A verdict that’s more or less national

Updated on May 24, 2009 12:22 AM IST

All too often, we think elections are swung only by caste considerations, by anti-incumbency and by issues raised during the campaigns. Rahul’s example shows us that this need not be true. If a party invests time and effort in a state over many years, if it fields clean, enthusiastic, young candidates, then voters are willing to listen, writes Vir Sanghvi.

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We’ve all heard enough about what the results mean for political parties. And we’ve discussed the new cabinet. But what we haven’t talked about enough is what the election tells us about the mood of India. This is, after all, the largest democratic exercise in the world and a far more reliable indicator of what Indians feel than any opinion poll.

The first thing that needs to be said — with many qualifications, admittedly — is that for the first time since 1991, we have a verdict that is more or less national. By that, I do not mean that India voted as one (as in 1971 or 1984 for instance) but that voting trends appeared to be more national than usual — which makes it possible to generalise about the mood of the nation.

During the campaign, there were two things that struck me whenever I spoke to people or received comments and questions on my website. One of them was the all-pervasive fear of the instability that would be generated by a Third Front victory. When I wrote a Counterpoint disagreeing with the view that regional parties should rule India, I was startled by the avalanche of favourable responses.

Similarly, it also struck me that while the internet was infested with chaddiwallahs and Hindu fanatics (could it be that the tech-savvy sangh parivar has a wing dedicated to pro-BJP blogging or am I just being needlessly cynical?), hardly anyone I met — and I refer to people who are not in politics or the media — seemed at all enthusiastic about the BJP. Not all of them were wild about the Congress, but they still thought it was a better option.

I disregarded this fear of the Third Front and this lack of enthusiasm for the BJP because a) we tend to be friends with people who already share our views and b) I am wary of drawing any conclusions from the opinions of the middle class.

I should have paid more attention to those I spoke to. The middle class did not vote significantly differently from everybody else. And at the risk of over-generalising, I think both trends — fear of the Third Front and a lack of enthusiasm for this avatar of the BJP — cut across class divisions in much of urban India.

Another major national trend is that Muslims all over India are returning to the Congress. You can’t really make sense of the rout of the CPI(M) in West Bengal, for instance, unless you accept that the Muslims deserted the Left for Mamata and Sonia. It seems as clear that the Muslims who voted for Mayawati in the UP assembly election voted for the Congress in the Lok Sabha polls. The SP could not manage to get a single Muslim candidate elected and Azam Khan’s claim that the party had abandoned its original Muslim support base in favour of corporate money and Bollywood glitter found a certain resonance.

The shift in Muslim votes was hastened by the nature of the BJP campaign. Muslims tend to vote tactically to keep the BJP out of power. And when they saw that the party was promoting Narendra Modi they decided that they needed to strengthen the Congress.

A lot has been said about Rahul Gandhi’s massive contribution to the Congress victory. But it is worth making the point that Indira Gandhi’s other grandson also played a huge role in the Congress sweep. When Muslims heard Varun Gandhi calling them names and asking them to go to Pakistan, they were shocked and incredulous. They waited for the BJP to condemn him and strip him of his ticket. Instead, the party backed Varun to the hilt.

For many Muslims this was the final straw. They were so terrified by the prospect of this uncouth avatar of the BJP winning office that they voted for the Congress to make sure the BJP stayed out.

In that sense, poor Varun has not got the credit he deserves. He may come across as an immature fat boy but he did his bit for the Gandhis by helping the Congress win.

Which brings us to another trend that many people claim to have noticed: a move away from extremism and a vote for moderation.

Certainly, there is a lot of evidence to support this view. The BJP’s mascot in this election, Narendra Modi, proved to be an over-hyped humbug. In most places where he campaigned, the BJP candidate lost. In those areas where he was not allowed to speak (Bihar for instance), the BJP won. And far from sweeping Modi’s Gujarat, the BJP actually suffered a slight drop in its vote share.

Those who spoke out against extremism were also rewarded. Naveen Patnaik may have broken with the BJP over seat-sharing rather than secularism but his claim that he was appalled by the BJP’s anti-Christian agenda in Orissa found many takers.

My problem with this view is that you could easily make the opposite case. The drop in Modi’s vote-share can be attributed to voter fatigue and the BJP won Gujarat, anyway. The MNS may not have won a seat in Bombay but Raj Thackeray’s party — which is more extreme and violent than his uncle’s Shiv Sena — did extraordinarily well even in South Bombay. In many Bombay constituencies, the Congress won only because the MNS split the BJP-Shiv Sena vote.

Besides, if voters are so fed up of extremism, then how do you explain Varun Gandhi’s huge victory in his own seat? Varun may have scared off the Muslims but the Hindus certainly rallied behind him.

And then, there’s the Karnataka paradox. Until the BJP took office in the state, Karnataka was regarded as a model of South Indian sobriety and civility. Then, fringe organisations loosely affiliated to the Sangh parivar began assaulting women, attacking pubs and broadcasting a lunatic Hindu agenda.

If this was a vote for moderation then the BJP should have been wiped out in Karnataka. Instead, it did extremely well.

So I am not so sure about the moderation versus extremism argument. I would hope that the mood of India is for tolerance and secularism. But we’ll have to wait and see.

And finally: the Rahul Gandhi factor. This probably deserves a piece by itself, as does the emerging Rahul Doctrine. Some things seem clear though. There are two important lessons from Rahul Gandhi’s success. The first has been widely recognised: the Congress has youth on its side while the BJP risks coming across as a party of self-satisfied lalas in advanced middle age. The only BJP leader of consequence under 40 is Varun Gandhi — and he ended up helping the Congress more than he helped the BJP.

But there’s second lesson. All too often, we think elections are swung only by caste considerations, by anti-incumbency and by issues raised during the campaigns. Rahul’s example shows us that this need not be true. If a party invests time and effort in a state over many years (and not just the run-up to the campaign), if it fields clean, enthusiastic, young candidates and if it promises a better long-term future (not just free rice), then voters are willing to listen.

In the long run, that may well prove to be the most enduring and encouraging lesson of this election.

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