The message from Uttar Pradesh
Little has changed in the state but the election results tell us something about the future of national politics
In a column in the Daily Pioneer, Shashi Shekhar reports an interesting datum: A search of the Google news archives reveals that while Rahul Gandhi merited over 5000 news stories in 2011, the corresponding number for the newly elected Uttar Pradesh (UP) chief minister Akhilesh Yadav was a measly 26.
Yet, Akhilesh Yadav led Samajwadi Party (SP) has swept to an unprecedented win in the UP assembly elections leaving Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) far behind in its wake. Despite the media hype and the stated confidence of its leaders, the Congress party has only marginally improved its performance forcing even the reclusive Sonia Gandhi to make a rare media appearance.
Rahul Gandhi’s predicament in UP indicates how the political narrative can be shaped by the Delhi-based media establishment which often remains completely divorced from the reality of state-level politics. Political pundits who appeared ready to coronate Rahul Gandhi as the next prime minister of India are now openly questioning his political instincts and even the quality which has defined the Nehru-Gandhi family for generations: Charisma. With little inclination for serious post-mortem in a frantic 24-hour-news-cycle, Mr Yadav is the new media darling with much praise for his newly-discovered leadership abilities and electoral magic.
The state politics
Despite his resounding victory, Akhilesh Yadav faces immense challenges: That UP is one of India’s worst governed states is no secret nor is the fact that it remains mired in corruption with a dominating role for criminals of all political persuasions. Even the most cynical observer of UP politics would find it hard to reconcile the image of the notorious Raghuraj Pratap Singh as the state’s new jail minister.
What is even more troubling, perhaps, is the lack of imagination and vision which the political leadership of UP and its people have shown over the last few decades. While India has progressed, UP has remained caught up in a time wrap with caste and communal considerations still predominantly dictating election results. Not that caste or corruption don’t bedevil politics in some of India’s more developed states; UP’s collective failure is the inability to articulate and implement a developmental agenda which succeeds in delivering at least a semblance of progress and material advancement to its teeming millions. This is where UP and the Hindi heartland suffers in comparison to states like Tamil Nadu or Karnataka. For instance, despite political stability over the last five years, the Lucknow metro is nowhere in the horizon while despite constant political infighting, the Bangalore metro remains largely on track.
Indeed, tempting as it is to search for a grand narrative—the UP electorate has voted for development or for the politics of empowerment—a closer analysis would suggest that the 2012 verdict has merely affirmed the results of the 2007 assembly elections. SP and BSP are now the principal adversaries in UP, with BJP and Congress fighting for the wooden spoon. In short, contrary to much of the popular analysis, little has changed on the ground.
In a first-past-the-post system with multi cornered contests, looking solely at the number of seats is likely to yield distorted findings. What may be more useful is to examine the respective vote share of individual parties. Despite its huge victory, SP has failed to touch even 30% vote share while the BSP’s share remains at a highly respectable 26%. The Congress party has improved marginally while the BJP continues its relentless downward spiral in this electorally crucial state.
The likes of noted psephologist Yogendra Yadav are much better placed to understand the peculiar caste flavours of the 2012 verdict, but what remains true is that societies are not fundamentally transformed in five years. Or ten for that matter. Yes, the Hindi heartland is changing slowly and surely development with its very specific heartland connotation has arrived in the popular consciousness. A voter in Bihar or UP may have voted largely on the basis of caste a decade back but now she expects the government to maintain law and order and deliver some goodies as well. This is exactly where Nitish Kumar has scored in Bihar. But even in Bihar, despite the encomiums showered on Nitish Kumar, the JD(U)-BJP alliance won only 40% vote share in 2010. Even at the height of his popularity when he was being hailed as a transformational leader in New Delhi studios, 60% of Bihar’s population voted against Nitish Kumar. Once again, social transformation is a matter of decades and centuries and not of transient electoral cycles. Indeed, if the recent brazen acts of violence in UP are any indication, even political parties and their supporters can’t change drastically in a short period of time.
It is equally clear that in the foreseeable future UP’s polity would be essentially bipolar with limited roles for the Congress and BJP. Though this trend is hardly unique to the state — regional parties and satraps are increasingly dominating national politics — the defeat in the Hindi heartland remains a significant challenge for the national parties. The UP results may be particularly relevant for BJP which has little chance of capturing power at the central level without a dominating performance in UP.
But why are national parties suffering constant reversals at the state level? Both the Congress and the BJP had no overarching theme in UP—they were merely competing in the promised distribution of entitlements with the regional parties. Naturally, the voter is more inclined to trust those who have the organisation on the ground and whose leaders are locally accessible and not occasionally airdropped from Delhi.
The lack of a national vision may not be fatal in itself if it can be supplemented by strong local leadership. Congress, of course, cannot encourage regional leaders lest they challenge the ruling family while the BJP has been so comprehensively decimated in UP that it was forced to import Uma Bharti from Madhya Pradesh. Little wonder then that the two national parties have fared so poorly in UP. With the emergence of strong regional leaders like Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav, the path to recovery for the BJP and Congress is long and arduous.
The national politics
Making political predictions is a fraught exercise; in the Indian political context with its fast-changing equations and narratives, it is inherently risky. Many political commentators have argued that its poor performance in the assembly elections seriously threatens the prospects of the governing United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in the 2014 general elections. Therefore, it may be useful to start with a rather bold prediction: Assuming current trends hold, the UPA government is likely to return to power in 2014 for a third consecutive term.
In a democracy all elections are about imperfect choices. Elections are more often lost than won. Indeed, it is far easier to argue that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has no plausible path to the Delhi throne in 2014 than to argue a positive case for UPA.
In the 2009 general elections, the NDA won 159 seats with the alliance’s leading party, BJP, restricted to merely 116 seats. For a national alliance to emerge as a serious contender for power and attract post-poll allies, it needs to tally a minimum of 200 seats. It is hard to imagine NDA coming anywhere close to this number. Its current allies are unlikely to significantly improve their performance while the BJP will face major anti-incumbency in some of its most important strongholds: Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.
Therefore, BJP urgently needs additional partners in order to construct an alliance which mirrors closely the NDA of Vajpayee years. However, because of what can only be described as BJP’s ‘Muslim problem’ the party has little hope of returning estranged allies like Mamta Bannerjee and Chandrababu Naidu to the NDA fold.
The BJP currently attracts allies under three conditions. First, in states where its partner is implacably hostile to Muslims (Maharashtra); in states where Muslims votes are marginal (Punjab); and finally in states where the party is strong enough to ‘compensate’ its ally for the loss of Muslim votes (Bihar, Jharkhand). However, there is little that the BJP can offer to Mamta Bannerjee or Jayalalitha; in both these states the party remains a minor player hard pressed even to play the role of a spoiler.
Now, if the NDA was close to the magical figure of 272, some of the regional parties could be persuaded to share in the spoils of power. But it is highly unlikely that in its current state, the NDA can come anywhere close to 272. That is the almost intractable conundrum the beleaguered opposition alliance faces. Simply put: alliances beget alliances. Of course, if the BJP had expanded significantly in the last few years, it could have propelled the NDA forward solely on its own strength. That is why its abject performance in UP and the shenanigans in Karnataka are so disheartening to the party. BJP may have lost the battle even before it truly begins.
Congress has two additional advantages. First, in a multi-cornered contest, the party which does not appear to be a serious contended for power suffers disproportionately with even its sympathisers preferring other parties in order not to waste their vote. This is precisely why the BJP and Congress were unable to attract the anti-Mayawati vote in UP. Second, over the last few elections, the Indian voter has largely preferred to deliver decisive verdicts whether it was the Bihar elections of 2010 or the closely contested assembly elections in Punjab. The voter’s apparent preference for stability is likely to favour the party which is in power and is seen in many quarters as the natural party of governance.
With the weakening of the national parties, the concept of Third Front is again gaining credence in political circles. However, it is a concept which remains attractive in abstract but closer to fruition, the old fault lines emerge. Forget about a common agenda for governance, who would lead this unwieldy formation of regional parties who share little in common but an affiliation for power? What about stability?
There is probably a sweet spot somewhere between 170 and 200 seats where the Congress party can be the linchpin of a stable coalition, and yet is not domineering enough to take its allies for granted. Paradoxically, the weakness of the Congress party may turn out to be a victory for the UPA: Its allies who remain wary of the Grand Old Party’s natural affinity for a single party government are less likely to rock the boat if the Congress remains weak and dependent upon their support. If Mamata Banerjee can constantly bully the central government and engage in low-risk rent extraction, why would she invest in a Third Front government which, based upon past evidence, is unlikely to finish its term?
Those less cynically inclined may well ask why does governance — or rather lack of it — appears nowhere in this analysis? What about the charges of massive corruption constantly leveled against the UPA government? Surely the voter would not reward a formation which has delivered little in the way of governance and has wilfully engaged in massive scams.
But what is the alternative? Opposition-led governments may generally be more effective in delivery of entitlement schemes but do they fundamentally differ in their vision of government and the proper role of the state from the socialist core of the Congress party? When the principal opposition party virtually functions as the B team of the government and borrows its idioms — witness how BJP leaders constantly invoke the aam aadmi — it loses its ability to offer an effective alternative to the basic governing philosophy Congress espouses. The BJP lost its mojo after the 2004 debacle and has yet shown no signs of recovery. Where is the party which talked of reforms or championed the Indian growth story? Now it has no qualms in making common cause with the Communists if it can momentarily embarrass the government. The Indian voter may yet surprise the commentariat by defeating the UPA government in 2014 but surely it would not be because the BJP has offered an attractive alternative or a visionary governance agenda. Or as Sushant Singh argues in an accompanying piece in the current issue of Pragati, the greatest legacy of the UPA government is the decisive shift towards the Left in Indian politics.
Political parties frequently argue that there is little popular support for economic reforms. The defeat of the likes of Chandrababu Naidu who courted foreign investment and stressed economic advancement are repeatedly cited as evidence of India’s disinterest in the reform process. It should be admitted that there is no direct political movement per se in favor of the reforms; on the other hand, the Indian voter often rewards populist handouts with electoral victories. Nevertheless, what is the hallmark of a true leader: He fulfils demands which may not have been fully or properly articulated. The Indian voter is interested in economic development though he may not directly speak the language of reforms. Even those farmers marching against land acquisition are in most cases demanding their just share in the economic pie. They are interested in being part of the new India and benefiting from it. Perhaps, in India, before the political sympathisers of the reform process can expect popular support, they should strongly believe in it themselves!
Take the Indo-US nuclear deal as an example. Commentators sympathetic to the Congress party repeatedly advised prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh not to stake his government on the accord. They warned that voters were simply not interested in the intricacies of a complex deal and the government should acquiesce to the demands of the Left formation. To his credit Dr Singh stood his ground, and is there any doubt that it increased his stature and helped improve the performance of the Congress party in the 2009 elections? The voter may not have understood the complexities of the historic accord but the very fact that the Dr Singh appeared ready to sacrifice his government in the pursuit of national interest instantly elevated him in the eyes of the Indian people. It would require a sustained intellectual and political defence of the reforms process and cogent articulation of how it will benefit the Indian people. Unfortunately, this is where the political leadership has failed India.
Finally, what about India’s growth story? The reform process is sufficiently advanced and too embedded in the Indian society for it to be completely rolled back; however, no government is likely to press forward with the much-needed second generation reforms. As the venerable Economist recently pointed out, growth is not India’s natural right. It requires reforms, effective fiscal management, and a strong and decisive government. To put it bluntly, this is a pipe dream. India will keep lurching forward but a cataclysmic shift which appeared likely only a few years back is now perhaps a generation away. While the political games continue in New Delhi and elsewhere, that is the real tragedy of India and her people.
Rohit Pradhan is a Fellow at the Takshashila Institution