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Mandate for a dream

Verdict in: voters choose empowerment over patronage

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
March 7, 2012 1:27:23 am

Verdict in: voters choose empowerment over patronage

India is stirring in ways that confound political analysis. Uttar Pradesh was,by all measures,a remarkable election: intense,youthful but at the same time peaceful,civil and substantive. To the superficial eye,these elections seem like old wine in new bottles: intense local bargaining,equations of caste and community,candidates tinged with corruption or criminality. However,underneath,there is almost a social revolution in the making. Voters are showing a remarkable capacity for making fine distinctions. The strategy is,first and foremost,to search for the party most likely to form a stable government. These elections confirm a growing trend that knee-jerk anti-incumbency is a thing of the past. Performance can be rewarded as much as punished.

In UP,voters were called on to make very sophisticated strategic judgements. But strip away the too-clever-by-half analysis. And they are choosing empowerment over patronage,the future over the past,performance over rhetoric,sincerity over cynicism,rootedness over disembodied charm,measured realism over flights of fantasy. They are carefully assessing alternatives through the prism of local circumstances. Identities still matter,but voters are no longer prisoners of those identities. Despite the occasional clumsiness of the Congress,the election in UP was without a trace of community polarisation: no one felt on the edge or under siege,all could exercise options without being unduly burdened by the past. In a democracy,where you are going should be more important than where you are coming from. These elections have redeemed that promise.

The UP election was a major test for Rahul Gandhi and the Congress. It could be argued that the UP electorate will vote differently in national and state elections. Even with this caveat,Rahul Gandhi should (and has admitted) responsibility for the lack of momentum in the Congress. The party’s four cardinal mistakes in this election were hubris,communalism,disingenuousness and whining. And national undercurrents do reverberate in local politics. There was a sentiment that voting for the Congress would only reward its presumptuousness and self-induced paralysis at the Centre. Despite the dissipation of the Anna Hazare movement,the odour of corruption dented the Congress’s general credibility. The party clumsily injected a 1970s-style communal discourse,displaying its own cynicism. Rahul Gandhi’s perpetual attempt to run as an outsider,as if the Congress is not responsible for the tales of woe he recounts,is patently disingenuous. Every single issue he took up,from Bhatta-Parsaul to Bundelkhand,had no follow-up.

There is little aspirational about the Congress politics: it is still tethered to a discourse of noblesse oblige that is out of touch with the dynamism of a society. And personal sincerity has done little to transform the party’s political structure. There are limits to leadership by avoidance. And there are limits to how much he can substitute for local candidates. Rahul,like Rajiv Gandhi,risks being done in by sycophants masquerading as strategists,communalists masquerading as minority protectors,and party officials who do not think that governance matters.

Punjab was supposed to be a crucible for the Youth Congress experiment,an enlisting of youth energy to transform the state politics. This was a state the Congress was not supposed to lose. The credibility of this as a political project is now certainly dented. How the party can turn this around is an open question. Rahul’s strategy was to shore up his own authority,and that of the government,on the wave of an electoral victory. But now this needs a rethink: the only way the party’s fortunes can be restored is by a veritable reinvention of his government.

It is hard not to feel a tinge of sadness. Mayawati had crafted an extraordinary social coalition. She will still remain a formidable political force,but she underestimated the degree to which even the very constituencies she had empowered were feeling the weight of bad governance. While she empowered some constituencies,the institutionalisation of low-level corruption was nothing short of oppressive. She forgot that social coalitions not wedded to intelligent governance will not last long. Perhaps a smart economist will decode the paradox of UP — that a 7 per cent growth rate was accompanied by a consumption growth rate of close to 1 per cent.

The Samajwadi Party was a beneficiary of anti-incumbency. But its campaign was sophisticated and well-judged. Akhilesh Yadav queered Rahul Gandhi’s pitch,by projecting a youthful modernist face,but with the added advantages of being seemingly rooted in local social circumstance. A cohort of younger voters did not have the visceral memories of the previous Mulayam Singh government. He talked the language of aspiration. And it is to his credit that while attacking the government,he promised a politics beyond recrimination. The SP tried to project that it could be more than a party of its core social base. The alignment of freshness,the capacity for synthesis,combined with Mulayam’s formidable political machine,proved to be an irresistible combination.

The implications of elections are not cast in stone; they depend on the lessons parties draw from them. But both national parties have to do a lot of rethink. It is often argued that national parties are giving way to regional agendas. The truth is the opposite. National parties are giving way because they don’t have a national agenda; it is the regional parties that have become the carriers of a future dream. Their organisational bases are fragile and their political imaginations ossified. The BJP had low expectations,but despite Goa and Uttarakhand it has reason to worry. It does face a structural problem: no next-generation leadership in UP that can project a future,and no national leadership that has the capacity to energise new voters. Vajpayee’s memory can get you only so far.

The implications for national politics are immense. Even if it is magnanimous,the incentive for the SP is to ensure that the Congress does not grow. Anti-Congressism also gets a new lease of life. The motive for every party is now to demonstrate that the Congress cannot govern. The Central government has been facing a crisis of authority. Its moral image has been battered; its capacity for negotiating with regional parties has been diminished. These results only exacerbate this crisis of authority. In the short run,expect a rocky political ride. It will take something drastic to reverse this erosion of authority.

Democracy will not bring angels to power. But its dignity is something deeper,and altogether more enchanting. It allows for the greatest freedom: the capacity for reinvention. Democracy will give even devils a second chance. In doing so,it tames them,rescues them from their own hubris.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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