Posted by: Mehul Srivastava on May 16, 2009
After India’s colorful and chaotic election ended Saturday, where still-incomplete results saw the Congress party squeeze out spectacular gains to emerge as the largest single winner, the soul-searching and analysis will focus on a few specific themes that have emerged.
Looking at the results, a few trends are already revealing enough to pay attention to:
1) Rahul Gandhi’s emergence as a leader in his own right. Rahul is the son of assassinated ex-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and his Italian wife, Sonia Gandhi, who now heads the Congress coalition. He’s seen in India as the Prime-minister in waiting (read this excellent profile on him by the Wall Street Journal. Subscription required if you are outside India), and if these elections were a test of his popularity, he just got an A+. In Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state by population and amongst its most impoverished, Rahul campaigned almost-non stop, won his ancestral seat and decimated the opposition. The Congress party picked up 21 out of the 80 seats, the latest results show, reversing its slide and surprising the two local parties which had campaigned on the basis of caste. His giant-slaying turn put an end to the dreams of Bahujan Samajwadi Party leader Naini Kumari Mayawati’s of laying a claim to national prominence – she had expected the BSP to win enough seats to be a key coalition ally. Instead, voters reduced her previous seat-count by nearly half. Mayawati is still the single-largest party in UP, but by just one seat.
2) Voter ambivalence towards reforms. Indian politicians who are reform friendly find it difficult to get rural voters to support them. Palaniappan Chidambaram, who in two turns as finance minister did perhaps the most to westernize India’s economy, might lose his seat. But Praful Patel, the reformist aviation minister, who energized India’s airlines industry and BusinessWeek profiled last week, will likely win his first Lok Sabha (House of the People) seat since 1999. Others, like G.R. Gopinath, who launched India’s first low-cost airline, lost his first bid, as did several other middle-class candidates, like an ABN AMRO banker.
3) The temporary end of the Left parties hold on national politics. With 60 seats in the last parliament, the left, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had been a key ally for the Congress coalition and the bane of business. They fought financial reforms, labor reforms and land reform. But in their stronghold of West Bengal, which has democratically elected communist parties to the state government from 1969 onwards, they were defeated in several seats by a Congress ally, the firebrand Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress, reducing their parliament seats to just about 25. “It is in fact, a very big dissapointment, a setback,” CPI (M) politburo member Sitaram Yechury told CNN-IBN television. “And I think this is a reflection of times.”
Banerjee, who has been in and out of national prominence, spent much of last year on the front pages of Indian newspapers for forcing Tata Motors to move its Nano plant out of West Bengal. Now, with 19 seats, she has emerged as a national leader and will likely receive a plum cabinet post.
4) The failure of the Bharatiya Janata Party to galvanize voters by focusing on a Hindu-focused concept of Indianness, and by attacking the current government over terrorism. It remains India’s second largest political party, but lost 17 seats. Party president LK Advani will likely quit, BJP spokesperson Arun Jaitley told television reporters. In the succession battle, Narendra Modi, who is currently chief minister, was thrust forward as the next leader of the BJP, and he campaigned nationally. The defeat puts his future in national politics in some doubt, but five years is a long time, and he is known to be politically savvy.
5) The vastly entertaining Indian political theater will mature in ways different from western politics. From elephants and film stars at rallies that can draw as many as 800,000 people, to the soundtrack from Slumdog Bollywood, which the Congress party blared out during its star-studded appearances, Indian politics are colorful in ways that confuse outsiders. A serious Indian television news channel played the catchy soundtrack to the hit film Singh Is Kinng as it became apparent that Manmohan Singh had been returned to power.
It can seem silly, but maybe that’s one of the reasons that India also has some of the highest voter turnouts globally – as many as 62% of the country’s 712 million voters got their forefingers stained by indelible ink at polling booths, waving their fingers at photographers as they walked out. In Gir Forest in central India, the election commission staffed a full polling station for the forest’s solitary resident; in New Delhi’s Jangpura neighborhood, several thousand voters waited patiently in the blazing heat to pick out a winner (Congress, as it turned out to be).