The election wasn't just an aggregate of state-level contests. The results show a clear national-level trend in the Congress's general ascendancy in most states, perhaps barring Gujarat and Karnataka. The party was rewarded handsomely for its inclusive pluralism and pursuit of Left-of-Centre policies through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, loan-waiver for farmers in distress, and the Right to Information Act.
The NREGA, which gave 45 million families -- or one-fourth of all households in India -- an average of 48 days of work last year, is probably the single most important reason for the Congress's remarkable success. It won 21 seats in Uttar Pradesh, combated the incumbency burden in Rajasthan, Andhra and Delhi, made a big dent in the Left's citadel in West Bengal, and added 61 seats to its 2004 national total. The Congress fought off its post-1984 decline in 2002-04. It has now got its second wind. Its revival in UP marks a watershed.
The election has two other messages. Identity politics in its narrow form -- whether religious or caste-based, which is unaccompanied by substantive social and economic agendas -- seems to be running out its course. This is what explains the below-par electoral performance of the Bahujan Samaj Party in UP and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar.
The second message is for the Left and the Third Front. The four-party Left group led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist has been given a drubbing of historic proportions. Its Lok Sabha strength stands reduced by 60 percent to only 24 seats, its lowest-ever number. This represents punishment for pursuing neo-liberal policies in West Bengal, taking conservative positions on many issues, and failing to provide a credible alternative to the Congress and the BJP. The Left now admits the Third Front wasn't credible or even viable.
The warning to the Left is loud and clear: Clean up your act, rethink your basic strategy and policies in solidarity with your core constituency, or face marginalisation, if not terminal decline. The Left parties would be suicidal to ignore the warning.
To return to the main trends, the BJP has received a severe dressing-down -- in UP, Rajasthan, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab and Haryana. It's only where it's extremely well-entrenched, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka, that it held its own.
In Gujarat, it lost its vote share by 0.9 percent and won only one additional seat over the 14 it bagged in 2004, when Narendra Modi boasted it would win at least 20 of 26. In Chhattisgarh, it conceded three seats to the Congress, against only one of 11 in 2004.
The BJP lost 22 seats nationally despite running a super-efficient (but low-level) campaign, projecting Lauh Purush (Iron Man) L K Advani as its leader, and working out caste and social-group arithmetic meticulously. It failed not because of Atal Bihari Vajpayee's absence -- then why the 2004 debacle while he was active? -- or tactical errors, but because of its strategic bankruptcy and communal orientation.
The BJP has lost a sizeable 3.4 percentage-points in votes because of its negative image as a querulous, confrontationist party which always depicts itself as a victim and uses unscrupulous means, including violence and abuse, as instruments of political mobilisation.
The BJP won't find it easy to recover from this setback. Neither Modi nor Arun Jaitley has accepted responsibility for it -- unlike Pramod Mahajan in 2004. The BJP could soon slide into the Jana Sangh's ghetto existence, with 25 to 35 Lok Sabha seats. The election has finally put paid to Advani's prime ministerial ambitions. He first offered to quit as Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, not out of a spirit of renunciation but because he knows that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh will soon remove him and rub his nose into the ground.
Advani is staying on temporarily. But that won't resolve the party's leadership crisis or succession problems. The BJP isn't about to embrace moderation. It'll come under pressure to adopt a hard Hindutva line. After all, that has paid it dividends in Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, and even more crucially, in Karnataka, its only southern base. But that course means ghettoisation.
The BJP is in decline in UP and Bihar, as well as nationally. It remains well-entrenched in the central Indian tribal belt stretching from Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh all the way to Jharkhand and western Orissa. It has also sunk shallow roots in parts of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. It commands the allegiance of a good chunk of the upper-caste upper-class elite. Only a determined, well-focussed grassroots campaign can dislodge the BJP. It isn't easy to imagine the Congress summoning up the will to mobilise that campaign.
The Congress, for its part, must recognise that its mandate isn't about stability, but for a Left-of-Centre secular platform. It projected itself as a social democratic party focussed on the aam aadmi.
Rahul Gandhi succeeded in reviving the Congress in UP by emphasising this agenda and what has been called the 'NREGA paradigm'. This has created not just much-needed employment and income-raising opportunities for the poor, but also new entitlements. Along with the loan waiver, it has promoted the idea of the caring state which redistributes resources towards the poor.
Amazingly, this very positive image was achieved at a very modest cost, of the order of Rs 12,000 crores (Rs 120 billion). It's only appropriate that the Congress wants to extend the scheme to the entire country, including the urban areas, and raise the current 100-day ceiling on the number of days of guaranteed work.
If a scheme like the NREGA can yield such handsome dividends, imagine the likely impact of an initiative to provide universal healthcare, free primary education, safe drinking water, affordable housing and social security.
If the State revives and modernises primary health centres which lie moribund across the country, the effect would be electrifying. Millions of households who are forced to go to quacks or expensive private practitioners -- and thus bankrupt themselves -- would experience a huge change in the quality of life which helps them develop their human potential.
The Congress would be ill-advised to regard its electoral success as a licence to push through neo-liberal policies like privatising the public sector, dismantling labour protections and raising foreign investment ceilings in pension funds, insurance and retail. As the global recession shows, these policies are now discredited and despised throughout the civilised world.
Dr Manmohan Singh would do well to pay heed to Rahul Gandhi's emphasis on social sector programmes. That would be the ruling alliance's best contribution to the India of the aam aadmi, rather than India Inc.
The government has already given undeserved bailouts of Rs 50,000 crores to various industries, including automobiles, civil aviation, steel and real estate. It must not compound that blunder. Instead it should make public investments in industry, agriculture and services, protect livelihoods and create jobs.
Crucial here are the thoughtful recommendations of the Arjun Sengupta Commission on the unorganised sector, which can produce a spectacular new deal for the poor.
The election results expose the limitations of BSP-RJD-style and self-respect-based identity politics and artificial social engineering. In UP, Mayawati has done little for the people, but blown up an obscene Rs 6,000 crores (Rs 60 billion) on memorials and statues.
By contrast, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has performed remarkably well because he practised inclusion, and reached out to poorer Muslims, the extremely backward classes and the Maha-Dalits by reserving a good chunk of OBC and Dalit quotas for them.
Nitish Kumar has done much to control crime, renovate roads, and empower the gram panchayats to recruit primary school teachers. This has obviated dependence on town-dwellers and can reduce teacher absenteeism and revitalise crisis-ridden government schools. Such initiatives need to be generalised, as do steps to improve food security.
The Left's strategy of propping up a Third Front purely for electoral purposes, and without joint participation in grassroots struggles, failed. The Front proved unviable. That's not because regional parties have become irrelevant. Indeed, their vote-share hasn't fallen despite the high number of seats (320-plus) bagged by the national parties.
The Front failed mainly because it had nothing in common in ideological, political or programmatic terms. Many of its constituents including H D Deve Gowda's Janata Dal-Secular are backing the Congress-led coalition. The Left must learn its lessons and return to grassroots work as it rethinks its policies and revamps its strategy. Or, it will fall by the wayside.