The electorate has declared its choice in four major states. In three—Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Kerala—the incumbents have been hit hard. In the fourth—Assam—the ruling party has won again. Assembly elections take place in many states every year and the result is that, politically, the country is in a state of constant churn that is unique for any democracy. When diversity—linguistic, regional and caste—is added to the plot, the results are complex.
At first sight, this seems to be the case with these results, too. If it were security concerns that mattered in Assam, public anger at corruption was in evidence at the ferocity of change in Tamil Nadu. In West Bengal, the results marked the end of a way of doing politics. In Kerala, it was the magic of an octogenarian that was visible.
In the end, however, corruption and high-handedness are just parts of one big concern with voters: How politics makes or mars their livelihood and life-chances. These issues have only heightened in recent years as incomes have risen and politics can make or mar the prospects of the new middle class. Their manifestation in the electoral arena, however, is complicated.
Consider Tamil Nadu first. Here patronage and corruption are perhaps two faces of the same coin: patronage of the crude kind (remember all those Rs 500 notes distributed liberally in recent months?) can only be powered by pelf. In the bargain, if the political overlords keep a fraction of the proceeds, the electorate does not mind, usually, that is. This is a feature (or taint, if you want) from which no political party in the state is immune. Circumstances vary, but the end products are usually similar; a five-yearly game of musical chairs continues without the gramophone ever stopping. Because of the caste combinations by which victories are constructed and the first-past-the-post system, the results are unambiguous. The question this time is about the scale of the rout.
This time, the scale of the allegations of corruption that dogged the ruling party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, was of a qualitatively different nature. No longer restricted to Tamil Nadu, their scope was national. The danger with corruption beyond a threshold is not that it suddenly becomes immoral after that point; it is that politically, the distance between the rulers and the ruled becomes difficult to bridge. It no longer remains a matter of resources thrown into the polls or a tactical matter of the candidate with the right caste at the right place. Instead, sullenness—a psychological issue—seizes the electorate. No amount of monetary massaging can change that.
Something similar—albeit different in qualitative detail—occurred in West Bengal. Here, however, the Left’s defeat has been historic. For a party that had perfected machine politics down to the last village in the state, the loss is sweeping. Here again, the facts are evident. The Left ruled the state on the twin pillars of institutional effectiveness at the local level coupled with a clientelism of the kind not seen anywhere in India. From marital disputes to healthcare to subsidized rations to employment to recurring benefits provided by the state, “the party” decided it all. The ability of the Left parties to preside at Writers Buildings depended on a seamless joining of politics from villages to districts and all the way to Kolkata. Yet, this well-oiled machine began crumbling in recent years. The disaster on Friday was a combination of many things, but primarily the result of half-hearted and ham-handed attempts at reforms in recent years. If it was corruption that alienated voters in Tamil Nadu, in West Bengal it was high-handedness of another kind that had the same effect.
Soon after his last win, in 2006, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee realized the limits of what could be done this way. Tenurial security for their fathers and grandfathers cuts no ice with youth today. Employment and better opportunities matter as never before. Bhattacharjee’s efforts to industrialize his state were based on this realization, something his partymen—most prominently Communist Party if India (Marxist) boss Prakash Karat— did not share. Between the naked violence at Nandigarm and the can’t about “neoliberalism”, the chief minister’s plans came unstuck. Without factories at Singur and Nandigram, there could be no employment for the employable and certainly no electoral benefits to be reaped. It was only a matter of waiting for the ouster. That came on Friday.
Both results should be heeded by the Manmohan Singh government carefully. While it would be easy to dismiss all four as cases of local political idiosyncrasies, they show citizens being acutely concerned about their livelihoods and future. They also want a better life— good jobs and responsive administration—not unreasonable demands to make. These are becoming increasingly scarce. Good jobs are not being created at a fast enough pace—the absent reforms and policy bottlenecks at the Centre are to be blamed—and responsive administration looks more like a chimera. Unless the United Progressive Alliance sorts out these issues and gets out of the drift that it is in, it too may have to bite the dust a few years down the line.
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