Saturday, June 20, 2009

Disputed election verdict in Iran

Power struggle between the ruling elite could be the reason for manipulation of election results to get conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected.

The statement by Islamic Republic of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei that the results to the Iranian presidential elections affirming incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were a "divine assessment" summed up the situation ironically pretty well. Conservative president Ahmadinejad, according to official results, won the elections by capturing 66% of the votes in the first round of the presidential polls defeating three of his challengers, including his chief opponent and "reformist" Mir-Hussein Mousavi who garnered 33%, enough to rule out further rounds of polling.

Various aspects of the incidents following the elections stand out- within three hours after the polling was complete, more than 80% of the almost 40 million ballots were "counted"; Mousavi trailed not only in Tehran and other cities, but also was way behind Ahmadinejad in his stronghold Azeri areas such as Tabriz; just following polling, a massive shutdown on communication devices and systems occurred and the military was on the streets, before Ahmadinejad was declared winner. Unwilling to accept the results, Ahmadinejad's opponents called foul and following unprecedented protests on the streets of Iran's biggest cities, a partial recount was finally ordered by the powerful Guardian Council.

Ahmadinejad was a strong favourite in the run-up to the polls, having established solid support primarily in the rural areas of Iran, through a mixture of strong nationalistic appeal and populism. But just as the elections were nearing, Mousavi mounted a spirited campaign basing his appeal on his previous record as the former prime minister during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and pointing fingers at Ahmadinejad's mishandling of the economy, and confrontationist foreign policy. He offered a more moderate regime which promised greater freedoms for women (hitherto denied in the Islamic regime), more civil liberties, looser controls over the state economy, a more conciliatory foreign policy while maintaining Iran's nuclear programme as contrasts to Ahmadinejad's hardline conservative rule. The set of policies and experience that Mousavi offered gradually found vast appeal particularly in the urban areas of Iran, among women, the university graduates, the "bazaar merchants" worried by inflation besides support from others who were aligned with the "reformers" such as former president Mohammad Khatami. Many opinion polls pointed to a closer outcome of results than that was officially declared, because of the strong appeal that Mousavi generated just before the elections.

If the disputed election results are indeed a consequence of manipulation, the question arises as to why even a moderate conservative such as Mir-Hussein Mousavi, part of the ruling elite is seen to be less preferred than the hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by the powers that be in Iran. Any explanation would be from the manner the political system in Iran combines Islamic theocracy with modern aspects of democracy, wherein the Islamic institutions such as the supreme leader, the guardian council, the assembly of experts wield great influence. Included in this structure is the military Revolutionary Guard (the Pasdaran) and its associated Basij voluntary militia, who are tasked with security and ideological protection of the Islamic republic. There is a power struggle ensuing between conservatives and "reformists" within the guardian council and the assembly of experts and this has weighed upon the presidential elections as well. Ahmadinejad derives great support from the Pasdaran, the Basij and among the conservative sections of which Ayatollah Khamenei has been historically seen to be part of.

Ahmadinejad's support base can be attributed to his presidency's various radical economic measures such as instituting "justice shares" for the poor in Iran's private sector. A section of the ruling elite, seen to be aligned with former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani are at odds with the radical economic agenda of Ahmadinejad and there is an alignment on economic principles with the reformists. This cohesion between pragmatists such as Rafsanjani and reformists such as Khatami was alluded to by Ahmadinejad himself in his attack against Mousavi during the election campaign. Supported by the Pasdaran and the Basij, the conservative Ahmadinejad was obliquely preferred to over his opponents, by Ayatollah Khamenei in the run up to the elections. The power struggle between the conservatives, the reformists and those with business interests such as Rafsanjani could thus possibly explain the alleged fraud that prevented a moderate conservative such as Mousavi from coming to power.

The concession by the guardian council of a partial recount is a reaction to the massive protests staged in the cities of Iran, orchestrated by supporters of Mousavi, and termed by the western media in particular as the "green revolution". There still persists a strong nationalist sentiment against the threatening postures against the country by United States and Israel and it is this sentiment that Ahmadinejad would hope to tap, to prevent the protests against the election results from spreading. The western coverage of the protests term them as a parallel to the "colour-coded revolutions" in the former east European countries of the socialist bloc. This is far from an accurate assessment having no relation to the reality of Iranian society and polity as the protestors are asking for an annulment of the election results and support reform well within the framework of the Iranian political framework and do not want any alignment of Iran with the West as of the pre-revolutionary past.

Although the ruling elite of Iran could acquiesce to a re-election if the protests gather much more momentum spreading to other areas of Iran or indeed quell these protests by violent repression, there is very little possibility of a radical transformation of Iran's polity into suddenly conceding greater civil liberties and genuine gender equality. Till the theocratic structure of Iran's polity and society remains intact and the democratic contestations are well limited to entities within the framework of the velayat-e-faqih (guardianship of the Islamic jurists), no major change is possible.

Draft of an editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly.

Binayak Sen's bail and after

The Chhattisgarh government's security centric approach has resulted in unjust detentions of anyone showing even democratic dissent.

Vice president of the Peoples Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) and eminent medical practitioner Binayak Sen was finally released after he was granted bail by the Vacation Bench of the Supreme Court after two years of detention in prison in the state of Chhattisgarh. The inability of the prosecutors to explain the absence of corroboration of the official charges against him, after retractions by witnesses in his ongoing trial weighed in the judgment which was given almost immediately after the case began to be heard by the Vacation Bench. It is indeed a matter of relief for several activists, intellectuals, members of the civil society and the general public that the good doctor is finally out of jail after detention over the flimsiest of charges. It is now imperative to continue to point at the draconian laws and extra-constitutional executive policies and actions that are in sway in the state of Chhattisgarh, specifically - the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2006 and the detention of many people under this act.The PUCL has stated that 178 persons of various occupational backgrounds have been detained by the Chattisgarh state taking recourse to the Public Security Act or the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (2004).

The Chattisgarh state of affairs today is a pointer toward what is termed a "security centric approach" - to address the insurgency situation in some districts in the state.This approach has resulted in a horrific humanitarian problem in the South Bastar/Dantewada district in particular, with tribals displaced from villages, and armed "special police officers" pitted against Maoist insurgents - both mostly from the tribal community. The state government's Salwa Judum campaign - the vigilante programme that uses ordinary citizens as "security" personnel against the Maoists - has only exacerbated the lives of thousands of people who have been caught in the spiral of violence in the conflict. Estimates point out to 600 villages from where tribals were forcibly evacuated since the beginning of the Salwa Judum and who are still housed in makeshift relief camps.

The Supreme Court instructed the state government through its interim pronouncements to wind up this unconstitutional campaign in 2008, but the government's response has been to dilly-dally and there has been no let up in the tribal versus tribal war. The only sane voices that are coming about to halt the lawlessness are those from civil society demanding a halt to the military campaign, disbanding of the Salwa Judum, and for addressing the major societal, social and livelihood problems in the region.

The Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, passed by the Chhattisgarh state assembly in December 2005 broadens the ambit of existing laws on what is to be deemed "unlawful". "Unlawful" acts have been defined to include any such act which "create risk or danger for public order, peace and public tranquillity" or "create an impediment in the administration of law or institutions". Such a loose definition has enabled the government to stifle any dissent over its policies in "countering insurgency" or to frame charges against anyone who is critical of the government's actions. This is expressed in the manner in which Binayak Sen was kept in detention for two years over charges that were never corroborated and was denied bail for reasons that were evidently irrational. Or in the manner film-maker Ajay T.G. was arrested and detained on the basis of the Act. Even appeals from eminent persona such as Nobel Prize winners attesting to the impeccable humanitarian work of Sen, were rejected by the various agencies of the state who deemed Sen as a "risk to the state" and irrationally refused to grant him bail.

Beyond instruments of such laws, the state government has also resolved to physically intimidate any agency - NGOs or civil society activists or dissenters - who have taken positions antithetical to the government's in its "war" against insurgency. A case in point is the demolition by the state's police officers on 17th May of the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram run by Himanshu Kumar in the insurgency affected Dantewada district. Kumar's work had focussed on return of displaced tribal villagers to their homes, exposing the crimes committed in the course of Salwa Judum vigilantism and that has made the state government to consider his work as so "hostile" to act in the manner they did. Kumar was later harassed by Salwa Judum members as a retaliation to an abduction of two local government officials by the Maoists.

Binayak Sen's release on bail must trigger a surge of activism that should demand an end to the lawlessness in the state. The state government must be forced to effect a real end to the Salwa Judum campaign and not just pay lip-service about this, repeal the Public Security Act, acknowledge and be open to dissent and criticism and to adopt a different approach to the insurgency. And efforts must be made by the government to deliver social, health and other welfare services to the affected tribals in the region. That is a more viable and lawful response to the Maoist insurgency.The repression of voices asking for a shift from this "security approach" and the cynical use of citizens as vigilante law enforcement adjuncts must be halted.

The state government can use legal instruments without having to take recourse to "special" acts such as the Public Security Act to tackle law and order problems related to the insurgency. But will Chief Minister Raman Singh who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has willed to implement this flawed "Chhattisgarh model" - encompassing the above - in states affected by Maoist violence elsewhere, pay heed? Especially when even the union home minister P.Chidambaram of the Congress party has termed the Salwa Judum to be "useful"?

Preliminary Draft of an editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly. A completely changed final version exists here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Understanding the mandate of 2009

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:

Andhra Pradesh 34

Arunachal Pradesh 2

Assam 8 5

Bihar 2 32
4 2
Chattisgarh 1 10

NCT of Delhi 7

Goa 1 1

Gujarat 11 15

Haryana 9

Himachal Pradesh 1 3

Jammu & Kashmir 5

Jharkhand 1 8

Karnataka 6 19 3

Kerala 16

Madhya Pradesh 12 16 1

Maharashtra 25 20

Manipur 2

Meghalaya 2

Mizoram 1


Orissa 6

Punjab 8 5

Rajasthan 20 4


Tamil Nadu 27



Uttar Pradesh 21 15 20 23 1
Uttarakhand 5

West Bengal 25 1 15
Andaman & Nicobar

Daman & Diu

Chandigarh 1

Puducherry 1

Lakshadweep 1

Dadra & Nagar Haveli

Total 261 157 80 27 18

Vote Share of major parties, Lok Sabha Elections 2009

Party Contested Seats Won Vote %
Congress allies 526 261 36.22
 Congress 440 206 28.56
 JKNC 3 3 0.12
 MUL 2 2 0.2
 KCM 1 1 0.1
 NCP 23 9 1.78
 DMK 22 18 1.83
 Trinamool Cong 27 19 3.19
 JMM 5 2 0.21
 RPI 2 0 0.12
 IND(Congress) 1 1 0.11
NDA 512 159 24.11
 BJP 433 116 18.81
 AGP 6 1 0.43
 JD(U) 27 20 1.42
 INLD 5 0 0.31
 Shiv Sena 22 11 1.51
 NPF 1 1 0.2
 SDF 1 1 0.04
 RLD 7 5 0.43
 Akali Dal 10 4 0.96
Left 175 24 7.61
 CPI 56 4 1.43
 CPI(M) 80 16 5.33
 FBL 21 2 0.32
 RSP 16 2 0.38
 KEC 1 0 0.08
 IND(Left) 1 0 0.07
BSP 500 21 6.17
Fourth Front 343 27 5.15
 SP 193 23 3.43
 RJD 44 4 1.27
 LJNSP 106 0 0.45
Others 6021 51 20.74
Total 8070 543 100

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