Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A decisive mandate

The United Progressive Alliance manages to win emphatically in the 15th Lok Sabha elections despite losing many of its coalition parties before the polls. Yet another spell of years in opposition awaits the Bharatiya Janata Party, while the left suffers its worst defeat in many years.

Belying expectations of a fragmented verdict, the mandate of the 15th Lok Sabha elections has been decisive in favour of the Congress party led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The alliance has managed to win 261 seats, with the Congress itself winning 206 seats, its best tally since the 1991 elections when the party had won 244 seats. A mix of local state-level factors and a preference for the UPA alliance nationally can be seen as responsible for the victory, from initial observations. The UPA managed the win defeating not only the Left anchored "Third Front- TF" coalition of regional parties and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) emphatically, but despite the breaking away of several partners (who formed the Fourth front -FF) from the alliance before elections. 

The UPA alliance won the most number of seats in 17 out of 29 (including the National Capital Territory of Delhi) states. Excepting the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Orissa, the performance of the regional and left parties in the Third Front ranged from underwhelming to disastrous. The NDA won overwhelmingly in Bihar, Karnataka and Chattisgarh but was defeated in many a major state by the UPA in direct fights.

Mix of factors for UPA victory

The Congress, in its manifesto as well as during its campaigning emphasised the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), the Bharat Nirman programme and other social and welfare measures, not to mention th

e farmer loan waiver scheme. From the indications available, this has elicited a favourable response, which has played out well in different states, irrespective of whether the Congress party (or the UPA) has been in power. Also, minorities have voted for the UPA enthusiastically, explaining the wins for the Congress party and its allies in states such as West Bengal, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh. The performance of the party in states such as Gujarat - the Congress won 43% of the vote as compared to the 39% it garnered in the 2007 assembly elections– and in Madhya Pradesh – 40% as compared to 32% in the assembly elections in 2008) suggests the resonance of its national agenda.

The broad geographical distribution of mandate for the UPA points toward an undercurrent favouring the Congress party in general, but local issues have also mattered significantly. In Andhra Pradesh, for example, the implementation of populist and welfare measures by the state government has meant that the alliance has bee

n victorious for a second consecutive Lok Sabha election. The state assembly elections' results has given a majority mandate for the Congress party.

In the left ruled states, high-handedness in administration, the unpopular industrialisation and subsequent land acquisition drive, and the unity of the opposition in West Bengal, and the perception of inadequate levels of governance by the state government and factionalism in the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala has 

helped the UPA. In Tamil Nadu, the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has done particularly well, on the might of its populist schemes while the incidents in northern Sri Lanka have complicated the verdict – resulting in some losses to senior Congress candidates.

The presence of the Maharashtra Navanirman Sena has dented the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance and helped the UPA in Maharashtra, while the "honeymoon period" enjoyed by the Congress governments in Rajasthan and Delhi has meant big wins for the party. In Uttarakhand and Punjab, the Congress has managed to defeat the ruling BJP and Shiromani Akali Dal(SAD)-BJP alliance (possibly facing anti-incumbency) respectively, garnering the majority of the votes.

The Congress party's decision to go it alone in Uttar Pradesh after being unable to arrive at a seat-sharing understanding with the Samajwadi Party has also paid unexpected dividends. The Congress party has garnered 21 seats (vote share of 18%)-

 its highest tally for years in the state. While the reasons for this astounding performance would be clearer only after a closer and detailed look at the vote shares in the state, the underwhelming performance of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) suggests a shift of some of its targeted social base - particularly the upper castes and the Muslims - to the Congress Party. Overall, the Congress party managed to increase its vote share from 26.4% in 2004 to 28.5% in 2009 and a seat increase from 145 to 206.

State wise Seats Tally

(source: Election Commission Web Site)

The BJP thwarted again

The BJP tried to focus on “national security” as its core issue and attempted to make the elections a referendum between personalities pitting its prime ministerial candidate L.K.Advani against the UPA leadership and prime minister Manmohan Singh. The NDA since 2004 had shrunk and the BJP was left only with the Janata Dal- United (JDU), the Shiv Sena the SAD and other minor parties as its allies. The erstwhile NDA allies - the Telugu Desam Party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) had all left the NDA citing the communal politics of the BJP. This had made the NDA's prospects dimmer even before the elections and expectedly, the NDA managed a tally of only 159 seats, way behind in second place to the UPA. The BJP's overall tally was reduced to 116 (18.8%) from 138 (22.2%) in 2004. Both the defection of erstwhile partners as well as the reduction in the party's overall vote share is indicative of the lesser resonance of the party's communal Hindutva agenda, which came again to the fore in the run up to the elections.

The BJP managed to win with reduced margins in its strongholds such as Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, but won handsomely in Chattisgarh and Karnataka. The performance of the JDU was most significant as Lalu Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party were trounced badly. It is too early however to suggest that the politics and efficacy of caste alliances in the state has been overcome, as many claim to be the reason for the JDU-BJP alliance which pitched its state government's “development record” as the agenda for the elections.

The Left's worst performance in years

The “third front” - an assorted set of regional parties, and anchored by the Left Front (LF) performed dismally. Though the BJD shrugged off its alliance with the BJP and managed to win the majority of seats both in the Assembly as well as in the Lok Sabha elections in Orissa and the AIADMK managed to improve its tally (from zero previously) in Tamil Nadu, the defeat of the left parties in Kerala, West Bengal and the underwhelming performance of the BSP dragged the TF's tally down. The TF contested directly against the Congress and its allies in most of the states where the front was “viable”.

In West Bengal, the left suffered a historic defeat, polling much fewer votes than in the 2006 Assembly elections and wilting against the united opposition of the Congress and the Trinamul Congress. Reduced to merely 15 seats (43.3%) from a previous tally of 35 (50.7%), the left's loss could be attributed much to its state government's series of policy and governance disasters since 2006 as the opposition fought the elections considering it as a referendum against the long standing Left Front government. Issues such as the land acquisition for industrialisation, high handedness of the administration, minority angst after the Sachar committee findings are the discernible reasons, apart from the fact that the idea of a “third front” did not really appeal to voters. The Lok Sabha election results point to a possible defeat of the left front for the first time in 35 years in the upcoming assembly elections in 2011.

Infighting in the left and governance issues resulted in a UPA victory which was also bolstered by minority support in Kerala. The BSP was not able to replicate its 2007 assembly election performance managing a reduced vote tally, suggesting the non-realisation of the “wider castes and minority support” that the party hoped to garner.

Overall, the idea of the “third front” - an amorphous alliance of motley regional and left parties without a common agenda beyond an anti-Congress, anti-BJP position, was rejected in general by the voters.


The increased tally of the UPA despite the division in “secular votes” because of the presence of the “third front” and the improved performance in the Congress even in BJP strongholds are pointers toward a good conjuncture of local and national issues favouring the UPA. The UPA contested the elections on its national record of initiating programmes such as the NREGA and other social and welfare measures and pitched its state governments' populist record. The BJP failed to inspire confidence in its national security and personality based platform among the electorate, while the alliance of convenience that forged the third front did not materialise in any gains for the parties in it.

Article (Commentary) written for the Economic and Political Weekly

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