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The Lessons of Election 2009

May 16, 2009 17:14 IST
While the official results in the election to the Lok Sabha, the lower House of the Indian Parliament, are yet to be announced, it is clear that the Congress has not only retained its position as the largest single party, but has even improved its position as compared to the results of the 2004 election by about 50 seats.

The parties, which belonged to the United Progressive Alliance, as the coalition led by it is known, are well set to have a near absolute majority -- more than 50 per cent of the total seats -- if not an absolute majority. This should enable the Congress to form a coalition government headed by Dr Manmohan Singh as the prime minister once again for five years.

There is likely to be greater ideological cohesion in the new coalition and this should enable the new government to give a fresh momentum to the implementation of much-needed economic reforms. Under the departing government, also led by Manmohan Singh, the lack of an ideological cohesion stood in the way of such implementation.

There has to be a caveat here. The Trinamool Congress, led by Mamata Banerjee, which has a won a remarkable victory in West Bengal and which will be an important member of the new coalition, has its own retrograde baggage in economic matters -- like its unrelenting opposition to special economic zones and its allergy to corporate houses. This baggage might come in the way of the needed economic reforms if the prime minister and Sonia Gandhi, the Congress president, are unable to persuade her to bury her economic baggage.

The three most significant features of the election are:

  • L K Advani, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, has failed to convince the electorate that he will be a better alternative to Manmohan Singh as the prime minister. Many of the local BJP cadres with whom I have an opportunity of interacting periodically, were not optimistic even before the election about the party's chances.

    During their interactions with me, they attributed their pessimism to the fact that Advani had been unable to enthuse voters outside committed supporters of the BJP and its sister organisations. They also felt that Advani was amenable to accepting wrong advice and that this could come in the way of the BJP coming back to power.

    I myself felt that he came out during the election campaign as a negativist leader, who was good in criticising the government and Manmohan Singh, but was unable to come out with a positive policy package which he could place before the electorate as an alternative to what the UPA government was doing.

    Negativism tires people after some time. He also committed many tactical mistakes. The most serious of them was his focussing on attacking the prime minister as an individual leader than on his policies. Attacks of a personal nature do not go well in our civil society. They create a feeling of revulsion in people.

  • The cynicism, which in the past characterised the attitude of large sections of the people towards the Congress because of allegations of corruption, inefficiency etc, has got diluted and people have once again started looking up to the Congress as a party capable of re-inventing and reforming itself.

    In many parts of the country, the Congress is still looked upon as the party of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, K Kamaraj, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and P V Narasimha Rao.

    Manmohan Singh's unquestioned reputation as an honest leader has helped the Congress in getting over this cynicism surrounding it. The Congress has a past of which it can be proud. The same thing cannot be said about the BJP. The votes for the BJP came largely --if not exclusively -- from its committed supporters. The Congress was able to tap a much larger reservoir -- consisting of its committed supporters as well as others.

  • Wherever the Communists had come to power anywhere in the world either through a revolution or through the ballot box, they have shown a tendency to see to it that they cannot be dislodged from power by infiltrating the governmental machinery through their cadres and through intimidation of those opposed to them. That is what they succeeded in doing in West Bengal.

    The entire credit for breaking their stranglehold on the governmental machinery and initiating the process of freeing West Bengal from the asphyxiating clutches of the Communists should go to Mamata Bannerjee. For years, she fought single-handed against them and has ultimately succeeded.

  • What will be the impact of the election on the common man? All the parties, which will be in the new coalition, have had a reputation of giving equal priority to the needs of the common man as well as the business class, whereas the BJP was always seen as a party which felt more comfortable with the business world.

    There will be conflicting pressures on the new government -- from the corporate world for more and speedier economic reforms and from the middle and poorer classes for more populist measures like writing off bank loans, subsidised sale of essential articles etc.

    If the Trinamool Congress continues to act as a speed-breaker in the way of meeting the expectations of the corporate world, inner conflicts would once again distort the economic reforms and further delay our catching up with China.

    How to meet the expectations of the corporate world without sacrificing the interests of the common man?

    How to meet the expectations of the common man without sacrificing the needs of the corporate world? These questions will haunt the prime minister as he gets going for a second innings.

    What will be the impact of the election on the Hindutva forces constituted by the BJP and its allied organisations? Will they realise that playing an exclusively Hindu card has proved counter-productive and that the time has come to give themselves an expanded agenda not confined to the interests of the Hindu community?

    The BJP has done well in the election despite its lack-lustre election campaign, though it has not done as well as in 1999 and even in 2004, but if it has to appeal to a larger spectrum of people of different religions and different regions it has to do a sincere introspection and embark on an exercise to rid itself of the negative aspects of its image.

    Is it capable of such an honest introspection?

    The history of many religion-based parties in other countries often is that when they do badly electorally, the die-hards in the party manage to convince themselves that their poor performance was due to not their over-focus on religion, but because of their not focussing sufficiently on religion-related issues. Instead of diluting polarising tendencies, they further strengthen them.

    The BJP has to resist such a retrograde step if it has to regain its elan and come back to power. What is required is not more of the Hindutva ideology, but less of it.

    What will be the impact on India's place in the international community?

    Many countries in the world must have heaved a sigh of relief over the bad performance of the Communists. Apart from China, North Korea and Cuba, no other country in the world would have relished the prospect of the Communists coming to power in New Delhi.

    Many Islamic and even Western countries would have heaved a sigh of relief over the BJP's poor performance. The BJP was seen in the Islamic world as a party of Hindu extremists. It was seen in the Western world as a party of Hindu nationalists.

    Its anti-Communist ideology attracted the Western world. The West had no difficulty in getting along with the government headed by then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but it was increasingly concerned by what it saw as an attempt of Hindutva elements to create a divide between the Hindus and Christians.

    The world as a whole would be happy with Manmohan Singh's continuance as prime minister. The political leaderships of many countries felt more comfortable with him than they would have been with Advani. He was perceived as a moderate, balanced person, who avoids rhetoric and confrontational attitudes.

    The previous Bush administration in the US was very happy with him as prime minister. The Obama administration would be equally happy with him. Since coming to office on January 20, the Obama administration has been adopting a low-profile, inactivist role vis-a-vis India because of the election.

    Now that the election is over, one can expect a more high profile and activist role. Such activism would be directed towards nudging Manmohan Singh into resuming the composite dialogue with Pakistan, which was interrupted by the terror attacks in Mumbai, and towards addressing at least some of Pakistan's concerns relating to India's role in Afghanistan.

    On the question of the suspended dialogue with Pakistan, the failure of Asif Ali Zardari's government to arrest and prosecute or hand over to India the leaders of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba involved in the Mumbai attacks would come in the way of any decision to resume the dialogue.

    Despite the fact that counter-terrorism did not play any major role in influencing the attitude of voters during the election, public opinion in India might find it difficult to support any decision to resume the dialogue despite Pakistan's obduracy on the Lashkar issue.

    Since Pakistan's attitude shows no signs of changing, do we continue to keep the dialogue process in cold storage? The new government should make any resumption of the dialogue conditional on the US making Pakistan give satisfaction to India on the Lashkar issue.

    Pakistan's perceived concerns about India's role in Afghanistan relate to three issues.

    Firstly, India's role in the economic development of Afghanistan and particularly its role in the development of the infrastructure.

    Secondly, the alleged presence in Afghanistan of a large number of Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel to protect the economic reconstruction teams.

    Thirdly, the presence in Afghan towns near the border with Pakistan of Indian consulates. Pakistan alleges that these consulates are being used to assist political dissidents in Balochistan.

    The Obama administration has been supportive of India's assistance in the economic development of Afghanistan and as such the first two demands of Pakistan do not seem to have much support in Washington. Though the US has not accepted Pakistani allegations regarding the functioning of the consulates, it may still want the new government in New Delhi to address this third concern suitably. The new government should reject this firmly.

    Even though the Chinese would have been disappointed by the Communists's poor performance in the election, they would be happy with Manmohan Singh's continuance in power. The Chinese leadership felt comfortable with him despite their concerns over the India's close strategic relations with the US under the Bush administration. These concerns would be less now in view of the greater importance attached by the Obama administration to the US's relations with China than with India.

    The economic relations and the people-to-people contact between India and China would continue to develop, but the border dispute will defy an early solution unless there is a dramatic change in the Chinese attitude, which is unlikely.

    While continuing to negotiate on the border dispute, Manmohan Singh will avoid a confrontational situation. This would suit the Chinese for the time being. They know the art of patience.

    Sri Lanka and Nepal will be ticklish issues. The humanitarian crisis affecting the Sri Lankan Tamils did not have any impact on the election results, but it is an emotional issue with sections of the Tamil population and can lead to an outbreak of violence and cause strains in the Congress's relations with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam if the sequel to the impending final defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is not handled sensitively by President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government.

    In Nepal, the dilemma faced by the new government will be of a different nature.

    How not to come in the way of the Maoists's insistence on the acceptance of civilian supremacy over the armed forces and the prime minister's primacy in decision-making in all matters relating to the armed forces?

    How to address concerns in the officer class over the possible ideological infection of the army due to the wholescale integration of the Maoist People's Liberation Army?

    How to prevent legitimate Indian interest in these issues from being misinterpreted by the Maoists as intereference in Nepal's internal affairs and thereby driving them further into the arms of the Chinese?

    Mutually compatible answers to these questions have to be found. The Communists's poor performance in the election will hopefully prevent their exercising any distoring influence on our policy-making on Nepal.

    What will be the impact on national security management? The national security management did not receive the attention it deserved during the election campaign. The BJP leaders and their advisers handled the national security debate in a shockingly inept manner, forgetting that when they were in power they were not paragons of national security management and that they had skeletons in their cupboard.

    What one saw during the election campaign was more Hyde Park-style mud-slinging than a well-informed debate. Advani and Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, cannot escape a major share of responsibility for reducing the debate to the level of Hyde Park oratory.

    The nation and its people have to be gratified that the election went off smoothly, belying apprehensions that jihadi terrorists would try to disrupt the electoral process. The credit for the excellent security arrangements should go to the entire security bureaucracy and specially to P Chidambaram, the home minister, Madhukar Gupta, the home secretary, and his colleagues in the home ministry as well as to our intelligence community.

    At the same time, one should not overlook the possibility that the jihadis themselves decided not to indulge in any act of terrorism lest the people's resentment result in additional support for the BJP.

    There has been no act of terrorism by the Indian Mujahideen since September when they struck in New Delhi. There has been no incident of Pakistan-conspired terrorism since the Mumbai attacks of November 2008. This should not be interpreted to mean that their capabilities have withered away.

    One must view this more as a tactical pause and one should be prepared for a resumption of jihadi attacks. The comprehensive plan for strengthening our counter-terrorism apparatus worked out by Chidambaram should be implemented vigorously. Complacency would be suicidal.

    Though there was no act of jihadi terrorism in the months leading up to the election, the Maoists repeatedly struck killing nearly 50 members of the security forces during the election campaign. This speaks of continuing weaknesses in our counter-terrorism capability against the Maoists, who operate essentially from the rural areas as against the jihadis, who are mainly urban-based. This should receive the priority attention of the new government.

    B Raman