The demand in New Delhi for cars with opaque windows, and for large suitcases, has suddenly dropped. The extraordinary decisive victory of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) now gives it the opportunity to form a government without the usual, tortuous machinations—and with the nearest approximation to an electoral mandate that India has seen in 25 years. The victory asserts Manmohan Singh’s personal authority at the heart of government, and it vindicates his decision last year to dispense with
dependence on the Left parties. He now has the opportunity to serve a historic second term, and Congress has that rare thing in politics, a second chance. After the UPA government came to power in 2004, it squandered—despite some golden economic years—many opportunities to develop infrastructure, to improve primary and higher education, to pursue financial reforms, to provide basic health, and to work towards stabilizing the region. Today, with a global recession, a high-risk neighbourhood, and increasing inequality at home, the need for a stable, coherent national strategy is urgent. With 206 seats, Congress must now get serious about creating one—free this time of coalitional encumbrances, and of pressures from its mismatched ideological partners.
Even before the results came in, there were reasons to feel good about this election. Inflammatory rhetoric of the sort peddled by Varun Gandhi was more swiftly rejected than might have been a few years ago, reported violence was fairly minimal, and 60% of registered voters turned out. Newly delimited constituencies to some extent restored value to the individual vote (especially for urban citizens). Improved public monitoring of candidates allowed us to know, for instance, by how much the 300 members (source: Association for Democratic Reforms) in the outgoing Lok Sabha personally enriched themselves over the past five years, while ostensibly conducting the business of government. In historical and political terms, yesterday’s results give two further reasons for optimism.
In the 2004 election, India’s plural identity was in question, weakened by BJP rule. Today, we can be a little more confident about sustaining that plural identity. The seductions of identity politics held little attraction in this election, and its great practitioners—L.K. Advani, Mayawati—emerged losers. Such politics of course remain potent and destructive in the lives of ordinary Indians, but their capacity to dictate national policy has at least for the moment been constrained.
Second, the results provide a useful corrective to the defining political dynamic of the last two decades. That dynamic was not the consolidation of a national electoral identity centred around Hindutva, nor the transformative rise of lower caste parties. Rather, it was the marked empowerment of India’s regional states, beginning in the 1990s with a surge in new voters and political parties. Since that time, the mantra has been that our national elections are in fact a series of local elections. Yet this idea distorts the relationship between local and national issues. Agrarian unrest in a third of the country’s districts, access to water in scores of them: When exactly does a local issue become a national one? The localization of our politics sometimes entrapped vital matters of national interest into constituency ghettos. Now, a secure national party should work to make such local realities the stuff of national policy.
In the neighbourhood: A man walks with a boy through the Jalala refugee camp near Mardan, in north-west Pakistan, earlier this week. Pakistan’s army lifted its curfew in the battle-scarred Swat valley on Friday, allowing thousands to flee as troops prepared for street battles with Taliban militants entrenched in the valley’s biggest town. What happens in Pakistan is our problem too—and we need a government willing to address it. Greg Baker / AP
Still, one should not too hastily declare the 2009 election as marking a return to the dominance of national parties. After all, the two national parties have together gained less than 40 seats more in the new Lok Sabha than they won in 2004—hardly a decisive shift. Yet this election does represent at least a slowing of the polity’s headlong regionalization, at a crucial moment in our engagement with the globe—and the Congress, with 29% of the vote share, can claim to have played a real role this. In a world that is remarkably uncertain, one where China, the US and other states are capable of acting in response to crisis with far more coherent will than we possess, and where international developments impinge with startling rapidity on the lives of the poor, India is now potentially in a better position to act and react on behalf of its citizens.
It is now up to the new Congress-led government to make its opportunities. It will need first to articulate clearly what it takes India’s interests to be—and then to be prepared to uphold these, in the face of domestic and international challenge. Perhaps most immediately pressing are the uncertainties of our region. No amount of economic diplomacy can help us to escape our geography. What happens in and to Pakistan, and to its west, matters hugely to India’s future. It is our problem—and we need a government willing to address it. At home, we will need to think more expansively about the principles and forms of redistribution—to be willing to move beyond the politics of reservations. And globally, we cannot pretend that questions of the human habitat are of secondary concern to us. We have to take a lead in international initiatives.
In coming days, the Congress will claim that the voters have affirmed its policies and achievements of the last five years. Indeed the unusual arc of the election lends this argument some credence. The left and right lost, broadly speaking, as masses turned out for the status quo. But while the pundits have already begun ventriloquizing about what the public chose in national terms, MPs across the country campaigned on gutters, water connections, roads. Every election spawns its myths—usually ones far worse than an invented national satisfaction. Now, if the Congress can bring the local to the national—as it could in its heyday—its new term might deliver more that its last one.
Sunil Khilnani is author of The Idea of India (Penguin, 3rd ed. 2003)