The Congress party returns to power with a clear mandate, a privilege it should not squander
Five years ago, Indian voters comprehensively shredded the predictions of their country’s chattering class, toppling the then ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government and sweeping to power the centrist Congress party. Analysts, pollsters, and journalists at the time all expected a BJP triumph, believing too readily the hype surrounding the BJP’s promise of an “India Shining”. The country’s electorate – the largest in the world – proved them woefully wrong.
Once again, the Indian voter has upstaged the Indian commentator. While many predicted that the ruling Congress-led coalition would shade this year’s national elections, none foresaw the emphatic victory that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh claimed this weekend. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) – comprising the Congress and its remaining regional allies – won 263 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha (the lower house of parliament), a measly nine seats short of the required majority. Congress leaders need only cherry pick small, convenient parties to make up the deficit.
The Hindu nationalist BJP and its allies, under the umbrella of the New Democratic Alliance (NDA), return to the opposition after only mustering 158 seats, trailing by a yawning chasm of over one hundred MPs. They now look on morosely as Congress builds a coalition government likely to be the strongest and most stable in over two decades of fractious politics.
A false dusk for Congress
If one believed the ubiquitous media narrative ahead of this election, such an outcome would have been unimaginable. We were told that Congress – the 124-year old party that won independence from Britain in 1947, but held dynastic sway over India for over four decades thereafter – was in irreversible decline. We were told that regional and identity-based parties would continue to siphon away disillusioned voters, further splintering India’s vast political landscape. We were told that India was doomed to governments with increasingly weak mandates, governments dependent on anarchic, unreliable coalition allies to maintain their fitful hold on power.
The results disclosed on Saturday suggest otherwise. Nearly one out of three voters (28.5 percent) chose the Congress party, a substantial sum given that Indians had to find their way through a blizzard of 1,055 contesting parties. Its own tally of 206 seats is Congress’ highest since 1991, when it won 244. While Indian electoral politics can be intensely local and parochial (voters often cast their ballots with their religious, caste, ethnic or linguistic identities in mind), Congress’ success is being understood as a vote of approval for its last five years of leadership.
The UPA government allowed the lightning pace of economic growth in India to tick along, while ensuring the country remained in large part sheltered from the buffeting winds of global recession. In the face of criticism from free-marketeers and governance sceptics, it invested in the gargantuan National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, a project of unprecedented size that begins to make up for India’s egregious lack of a social welfare net. And it demonstrated coolness in the wake the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, resisting hot-headed calls for military pressure and action against Pakistan.
If the elections of 2004 were a rejection of the hyperbole of the BJP, this year’s polls seem to have rewarded the UPA’s restrained, sober rule with an indisputable mandate. Some Congress leaders have spoken of the victory as ushering in a moment of “renewal”, but in truth it is one of triumphant reinforcement. In New Delhi today, elected Congress MPs joyously backed Manmohan Singh’s return as prime minister for a second term. They know that there will be much more scope in the next five years for their initiative, their strategy and their agenda.
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