Let’s begin with a big picture proposition that has been brewing among many political observers since the results of the last general elections became known. It seems reasonable to argue that voters in India are becoming increasingly oriented towards self-interest and accountability as against an electorate influenced by communitarian considerations of one or the other description.
The point is that the UPA, led by the Congress unexpectedly bucked anti-incumbency and hostile circumstances to return to power with a fairly solid mandate primarily because it had delivered on wide-ranging welfare fronts in a way that no government previously had, especially in the post-liberalisation era. This means that large sections of the deprived — those below the poverty line have now been pegged by a committee constituted by the government at 50 per cent of the population — voted on the basis of welfare programmes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, rather than out of allegiance to membership of putative ‘communities’.
This was, with some exceptions, a country-wide phenomenon, showcased especially in Uttar Pradesh, where the Congress sneaked into second place despite the lack of basic organisation and mobilisational networks, and in West Bengal, where the ruling Left Front was punished after over three decades of cruise control because of its abysmal failure of delivery on the development and social sector arenas.
The recent round of by-elections in several states seems to bear out this hypothesis. Let’s begin with Bihar. The Janata Dal (United) and its ally, the BJP, did badly and were mauled by the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) in alliance. No one had expected this result. What explains the success of the latter is difficult to identify just now. But it seems clear that the Janata Dal (United) did badly because of two reasons: first, its uneasy yoking with a sectarian party isn’t winning it too many friends. Which is why it is so keen to jettison it. Second, because it commissioned a report on the land question that recommended the delivery of rights to sharecroppers, which must have set off a backlash among the powerful landowning class. Communitarian bonds may be weakening, but no one is arguing that local muscle power does not work — especially when it comes to by-elections, when oversight is less intense and the problem of mobilisation less acute.
The Congress’s contretemps — it has lost seats across states — is clearly explicable in terms of its inability to contain prices, though a clutch of local factors, obviously more important in isolated by-elections as compared to a general election, has played its part. Among the most pre-eminent among the usual suspects has been factional fights and poor candidate selection. This was certainly the case in Delhi, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.
A word of caution may be in order. The BJP’s good showing in Karnataka and Gujarat in particular may constitute evidence that the politics of polarisation is alive and doing well in small pockets in the country. If it wants to remain relevant on the national stage, however, the BJP must reflect on the wisdom of randomly extrapolating the lessons from the laboratories of these two states to a national context. Narendra Modi is hardly a leadership option.
Suhit Sen is a Kolkata-based writer