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What are you calling a ‘historic mandate’?

The Congress win was just a vote for continuity

Written by Atul Kohli |
May 19, 2009 11:22:29 pm

Manmohan Singh declared the election a ‘massive mandate’ in favor of the Congress.  Sonia Gandhi proclaimed the outcome as ‘historic’.  Some exaggeration following a hard-fought election is understandable.  However,there was nothing historic about Congress’s victory.  The mandate the Congress received also needs to be clarified.  The vote was mainly a vote for continuity.  It will be difficult to maintain continuity under conditions of an economic downturn. 

If there is any thing historic about these elections,it is not Congress’s victory but how normal they were.  Recall some of the major elections over the last three to four decades: Indira Gandhi romped to power in 1971 following a military victory over Pakistan during the Bangladesh War; elections in both 1984 and 1989 followed assassinations of national leaders; and then the rath yatra and Ayodhya catapulted the BJP to power in the 1990s.  The current election by contrast was free of crises and manufactured electoral waves.  Instead it was just a regular,timely,well-conducted election that underlined the growing maturity of Indian democracy. 

Going into these elections there was fear of political fragmentation and governmental instability.  Fortunately,these did not come to pass.  Notice that the apprehension before the election was of governmental and not of policy instability.  In spite of some differences,there is a fair amount of consensus in India over foreign and economic policies.  Had coalitional instability emerged,it would have focused attention of the leaders on management of power conflicts,away from solving pressing problems.  With the Congress now in secure lead,such instability is less likely. 

A closer look at the election results,especially at the share of popular vote received by political parties,reveals important national and state level trends.  While the Congress and the UPA have secured a commanding lead in parliamentary seats,Congress’s share of the popular vote in 2009 increased only by some two per cent over its share in 2004.  So a ‘historic mandate’ this is not.  Congress’s victory is as much a product of alliance politics and the first-past-the-post electoral system as it is a result of enhanced popular support.  Congress ran on a platform of ‘inclusive growth’. The improvement in Congress’s electoral fortunes then must be understood as a vote for continuity in this pattern of development.  Over 2004,the BJP’s share of popular support declined by a little more than three percent.  The BJP avoided a focus on Hindutva in this election and campaigned instead on issues of governance.  The context of a slowing economy and terrorism with Pakistani links should have helped the BJP.  The fact that it did not ought to be a matter of concern for the party.  And then there are the communists.  The proclaimed demise of the Left may turn out to be premature.  In spite of losing seats,both the CPM and the CPI maintained their relative shares of the popular vote between 2004 and 2009. 

The combined share of the vote of the Congress and the BJP in 2009 is about the same as it was in 2004 (some 48 per cent).  This means that more than half the voters continue to vote for parties other than the two main ones.  Congress’s victory notwithstanding,the electorate has not switched away from voting for a variety of local parties based on caste,class,religion and charismatic individuals.  The underlying fragmentation of the electorate is thus real and continues.  As to the substance of the mandate,Congress’s national gain is mainly at the expense of the BJP.  Since the Congress ran on a mild left-of-centre platform,and since the communists have pretty well held their own,the popular verdict has shifted the country slightly more to the left. 

Below the national level the variety of states reveal some further patterns.  Since the last election Congress’s popular support grew mainly in the poor,Hindi-heartland states: UP,Bihar and MP.  A number of factors are probably responsible for this shift: growing disillusionment with the corrupt and ineffective backward caste parties in these regions (both the Yadav parties lost support in UP and Bihar respectively); and the hope generated among the poor by such Congress-sponsored programs as the National Employment Guarantee Scheme.  It is also noteworthy that Congress’s popular support did not increase in the richer and the faster growing states:  Congress held its own in Gujarat,Karnataka,and Tamil Nadu,and lost ground in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.  Since these states benefitted the most from economic liberalisation,it will be hard to read the electoral verdict as supporting what CII is now calling a mandate for “fast-tracking of reforms.” 

The CPM did poorly in West Bengal.  This is a wake up call for the Bengali bhadralok.  Complacent communists who neglect the poor are not likely to fare well in elections.  The continuing see-saw between the ADMK and the DMK probably reveals very little of national significance.  By contrast,the fact that the TDP lost ground in Andhra is noteworthy; former liberalisers turned partners of the Third Front probably confused a lot of voters.  Nitish Kumar’s impressive performance in Bihar raises the hope that good governance and change is possible — even in a Bihar — and is rewarded.  The BSP in UP gained somewhat but not dramatically.  Mayawati’s continuing significance underlines both the neglect of untouchables by mainstream parties and the tragedy of ineffective leadership that this situation has in turn produced. 

The Congress party promised broad-based economic growth.  With a commanding lead in Parliament,the electorate will expect them to deliver on this promise.  This will not be easy.  The popular base of Congress’s support is neither overwhelming nor solid.  Economic downturn will reduce public revenues that enabled the Congress-led government to offer something to the poor in the recent past.  The pressure to tilt governmental favours towards the rich and the powerful will be enormous.  As we rightly celebrate the conclusion of a normal election,and an outcome that favours continuity and stability,it is also important for a variety of citizens and social groups to continue to pressure the new Congress-led government to deliver on its promise of inclusive growth.

The writer is professor of politics and international affairs at

Princeton University.

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