defeat of the NDA in terms of anti-incumbency or to say that the BJP was let down by its allies or that the rural voter has prevailed over the urban is to throw red herrings on the road to understanding the reasons for the ouster of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government. There certainly was a mosaic of factors that contributed to the outcome in each Lok Sabha constituency in each State. There is, however, one set of reasons that, barring the odd exception, is common across the length and breadth of the country for why a sufficiently large number of voters did not press a particular button on the electronic voting machines. They felt insulted by the BJP’s claims about the economy doing exceptionally well. They refused to buy the stability argument of the NDA. They were angry about the ruling coalition’s ugly tirade against Congress president Sonia Gandhi. And they obviously did not believe the claim that a government headed by Mr. Vajpayee is the best one to govern the country for another five years.
The BJP, flush with its unexpected victory last December in three major States and with the string of good news about the macro-economy, thought it was going to be a cakewalk over the demoralised Congress. The NDA first espoused the ‘Feel good’ theory. While macro-economic parameters such as the GDP growth rate and exports have indeed been positive, the regime in New Delhi overlooked some obvious facts. First, the country had seen a better economic performance earlier. The NDA wrongly assumed that the people would believe the record in one year (2003-04) foretold the future. Secondly, and this was more important, for years whatever growth had taken place had benefited only certain regions and classes. Be it job creation, health services, education or even nutrition, for the vast majority things were not very much better and they were tired of the promises of a new India. The crude ‘India Shining’ campaign was increasingly seen as cruel propaganda by most Indians who continued to struggle to make ends meet. Statistics can lie but the ground reality cannot. What the NDA forgot was that the citizen still possessed the ultimate weapon that could be used against an insensitive and manipulative government. This was indeed wielded to show the NDA the door. The coalition did attempt to change strategy mid-course and first turned on the Sonia Gandhi as foreigner issue. But when the anti-Sonia campaign turned vituperative, this was yet another insult to the Indian voter. Even the ‘stability’ slogan found few buyers when the BJP in the closing weeks tried every trick in the book to enlist as many new allies as possible. Voters could hardly be expected to trust a coalition that became more and more desperate to return to power.
The election turned out to be predominantly a vote against the NDA, but it was also a vote for parties that promised to be empathetic to the condition of the ordinary citizen. In retrospect, how could it have been different when one political formation held out, for instance, the promise of 100 days’ employment to every rural family while the other was content to speak of $100 billion of foreign exchange reserves and making India ‘a great power?’ Yes, the Congress did also choose its allies wisely (notably in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra) and the NDA was no match for some local configurations (Tamil Nadu was the best example). However, the more important factor that drove the NDA to a stunning defeat was a larger all-India anger at the NDA. It is important to recognise that even States that overwhelmingly voted in favour of the BJP last December have now seen a marginal but distinct shift in favour of the Congress. In Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, a dispirited Congress was expected to be wiped out in the Parliamentary elections. But while the Congress tally of 10, at the time of writing, is half the 20 it got in 1999, it is certainly more than it expected. The Congress may well have done much better if it had believed in itself in these States. The extent to which the voter was prepared to turn against the BJP is exemplified by the results in Gujarat. The BJP had as recently as December 2002 shown that it had a stranglehold on the State. Yet it ended up with what can only be described as an embarrassment: a loss of 12 out of 26 seats — with many of the losses in areas that witnessed the terrible violence against Muslims in March 2002.
To return to the anti-incumbency argument, which is often the lazy explanation offered for electoral outcomes. Yes, voter anger against the party in power — whatever its hue — expressed itself in both Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. But if anti-incumbency is the dominant force, how does one explain the victory of the ruling parties in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Bihar, Orissa and Maharashtra? Another trivial interpretation is that the rural electorate has voted with its feet against the NDA, while, by implication, the supposedly more enlightened urban residents had allied themselves with the forward-thinking NDA. This again is a self-serving explanation. Yes, rural India has by and large voted for the Congress-led alliance. But so too has the electorate in most of the urban constituencies of Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad. An interesting statistic is that urban voters have on occasion shown a greater anti-NDA sentiment in the Lok Sabha elections. In the Secunderabad constituency, two-time Union Minister of State for Railways Bangaru Dattatreya of the BJP was defeated by a margin of 70,000 votes. This was six times as large as the gap between the total votes polled by the BJP/TDP and Congress candidates in the Assembly elections in the same constituency. Yet another theory is that the BJP was let down by its allies. This is hardly the case. Yes, the Telugu Desam Party has ended up with 25 seats fewer than in the 13th Lok Sabha and the All-India Anna DMK with 10 seats less. However, the BJP cannot hide the fact that, other than in Karnataka, its own performance has been dismal. It has lost 42 seats (nearly 25 per cent less than its 1999 tally of 180), has emerged an embarrassing fourth in Uttar Pradesh and will come behind the Congress, which it used to deride as incapable of crossing the double-digit mark in the new House.
The BJP will, in the days to come, project an air of injured pride. It will ask itself how much more it could have done than working towards peace with Pakistan and even softening its Hindutva colours. One can only speculate that perhaps the voter could not also forget that it was the BJP that was in power in Gujarat in March 2002, that it was the party that made India go openly nuclear, and that it had its eyes and ears more attuned to earning praise from the international financial community than to improving the lives of the people in the country. After tasting power and expanding its base among India’s middle and upper-income urban classes, the BJP paid the price for becoming disconnected from reality. India twice gave the BJP an opportunity to rule, but on both occasions it failed to rise to the challenge. Now in the most amazing of elections, the country has decided to withdraw the remit to the BJP-led coalition and hand it over to the Congress and its allies.
Will the Congress-led Government do any better? One can only hope that the new coalition at the Centre will learn from past experiences. The grand old party has been out of power for eight years. It was written off, but has managed to claw back after realising that it has to respect coalition politics. It was the Congress-initiated brand of economic reform that India has rejected twice — in 1996 when the Narasimha Rao Government was voted out and now in 2004 when the Vajpayee Government, which followed the same policies, has been shown the door. It must surely recognise at least now that the people are demanding broad-based and inclusive economic policies. They will not accept an approach to the economy that makes India one of the fastest growing economies in the world but also one where a dominant under-class gets left behind.
In election 2004, the majority has shown that it will not be bribed by vague promises of India becoming a superpower in 2020. This certainly is India shining.
(This article was published in The Hindu on 14 May, 2004)