New Delhi: People in four key states sent out a strong message on governance and voted for change. Contrary to expectations, however, the Congress’ effective victory in three states did not generate momentum for the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to effect an image makeover and end the policy paralysis the government has been in for at least the past six months.
To make matters worse, Congress rebel Jagan Mohan Reddy raced to a record win, costing his rivals from the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party their deposits in the by-election in Kadapa, Andhra Pradesh.
The verdicts, from an electorate unhappy with the government’s inability to contain inflation or curb corruption, has made the ruling Congress more beholden to its allies in the UPA, making the task of the long-pending cabinet overhaul and kick-starting reforms that much more difficult. A series of corruption charges have plagued the UPA and eroded its credibility, to the extent that analysts believe that it has begun to retard investment prospects.
In a landslide victory in West Bengal, the political combine led by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) ousted the more than three-decade-old Communist regime; in Tamil Nadu, the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-Congress alliance received a drubbing, winning less than one-fourth of the total assembly seats; the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress in Assam scripted a decisive win, coming back to power for the third consecutive term; and in Kerala, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) managed a win by a wafer-thin majority.
“The verdict spells bad news for UPA at two broad levels,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of Centre for Policy Research (CPR), a Delhi-based think tank. “One, it has to take a call on how much of a liability the DMK is and hence address the dilemma of refurbishing its image without treading on the toes of its allies. Two, after six years of being in power at the Centre, the party cannot try to spread its political footprint in new states and do worse. Basically, there is no momentum on the ground for either the Congress or the BJP (the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress’ main national rival).”
A cabinet reshuffle is inevitable as Mamata Banerjee, chief minister elect in West Bengal, will relinquish her charge of the railways. After the exit of telecom minister A. Raja, the UPA did not fill the slot. Education minister Kapil Sibal holds additional charge of the ministry.
The UPA has also put off tough fiscal decisions, such as an increase in the price of petroleum products, till after the conclusion of the elections. With the Reserve Bank of India confirming that the growth trajectory is poised for deceleration, revenue receipts of the government too will slow, creating even greater fiscal pressure. The government had hoped to ride on the political momentum of a good showing in the just concluded assembly elections to inspire change.
Vote for change
The predominantly young electorate—more than 50% of India’s population is estimated to be below 35 years of age— seems to have overwhelmingly voted for change. In West Bengal, which recorded an impressive voter turnout in excess of 84%, TMC’s plank of paribartan (change) captured the imagination of the electorate, the majority of which has only seen governments led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM).
“The people of West Bengal have won their freedom today,” Banerjee told her supporters in Kolkata. “The victory is of hapless people who have faced exploitation, violence and discrimination.”
Similarly, the decimation of the DMK, the top ranks of which are populated by chief minister M. Karunanidhi and his family members, is seen as the electorate’s rebellion against corruption and nepotism. Former telecom minister Raja of the DMK is currently in jail following charges of corruption in the allocation of second-generation telecom licences, while Karunanidhi’s daughter and a Rajya Sabha member K. Kanimozhi is a co-accused in the case.
Sensing a connect with the electorate on the issue, the J. Jayalalithaa-led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) bounced back to a sweeping electoral win. The electoral defeat is likely to trigger a succession battle within the DMK as each faction jockeys for power in a post-Karunanidhi era.
“One banal point of this election is that the Indian electorate does not like hubris. The arrogance of the family is what has cost them the election,” Mehta of CPR said.
In Kerala, the electorate’s mandate was intriguing. It voted out the incumbent Left Democratic Front, but gave the incoming UDF a slender majority: it was unhappy with the Left, but not entirely taken up by the promises of the Congress-led UDF. In Assam, the voters have given a clear verdict for peace—a change from the nearly three-decade-long insurgency, and achieved after the Central and state governments together brokered a pact with the militant United Liberation Front of Asom.
CPM’s historical loss
Though expected for a while, the severity of the defeat in West Bengal has dealt a severe blow to the CPM. Although it managed to fight back in Kerala and come up with a decent result despite poor performances in the 2009 general election and the 2010 civic polls, political observers pointed out that the lack of coordination and the infighting in the party cost it dear. The party’s politburo is meeting on 16 May and it will likely introspect on the results. The setbacks are likely to raise questions on the leadership of general secretary Prakash Karat, who has been under attack since the party’s decision to withdraw support to the UPA government in 2008 over the signing of the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal.