This is an updated and modified version of the earlier article (A decisive mandate) written for the Naked Punch Asia.
Belying expectations of a fragmented verdict at the national level, 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.
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. It is also important to point out that there is no reversal of the political trend in India over time – national elections being decided as a derivative of individual state contests across the country (Yadav, Palshikar 2009). This election is also in a way conforming to the trend.
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 the 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. But having said that, the Congress benefitted immensely from the political dynamics of the state level contests.
In Andhra Pradesh, for example, the implementation of populist and welfare measures by the state government has meant that the alliance has been victorious for a second consecutive Lok Sabha election. The state assembly elections' results has given a majority mandate for the Congress party. The Congress party was also helped by the greater fragmentation of the popular vote in the state, with the presence of the newly formed Praja Rajyam Party led by film actor Chiranjeevi. The PRP managed to win nearly 16% of the votes in both the state and Lok Sabha elections thwarting the “Grand Alliance” of the opposition Telugu Desam, the left parties and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti, in its bid to topple the Congress.
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. Also significantly, the presence of the Desiya Murpoku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), a political party led by another actor Vijayakanth dented the opposition's hopes significantly, by garnering 10% of the vote share.
The presence of the Maharashtra Navanirman Sena acted to the detriment of the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance, particularly in the saffron and chauvinist parties' urban strongholds in Mumbai and its neighbourhoods. This helped the UPA in Maharashtra, which managed to win despite being in power for a very long time and to overcome anti-incumbency as well.
Fragmentation also helped the Congress defeat the opposition in Haryana in a more rousing fashion than expected. Here too, the presence of the Haryana Jan-hit Congress (which won 10% of the vote) helped divide the opposition enough to let the Congress win 9 out of 10 seats in the state.
In other states, the "honeymoon period" (Ravishankar 2009) 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 most surprising results in favour of the Congress Party was in the major state of Uttar Pradesh. 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 paid unexpected dividends. The party was able to cache in not only on the popularity of the UPA government in the state, but also on the withering away of the solid aggregate social base that the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had attained in the 2007 assembly elections. The Congress party has garnered 21 seats (vote share of 18%), its highest tally for years in the state. Preliminary estimates from the National Election Survey of the Centre for Study of Developing Societiesi (CSDS) suggest that the underwhelming performance of the (BSP) is due to 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% nationally in 2009 and a seat increase from 145 to 206. The UPA presented its credentials to the electorate as a alliance focussing on welfarist policies related to the livelihoods of peasants, ordinary workers and the poor. Nowhere were issues related to “economic reforms” - the liberalisation, privatisation, globalisation agenda – or that related to the new foreign policy aligning India closer to the western bloc (such as the Indo-US nuclear deal), presented prominently to the electorate to gain its mandate. The verdict, even if complicated by the aggregation of state-level factors and fragmentation, is indeed for a social democratic and welfarist orientation of the government.
State wise Seats Tally (source: www.eciresults.nic.in)
|NCT of Delhi||7|
|Jammu & Kashmir||5||1|
|Andaman & Nicobar||1|
|Daman & Diu||1|
|Dadra & Nagar Haveli||1|
|Party Contested||Seats||Won||Vote %|
Source: Source: Computations by CSDS, Delhi, based on Election Commission data. Obtained from Palshikar (2009). Abbreviations – JKNC- Jammu & Kashmir National Conference, MUL- Muslim League, KCM- Kerala Congress (Mani), NCP – Nationalist Congress Party, DMK- Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, JMM- Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, RPI- Republican Party of India, IND- Independent, AGP – Asom Gana Parishad, INLD- Indian National Lok Dal, NPF- Naga People's Front, SDF- Sikkim Democratic Front, RLD- Rashtriya Lok Dal, FBL- Forward Bloc, RSP – Revolutionary Socialist Party, KEC- Kerala Congress, SP- Samajwadi Party, RJD- Rashtirya Janata Dal, LJNSP – Lok Janshakti Party
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 “Third front” was unable to implement its stated aim of forming a non-Congress, non-BJP government but it did ruin the chances of the BJP presenting a credible and winnable alliance before elections. The BJP was a non-factor in several of the states where the contests were limited to parties in the Third front and the Congress, such as Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. With this tremendous disadvantage, the only hope for the BJP to form a government post elections was through the weaning away of regional parties from the third front. In any case, the dismal performance of the parties in the “third front” in general rendered that option moot.
The BJP managed to win with reduced margins in its “saffron” strongholds such as Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, but won handsomely in Chattisgarh and Karnataka. The performance of the BJP's coalition partner 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. Having said that, the JDU managed to enlarge its aggregate social base to include disaffected sections of other backward classes (OBCs) and dalits.
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.
The idea of a “third front” before elections was pressed by the left parties to halt the trend of the two largest parties – the Congress and the BJP heading the national governments over the past 11 years. This flowed from the fact that both the Congress and the BJP had a consensus on major economic and foreign policy issues, which was supported by the big bourgeoisie and richer sections of the population. Yet, in its endeavour to forge a “third alternative”, the left only managed to stitch an amorphous alliance of motley regional and left parties without a common agenda beyond an anti-Congress, anti-BJP position. This expediency driven approach did not help the left or the parties in the third front in substantial transfer of votes through social/electoral bases to each other. Also in states such as Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, vote fragmentation by newer parties such as the PRP and the DMDK frustrated the third front's chances.
This idea of a “third front” did not cut much ice even in left strongholds, leave alone in states such as Andhra Pradesh or Tamil Nadu, where the third front's expectation was for a victory for grand alliances against ruling parties part of the UPA. In hindsight, the left could have focussed on an independent or at-least a more coherent programme-based alliance, consolidating its electoral bases and looking for building a viable opposition to the Congress and the BJP in the medium term. That of course depends upon the continuing popularity and efficacy of the left led governments in the country in presenting an alternate model of governance and policy regimes favouring the traditional classes that the left seeks to represent.
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.
Palshikar, Suhas (2009), “Tentative emergence of a new and tentative coalition?”, Economic and Political Weekly, May 23
Ravishankar, Nirmala (2009), “The Cost of Ruling: Anti-Incumbency in Elections”, Economic and Political Weekly, March 7
Yadav, Yogendra and Palshikar, Suhas (2009), “Principal State Level Contests and Derivative National Choices: Electoral Trends in 2004-09”, Economic and Political Weekly, February 7
iThe Hindu published a supplement, “How India voted” with the CSDS' National Election Survey 2009 information from all the major states in the country. The survey results are hosted in The Hindu's homepage at http://www.hinduonnet.com/nic/howindiavoted2009/howindiavoted2009.htm