Seen as separate events both the 2004 and the 2009 elections in India surprised the analysts and the political parties as well. But is it possible that seen in tandem the surprise falls away and a perfectly plausible story can be told?
Let me attempt such a broad-brush explanation before fleshing out the story:
In 2004, there was an anti-incumbency sentiment but no one magnet to which the disaffected were attracted resulting in a scattering of the vote and a fractured outcome. In 2009, there was a pro-incumbency sentiment with a clear recipient of the goodwill yielding a much more consolidated outcome.
Is that too simple an explanation? Remember that the very different outcome does not need the entire electorate to change its mind – a swing of less than ten percent of the total votes cast could yield the 2009 outcome.
And of course, there are many epiphenomenal factors but do we really need them to find a plausible explanation?
Now let me flesh out the story and try and get a sense of why the voter sentiment was what it was in the two elections.
Remember that the 2004 election was all about “Shining India” – the celebration that India had arrived in the world and was being hailed as a global power.
But what is the reality of India? Most Indians are still rural and over a third of them still struggle below the dollar a day poverty line. Even urban constituencies are so delimited that the rural vote has a significant impact on the outcomes of urban seats.
And so it is easy to see why “Shining India” was nothing but a false celebration as far as the majority that did not see any trickle down benefits was concerned. Seen in this light, the 2004 result was no surprise.
This is where the chance factor comes in. The fractured electoral outcome could still have left the BJP with a viable coalition. But it tilted the other way allowing the Congress-led coalition to form the government. And the Congress President made the unusual decision for a South Asia politician to hand the reigns to the most competent and context-sensitive technocrat in South Asia, if not in the world, as far as understanding the realities of poverty are concerned.
Dr. Manmohan Singh rightly focused on the rural majority with an employment guarantee and debt relief program. Add to that the golden years of globalization which, leveraged with competent management, yielded unusually high rates of economic growth and at least some palpable trickle-down effects. Seen in this light, the 2009 results are also no real surprise.
This is a plausible story but it does not accommodate some simplistic interpretations of the vote. One that is of interest to us is that the Indian electorate has voted for secularism.
Not necessarily. This was never the issue in the vote for the rural majority. The fact remains that the Indian corporate sector favors authoritarianism and is impatient with the imperfections of democracy. And the growing urban middle class representing “Shining India” is much more communally minded than the residents of India’s villages.
Over the next twenty-five years as India transitions to an urban majority the weight of the new voters and business interests would make itself felt unless people with Manmohan Singh’s competence and awareness are sufficiently sensitive to the possibilities.
The future can indeed be shaped. We know from the example of the US that racial antagonisms have continued to decline after reaching a boiling point in the mid 1960s. But it requires decisive and proactive intervention by policymakers who can see into the future and have the conviction to take the risks in the present.
The prospect of a “Shining India” is very much there but a number of bridges still need to be crossed. The fact that has gone without recognition is that regardless of outcomes the democratic process gives India the opportunity of achieving that vision by ensuring orderly transfers of power.
The fact of the losing parties conceding defeat, congratulating the winners, and going back to the drawing boards to rethink strategy is a remarkable and uplifting phenomenon in South Asia.
Earlier posts in this series: Democracy in India – 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
For an excellent analysis based on vote-share data at the state level arguing that the wrong party got the credit for the rural policies, see The Left and Electoral Politics in India by Deepankar Basu.