To me, the 2019 election has been a unique, rather disturbing, experience. It was back in 1991 that a similar shake up of my thinking occurred when the socialist, anti-rich, pro- labour, protectionist mindset to which I had been accustomed had to suddenly re-adjust to an entirely new economic thought process.
The most obvious change is the shift from an all-encompassing approach to policy, built carefully into our Constitution. In this election, consolidation of the majority community and aligning it to nationalism played a larger role than ever before, particularly in the Hindi heartland. What effect this will have on policy and legislation remains to be seen.
Clear divergences across states could be perceived. The North-South divide was pronounced, except in Karnataka. The states in which minorities were stronger voted one way while another process of choice prevailed in areas in which the majority community formed the bulk of the population. Caste divisions do not seem to have influenced the voter as much as Hindu consolidation, as in Uttar Pradesh. Regional parties have gained in strength, which augurs well for federalism.
The vote seems to have been for stability. Economic issues, such as declining growth rates, higher unemployment, low rate of domestic investment and farmer distress did not create any impact. Indians, by and large, seem to be used to the fluctuations in the economy and hence do not pay much attention to them.
The Congress manifesto, compiled by many experts, did not cut much ice, probably because of its complexity and the fact that it came too late. NYAY was a good concept but it got lost in the cacophony on the economy, Rafale, untruth and on love juxtaposed to hate. The ruling front had a clear agenda and uncontested leadership. The Opposition seemed confused and cut into each others’ votes.
Most of what I have said above is based on wisdom gained from hindsight. During the elections, there was no indication of a “wave”, unlike in 2014. Most opinion polls, non-aligned media and commentators predicted a hard battle, even a hung Parliament. It is astonishing that a swing of such dramatic proportions went unnoticed. This could well be an indication of a new pattern of voter behaviour with a large proportion of voters deciding only towards the end of the campaign.
The elections are now behind us and it is time for both the ruling parties and Opposition to look ahead. The government has the greater responsibility. This has been an ill-tempered, bruising election. It is necessary now to heal the wounds. India is a land of many cultures and our rulers must accept such diversity. The beginning gives hope. The choice of Maldives, a predominantly Muslim country, for the PM’s first visit, preceded by worship at the prominent Guruvayur temple, located in a state that voted heavily against the BJP, his utterances both in Kerala and in the Maldivian Majlis — all this sends subliminal messages both to the apprehensive and extremist elements.
In this election, disparity in money power between the ruling parties and the Opposition was visible. This disparity will widen over the next five years. With less money, the Opposition will have no choice but to go to the people in old Gandhian ways, tramping on foot to remote villages with their message, winning the hearts of people. Rahul Gandhi could initiate the process in his own beautiful constituency.
The Opposition has also to unite, setting aside their differences, eschewing claims to leadership for a larger cause. This cannot be an on-off affair. Sustained effort is required, spanning perhaps even more than five years. In the interim, some of them will win state elections. This is no indication of a national trend. The people have proved, time and again, that they think and vote differently at different levels of governance.
Voter behaviour in the present political milieu needs to be studied and understood. The ruling parties obviously have a clearer understanding presently, but the opposition parties have the time to regroup. That they have the will to do so is not apparent from the decision to fight the UP Assembly by polls from different platforms.
(The writer is a former Cabinet Secretary and currently chairman, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram)