A vote against sensationalism and a vote for quiet but determined pursuit of goals that improve the living conditions of the people. This is the verdict of the electorate, whether we look at the results in their totality or at the level of individual states.
The United Progressive Alliance (UPA)—that is poised to form the government—may do well to keep this in mind. While many are relieved that the next government will be reasonably stable and certainly less dependent upon the whims of regional and other smaller parties, it is a little premature to signal the decline of regional forces. The Congress has on its own fared better than all expectations, if we were to go by the pronouncements of the poll pundits and psephologists, but coalitions are here to stay and so are the regional parties.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Regional parties have served an important and useful function in Indian politics. All through the last decade, the increasing vote share and seats of these parties and their seemingly strong support base compelled the larger national parties to turn their attention to regions, to build local-level organizations and, at times, even to accommodate regional leaders. This in itself has yielded positive gains for the Congress.
Much more importantly, it is these regional parties that have tempered ideological extremism. They have, at some crucial times, exercised the much-needed moderating influence on the two larger national parties. When the National Democratic Alliance formed the government in 2004, it was these parties as alliance partners that kept the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from aggressively pursuing the mandir (temple) issue or its agenda of Hindu cultural nationalism. This time, when many of these partners moved away from the BJP to form the Third Front, the party again resorted to its brand of divisive politics and even projected the Gujarat chief minister as the face of the party in the future.
In the last?UPA government?once again, it was the coalition partners that moderated its economic policies and pushed the Congress towards such policies as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), compelling it to retain a more regulated and controlled economy. These moderating influences have, on the one hand, worked to the advantage of India, sheltering its economy from the effects of the global meltdown, and also to the advantage of the Congress insofar as it has helped it to win the support of the electorate.
This time, the people have not only voted in favour of NREGA and policies of Bharat Nirman, they have voted against ideological extremism in its various forms. The next government, particularly the Congress which has emerged as the single largest party and prides itself for taking the middle ground, may need to be mindful of this as it envisions the future of India. And more than all else, it will be the responsibility of the alliance partners to ensure that the concerns of the ordinary people and their perceptions matter in the short and long run.
Regional parties play a constructive role when they debate and moderate policies; it is when they privilege their personal and political gains that they fail to deliver on their promise. Perhaps this is a moment for them also to introspect and reflect on the role that they are expected to play as part of the government at the Centre. For them, too, the writing is on the wall. They, too, need to move away from egoistic personality-driven politics, based more on whims and person-specific needs, to a more positive intervention that enables people of a region to benefit additionally from Central schemes and programmes.
This is an important moment for another reason. For almost two decades now, India has worked with coalition governments but this time, more than before, the largest party in the coalition has the space to manoeuvre and choose its partners. In a country where electoral contests centre around personalities and emotive slogans, and political parties function around leaders and their close personal and social networks, it is easy to overlook the opportunities offered by the present moment. In the long run, the success of the new alliance will be judged not simply by its ability to complete its term in office, but to see that regional interests rather than personal agendas are accommodated through alliances.
Will the Congress, which has emerged as the single largest party, be able to utilize the opportunities that are available to it at this moment? Will the regional parties as allies bring in the voice of caution, tempering technocratic knowledge with local concerns? Will the allies also be able to moderate the demands of each other? This remains to be seen but clearly coalition governments are likely to emerge even in the future, contrary to what is being inferred and predicted immediately after these results.
Perhaps the one lesson that we must take from these elections is that we are better off debating the desirability of specific policies rather than predicting end-results and retrospectively claiming to be closer to the truth. We have certain expectations from the national and regional parties, and these must be discussed and emphasized. But, equally, the election results have indicated unambiguously the task that we must perform as responsible citizens and part of the public sphere.
Gurpreet Mahajan is professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org