Left behind

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: Dec 9 2013, 14:46pm hrs
India has witnessed an unprecedented set of elections. We can torture the statistics till they confess, we can be ingenious in our interpretations, but it would be churlish to deny some broad trends. The first is the triumph of democracy. In response to worries about institutions and cynicism about politics, Indian democracy widened participation and emerged stronger. This is also a riposte to all those who have exaggerated fears about authoritarianism running triumphant over India; unmeaning phrases like emerging middle-class fascism were being dropped far too freely to do justice to Indian democracy. Does this look like a country that will easily give up democracy Despite occasional ups and downs, in the end, this is a democracy that will make everyone dance to its tune rather than be railroaded by anyone.

But the great churning is now producing stunning new possibilities. There is no question that an anti-Congress wave is gathering momentum. The Congress is identified with a tottering, corrupt and incompetent old order. Incumbent Congress governments not just lost, but lost heavily. It bears reminding Sheila Dikshit and Ashok Gehlot are not disastrous performers in comparative terms. There is something new emerging in how voters judge governance that is hard to describe in simple terms. One element of a post-identity formula was to concentrate on delivering a few schemes well. This is what many successful chief ministers had done well, Dikshit and Gehlot included. But there is also something more ineffable required: the projection of overall being-in-charge and general trustworthiness, and the ability to respond to crises. There is a trigger that is a tipping point in that loss of credibility. Looking back, all the chief ministers who lost will identify such moments, where, despite the good they did, they projected a loss of control. No amount of schemes can overcome the overall loss of credibility.

The Aam Aadmi Partys absolutely spectacular political debut is a reminder that Indias progressive moment is ripe for being seized through political creativity and imagination. There will be new experiments with ideas, people and organisational forms. There is now a search for a new politics at many different levels. There is the search for a post-identity politics, which the AAP exemplified. Not only was its vote share spectacular, its cross class and caste basis was also impressive. In a paradoxical turn, the party that was accused of being anti-politics has rejuvenated politics to a degree no one could have imagined. It has reminded us that there is nothing deterministic about politics. It is the traditional conception of politics, with its encrusted commitment to identity and venal interest, that was the real anti-politics. Arvind Kejriwals decision to contest against Dikshit also demonstrated that politics is all about taking risks. The contrast with Rahul Gandhi could not be starker. It is the risk-averseness of the Congress that makes it look like a fossil; it cannot get rid of its dead weight. The AAPs biggest success has already been to change the tenor of politics. Its presence will force new conversations. Can it make a bigger mark at the national stage At one level, it is already forcing others to change their game. But the possibility of a bigger role for the AAP should not be discounted. In Delhi, the AAP did not just devour the Congress vote, it also consolidated the floating vote. Even in a state like Rajasthan, this is more than 25 per cent of the electorate, and if it finds a focal point, it will consolidate. But its growing success will delegitimise the Congress more than the BJP.

But the subtle signs of deeper change are apparent elsewhere. The scale of the BJPs victories in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are not explicable in terms of the traditional calculus of caste politics. This horse is bolting the door. Although the AAP is a harbinger of revolutionary change, in the immediate political context, the Rajasthan result holds more lessons for the Congress. If you went by traditional calculations, Gehlot should have put up a better fight. Here is a leader with a strong social base. He used a windfall fiscal gain to distribute free medicines and create pension schemes. He worked assiduously on Centrally sponsored schemes like the Indira Awaas Yojana. He had an opponent, Vasundhara Raje, who had no locus standi on corruption and was considered missing in action till six months ago. Why could he not repeat what Shivraj Singh Chouhan did

There is a rather sterile debate over the strength of the Narendra Modi factor in these elections. The short answer is: there was a considerable effect, except in places where there was another forceful rival like the AAP in place. But this may be good news for Modi. In this era of change, the forces that will be able to stop Modi will have to position themselves as agents of radical change; it will not be enough to be a regional force. Many of the traditional regional formations are not looking like change agents. An ideal electoral strategy depends on a synergy between the local and the national. In the BJPs case these have, for the most part, worked in harmony. The BJP can claim it has both a plausible national leader who is creating legitimacy for himself, and some competent chief ministers. When they work together, it will be reflected in the scale of victory. The Congress is heading in the opposite direction. It was open talk in the Rajasthan Congress that Gandhi was not just not helping, he was an actual liability, reminding people of the Centres faults. The Congress is simply failing to grasp how India is changing. The macroeconomic trainwreck whose most visible manifestation is sustained inflation is now taking a toll. If the burgeoning genre of Rahul Gandhi jokes is any guide, the open contempt for the Congresss central leadership is now a palpable political fact. The most morbid Congress joke heard today was that the only state where the party put up a fight was where it experienced a tragic purge: Chhattisgarh. But it shows how the Congress is identified with the old.

The Congress will, no doubt, take recourse to the historical precedent of 2003, when the BJP won three state elections and lost the national election. But the correct precedent it should heed is this. In most elections since 2004, once there is a sentiment against an incumbent government, there is a period of uncertainty. Then there is a little extra surge towards the party most likely to provide an alternative. The Congress itself was a beneficiary of this trend. The tide is turning, and the anti-Congress momentum may be even stronger.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for 'The Indian Express'

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