New Delhi: The defining moment of the Congress campaign in this year’s election came during a rare interaction between Rahul Gandhi and some journalists at his house, located in the leafy precincts of New Delhi, when the general secretary of the Congress and scion of the Gandhi-Nehru family surprised everyone by boldly claiming, “We will improve our tally. We will win and form the government.”
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A few days later he repeated the claim to a wider audience at a press conference in the city.
The claims came at the near end of a campaign that had seen Gandhi in a leading role. He logged a little under 90,000km and visited almost each of India’s states. It was, even Gandhi’s most trenchant critics admitted, his campaign.
And by early afternoon on Saturday, it was also clear that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) unexpected success in this year’s election was largely his win.
The Congress has won or was leading in 206 seats on its own and 258 along with its allies around 8pm—just 15 seats short of the 273 mark that ensures a simple majority in the Lok Sabha.
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The Congress-led UPA’s return to power indicates that India has voted for continuity. The win—the magnitude of it, the unexpectedness of it all, and the way in which it was achieved—has the potential for unleashing unprecedented change. A lot will depend on how the Congress party wields the hard-earned social capital and the Opposition weighs its defeat.
Firstly, implicit in this victory is Gandhi’s very public coming-out moment; in short, the son rises. The party’s most public face during the campaign had endured ridicule from several quarters and forced the issue of the Congress going it alone in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. He also sought to induct young blood and tried to make the Youth Congress in Punjab and Gujarat more democratic in terms of their functioning.
Riding on the victory, the Congress will sooner or later manage the transition of political leadership. Given the way he works, it is unlikely that Gandhi will allow himself to be immediately made prime minister. Still, he is unlikely to turn down an offer to join the Union cabinet.
Secondly, the victory has given Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whom the Congress has already anointed prime minister, a stronger say in not only the choice of ministers, but also on the formulation, conduct and direction of future policy changes. Singh struggled for most part of the previous tenure of the UPA as demanding allies pulled the coalition in multiple directions, making a mockery of governance. Given the Congress’ strength in the House now, the allies will definitely be chastened, if not less demanding.
Thirdly, the victory has ensured a clear continuity of policy. More good news for the stock markets is the fact that the Left will not be part of the new constellation that will take charge of the country’s fortunes. Still, it is unlikely that the Congress will force the pace on economic reform, preferring a more incremental approach, while ensuring no dramatic reversal. This most certainly means that the country will keep its tryst with the goods and services tax, proposed as the single biggest tax reform initiative that will economically unify the country.
Fourthly, the mandate puts to rest the biggest fear of economy watchers, who feared that a fractured mandate would paralyze policymaking at a time when the country is struggling to cope with the global meltdown and increasing threats in the neighbourhood.
Fifthly, the mandate seems to suggest that there was indeed a pan-India issue, a desire for status quo. Challenged on security as well as the economy front, Indian voters preferred more of the same, in some cases, rejecting populist appeals built around ethnicity and caste.
If this is indeed the case, the Indian electorate, 420 million of whom voted, has surprised the pundits with its incredible maturity.
Sixthly, the election has confirmed what has been apparent anecdotally: the varying fallout of the global meltdown across India. Mint’s Bharat Shining series that ran in March disclosed that rural India was, due to several factors (not the least of which was the UPA’s flagship rural employment guarantee scheme), relatively insulated against the global meltdown.
As a result, the issues of inflation and job losses had less traction with the rural populace.
Seventhly, the mandate has, after a long time, proved that small is not necessarily big. Continuous fracturing of the mandate was beginning to empower regional and smaller parties in a manner that had become detrimental to the interests of the country. It had reached such ridiculous proportions that in the run-up to the election, anybody and everybody believed that they would be in the running for the prime minister’s job. This election has seen the two main national parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) reverse this trend; the Congress more spectacularly so.
Eighthly, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has come a poor second. This may well be the final chapter in the long political career of the party’s prime ministerial candidate, 81-year-old L.K. Advani. The party did well in Gujarat and it is only logical to assume that Narendra Modi, also the state’s chief minister, would be anointed as the next leader. The BJP’s failure to handle its second successive defeat maturely can only lead to its further disintegration as a political force.
Ninthly, in probably one of the biggest surprises in this election has been the performance of the Bahujan Samaj Party, whose juggernaut has been stopped in its tracks, even in Uttar Pradesh. While the initial signs of this defeat have been visible for some time, most people have preferred to ignore them. In the process, they overestimated the influence of the party’s leader Mayawati.
Finally, the victory will only increase focus on the reorganization of the Congress party. Initially, Gandhi had positioned himself as a “marathon man” and argued that this change, while slow, would help a once-proud party regain its past glory. The unexpected margin of victory—as opposed to what the exit polls had called and pre-poll expectations had warranted—is bound to fast-track the Rahul Gandhi doctrine. At the centre of this strategy is an effort to democratize the party’s structure and to revive the organization in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Without an organization, the political momentum gained by the party in these two states will be frittered away.
Gandhi has already signalled his intent. During the interaction with journalists at his house, Gandhi had said, “Today, all our political parties are designed in a way that empowers people whom the leader likes. (In the) long term, this model is not sustainable as it causes fragmentation.”
It won’t be too much to expect the victor to walk the talk.
Graphics by Sandeep Bhatnagar / Mint