India doesn't vote for change. But it didn't vote for reforms either
To the consternation of my family, I have been hogging the television and internet space for the past couple of days – glued to the electoral verdict. While the polity seems to have responded well to challenges thrown by the Indian democracy, what disappointed me was the media reading of the results almost cutting across the board. (of course with a few honorable exceptions). To sum up hours of long discussions, the predominant opinions that seemed to emerge were;
there has been a national mandate and that mandate has gone in favour of the congress.
the mandate was clearly against regional outfits
the loss of mandate for the left broadly indicates a vote for a neo-liberal agenda
the mandate is a clear setback for the BJP
I could read a huge amount of naiveté and projections of the new shining India wish list masquerading as analysis. The election was increasingly fought on local issues and national issues that mattered were those that interfaced with local issues. In fact, I would go a step ahead and contend that the issues in many places were even regional within states. Most analysts either ignored or wrote off small groups that polled a fairly reasonable chunk of votes as spoilers. Interestingly in many constituencies these spoilers polled far more votes than the difference between the winner and the second place. In some constituencies the spoilers came second too, but without being able to make it to the Parliament. It needs to be kept in mind that there are around 38 political parties and 7 independents that would colour the Lok Sabha, of these 7 each fought elections under the banners of UPA & NDA. Out of these 14, 12 are clearly defined regional and sub-regional
Again most of the state level mandates were expressions of local issues. The performance of Biju Janata Dal, the Janata Dal (United) and the National Conference in Orissa, Bihar and Jammu & Kashmir stand testimony to this. Sri Lanka & freebies dominated Tamil Nadu, Andhra was a referendum on YSR's governance, while nobody can deny Sheila Dixit's spectacular role in the consolidation of Delhi for the Congress. I could go on and on with most of the States I am familiar with. A significant exception to this rule has been Uttar Pradesh.
In so far as the mandate with respect to the left is concerned and a dominant reading of electorate assent for reforms is concerned, I think it is important to assert a couple of factors amongst other things. The left setbacks in its two bastions were for diametrically different reasons. In that sense, the left went to elections with different voices in West Bengal and Kerala. In West Bengal, it is fairly clear that shadows of Nandigram and Singur has haunted the results – where the electorate seems to have rejected the Buddhadeb brand of liberalization, and the mandate was clearly against neo-liberal policies that the Left was flirting with. In Kerala, apart from communal polarization, the infighting within the CPM and discord in the left front on the eve of the elections has contributed to its rout.
Here it needs to be noted that the reforms were not at all present anywhere as an election issue except in the imaginations of the pink newspapers. The Congress, where they highlighted governance and national issues went on the record of the NREGS and the Left played a significant role in the formulation of the same. It also needs to be borne in mind that if the UP resurgence is attributed to Rahul Gandhi, then Kalawati, then the electorate voted for Kalawati's quality of life and not financial sector reforms.
In so far as the BJP is concerned, once again apart from UP, its performance has been consistent in the regions where their communalization exercise has taken off except for Orissa. Both in Gujarat and Karnataka, they have managed to inch ahead even if it was below their expectation. This verdict clearly sends signals to the Parivar that in the longer run, consolidation can happen in their favour only through consistent pushing of their core agenda. In the backdrop of this verdict and the phasing out of the old guard – liberal or otherwise – I fear strategizing and investment that would take the communalization exercise in a more systematic and strategic manner beyond the existing bases. This fear is also based on the BJP tendency for speaking in multiple tongues at the same time, the demonstration of which one saw amply.
In that sense, I would read the mandate for the congress as a collection of multiple mandates, some of them positive and some negative, but definitely on diverse issues that have an immediate bearing on the lives and livelihoods of multiple regional electorates and against further neo-liberal reforms or prescriptions. At the eve of the government formation exercise, Rahul Gandhi seems to have emerged as a hopeful face of the minority that has grasped this within a highly sycophantic Congress. But what needs to be seen in an atmosphere where the Left pressure has diminished, is whether this realization can translate into actionable points or the acolytes of the neo-liberal agenda will push their agenda towards a choice between saffron neo-liberalism and "secular" neo-liberalism.
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