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Elections: A Vote for Change

May 14th, 2004 · No Comments

Watching the election results unfold, my mind went back to that India-Australia Calcutta Test Match in which Australia asked India to follow-on and then Laxman-Dravid put on their famous partnership, and finally Harbhajan Singh won the match and the series with his bowling for India. The BJP must have felt like Australia, and wonder what they did wrong – after all, they called for the early elections and all indications in the beginning were that the BJP-led NDA would return to power with 300 seats. Even the most pessmistic of the exit polls gave the NDA 230+ seats – short of the 273-figure for majority, but still reachable with support from the smaller parties.

The reality turned out to be very different. The NDA ended with 187 seats. The Congress-led alliance got 219. With the support of the Left (63 seats), it will form the next government. Sonia Gandhi will be India’s next Prime Minister. After 6+ years in power, Vajpayee departs. As he said in his farewell address to the nation, “A party has lost, but a nation has won.” India’s democracy has transitioned power peacefully.

I have realised one thing in this elections: the opinions of the urban intelligentsia do not matter. The poor outnumber the rich, the less literate are more in number than the educated. In India’s democracy, it is one vote for everyone. Hopefully, this will not become our weakness.

India needs to develop rapidly if it is not to lose yet another generation. Hopefully, the new government will “embrace and extend” – embrace the good of the previous government and do a lot more. There is little time to lose. We need “plus” policies, which accelerate the pace of reform across all sectors of the economy. How the marriage of the Congress and the Left works holds the key to the future. It is pertinent to note that the architects of India’s reforms process (Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram) are both likely to be back in power.

The first 100 days in power are critical. This is the time when the tone of governance is set. Major decisions need to be taken – some may be difficult. This is the so-called “honeymoon” period. This is where Sonia Gandhi’s leadership needs to come to the fore. Her choice of ministers will be the first test – I hope that we have leaders we can be proud of. There were a handful in the Vajpayee government. There need to be many more. [I will give my views on the agenda for the government in next week’s Tech Talk.]

Among other opinions from the international press:

NYTimes has an anaylsis:

The verdict represents a totally unexpected resurrection for the Congress Party of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, which ruled India for 45 of the 57 years since independence but had floundered so badly in recent years that it was being written off as an historical relic.

The B.J.P. had constructed an American-style presidential campaign around Mr. Vajpayee’s perceived popularity, but it ran aground on the realities of the Indian parliamentary system, in which voters turned on incumbent legislators who they felt had delivered little. Indian voters are known for their anti-incumbency, and that was in evidence today.

But even more, voters particularly, but not exclusively, in rural areas rebelled against the idea of “India Shining” that had been pedaled by the incumbent government in a glossy, costly public relations campaign.

Unlike in the United States, where the most prosperous also vote the most, in India it is the poor who turn out in greatest numbers. That means that the very voters for whom India has been shining urbanites from the middle and upper classes who benefited from globalization and reforms are also least likely to vote.

The B.J.P. also seemed to suffer from its association with the Hindu nationalism that had powered its rise. Muslims, still repelled by the anti-Muslim carnage in the B.J.P.-controlled state of Gujarat in 2002, resisted the party’s efforts to woo them, as did many Indians concerned about the weakening of the country’s secular identity. Congress and its allies had united around a secular platform.

At the same time, hard-core Hindu nationalists have been disillusioned by the party’s tempering of Hindutva, or Hindu-ness, in its time in power and in this campaign. Ram Madhav, a spokesman for the Association of National Volunteers, the parent Hindu nationalist organization, said today that the B.J.P. had campaigned on Mr. Vajpayee’s personality and policy, he said, but ideology “an emotive issue” was missing.

“There was a general lack of enthusiasm among the core voters and cadres of the party,” he said.

Adds WSJ: “The results indicated that millions of rural poor people abandoned Mr. Vajpayee, believing they had been left behind by the country’s economic boom and rejecting his Hindus-first message in favor of the Congress Party’s secularism…It was one of the most dramatic political upsets since Indian independence almost 60 years ago…The Congress Party focused its campaign on the country’s 300 million citizens who still live on less than a dollar a day. It hammered away at the lack of even basic infrastructure, electricity and potable water for millions of rural poor.”

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