In an unexpected comeback, the Indian National Congress, its allies, and the Left parties emerged victorious, causing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at the center to step down from the hot seat of political power. Many pollsters and even astrologers ended up with egg on their faces after repeatedly predicting a comfortable return of the NDA with Vajpayee at the helm. The results of the 2004 Lok Sabha elections have created shockwaves, but those most surprised are the politicians themselves.
After a weeklong roller coaster of political twists and turns, the verdict of a billion people has finally rung out loud and clear. Despite India’s phenomenal economic growth, the new wealth has only helped the fortunes of businesses and the middle class, but not percolated down to disenchanted masses still living below the poverty line. And they have made it clear they don’t want to be left out of the economic boom.
What was the psyche of the average Indian voter when the country went to the polls? Right before the elections, the BJP came into bad press with the “India Shining” slogan, which was seen as discriminatory and a tad too premature. The Congress party had a field day as it attacked the slogan from all sides. Was India really shining? True, overall economic and industrial growth is at an all-time high of 8 percent, but were illiteracy, poverty, hunger, unemployment, and communal strife not just as rampant? Of what concern was the increase in foreign currency reserves or the stock market boom to poverty-stricken masses in their struggle to eke out a living? By resting on its laurels, the BJP alienated many voters. The campaign merely created the impression that the rich were growing richer and the poor, even poorer. This divide, the basis for some of the bloodiest revolutions in the history of the world, is seen as the major reason behind the routing of the NDA in the recent elections. The NDA had lost its vital human face, which, many say, cost it another term in power. The inability of the NDA to shake off its pro-rich tag led to its defeat, as evidenced most spectacularly in its huge losses in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
The political debacle for the incumbents in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu was indeed a shattering setback. In Andhra, out of the 42 seats, BJP ally Telugu Desam Party (TDP) could only manage to garner five. And this was despite the popularity and clean image of the Chandrababu Naidu government. A huge anti-incumbency wave in Andhra Pradesh contributed to the remarkable political losses suffered by the TDP. For nine years, Andhra Pradesh has had the same chief minister and it was time, people felt, for Naidu to give way to a fresh contender. His move to advance the state elections by a year, having them coincide with the Lok Sabha polls, only worsened the TDP fortunes as it was swept out in the anti-incumbency wave. The timing of the poll could not have been worse for Naidu. The recent spate of farmer suicides, following severe drought, did little for his popularity.
In Tamil Nadu it was an entirely different story. Congress allies from DMK and the Left swept all 39 seats, dealing the NDA a severe blow.
Besides the poor performance of its key allies in the South, the BJP also lost out heavily due to its rigid religious stance. Former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was the only person considered to be fairly temperate in a party that many feel, is filled with Hindu extremists. There’s no doubting that the BJP made some crucial mistakes that led to their anti-secular image. Their refusal to sack the Narendra Modi government after the Gujarat carnage and their inability to amicably solve the Ayodhya issue only served to undermine their credibility among the minorities. The BJP’s wavering stance on several of these religiously sensitive issues lost them Muslim and Christian votes, a major plus for the Congress, which has always emphasized that a secular country was their priority. However, no one can deny that the legacy of Vajpayee, a stalwart with nearly half a century of political experience, is a formidable one. The sense of optimism in the burgeoning middle class about the economy and the historic peace process successfully initiated with Pakistan would be a hard act to follow.
With characteristic grace and magnanimity that marked his entire tenure and earned him respect across party lines, Vajpayee conceded defeat in a nationally televised speech. “India is the world’s largest democracy. It is always with the will of the people that governments have been formed—and changed,” he said. Underscoring his coalition government’s unprecedented feat of ruling for a full term, he continued, “We strengthened Indian democracy by demonstrating that coalition governance can be stable, and also successfully deal with the challenges before the nation.”
THE ROCKY ROAD AHEAD
The Congress may have managed a historic comeback, but its problems were far from over. There was much confusion over who would be India’s next prime minister. Pressure was mounting from all sides, but the Congress party and its allies were united on the choice of Sonia Gandhi as their prime ministerial candidate. However, Gandhi herself was yet to make a formal declaration to the president and the guessing game began, just as it had in the year following her husband, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Will she, won’t she?
Adding to the confusion, even before the government machinery fell into place, the Left parties issued statements to the press on their position urging the scrapping the Disinvestment Ministry and halting the privatization of government assets. In a matter of minutes, the stock markets on Dalal Street went into a tailspin and May 17, 2004 marked one of the biggest bloodbaths in the history of the Indian stock exchange. The voices of critics rang out throughout the country, declaring that if the stock debacle was any indication, this coalition of disparate interests would be one of the toughest alliances forged in the history of the nation. Could the Congress play the juggling act that is so crucial in a coalition government without compromising its own ideals? To balance the economic reforms initiated in the early 1990s by former Finance Minister Manmohan Singh and yet keep the Left parties satisfied was seen as a Herculean task and perhaps one of their biggest challenges in establishing a stable government.
Just when the country was debating over whether prime ministerial candidate Sonia Gandhi had the experience to hold a coalition government together, in yet another dramatic twist, Gandhi declined the post of prime minister. “I was always certain that if ever I found myself in the position that I am in today, I would follow my own inner voice,” she said. “Today, that voice tells me I must humbly decline this post.” The country’s top post was not her aim, she told her stunned party members and an even more stunnped nation.
Her announcement forestalled a brewing controversy about a foreign-born prime minister. Uma Bharati, chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, quit her post in protest. Another senior BJP leader, Sushma Swaraj, met with the president to express her “pain and anguish” over the issue. The BJP threatened to boycott the swearing-in ceremony of the new government and launch a nationwide protest if Gandhi was the prime minister. Then, in this one calculated move, not only did the Italian-born and naturalized Indian citizen Sonia Gandhi preempt all criticism about her foreign origin, but she has also become something of a cult figure—the woman who turned down the highest office in the country when it fell so securely into her lap.
The mantle then fell upon Manmohan Singh, widely respected as the original architect of the economic reforms of the early 1990s. Above all controversy, his appointment has succeeded in unifying a sharply divided electorate, quelling objections from the opposition, and reassuring jittery investors in the stock market. Not only is he a son of the soil, so to speak, but Singh is also the first non-Hindu prime minister that India has ever had.
Singh’s appointment bodes well for the Common Minimum Programme (Congress’s first set of reforms), and sends out the right signal for establishing a stable economy. The question that is now uppermost in the public mind is: will the Congress be allowed to function without being choked by its own alliances or being hampered by their own internal divisions? Will the promised economic reforms percolate to the grassroots or will the Congress too stumble at the hurdle that proved to be BJP’s nemesis? Also, will the gentle and reticent Singh be able to assert himself sufficiently? As a billion hearts beat to an optimistic note, the future seems promising enough. And one can only hope. Electoral politics after all, is a matter of revolving doors.
Kamala Thiagarajan writes from in Madurai, India.