In the end the Indian voter had the last laugh. In the last edition of Prospect I wrote an essay about the chances of Mayawati, a regional dalit politican in northern India, surprising everyone to become India’s next prime minister. Along with many other commentators, and all the self appointed experts, I had thought we were heading for a repeat of the fragmented results of 1998, 1999 and 2004, if only worse. The spectre of the Third Front in power—a ragtag alliance of small parties with only the idea of anti-Congress, anti-BJP coalition to unite it—alarmed the financial markets. But in the event they, along with the rest of us, need not have worried. And it was certainly a stunning result.
India voted back the ruling UPA coalition, lead by the centrist Congress party, with big plurality—260 seats out of 543—only 12 short of an absolute majority. As a result Manmohan Singh is back as PM for five years, though his health may not permit a full term. It is certainly a triumph for Sonia Gandhi, who has steered Congress from its virtual decimation in late 1990s to a level which has not been reached for 25 years. Congress’s tally of 206 seats on its own is the highest since 1984. The oldest party in India is now confirmed in its central status. Rahul Gandhi, the heir apparent, has proved his mettle in this election too. Formerly shy, tongue-tied and harnessed to the job which was his whether he liked it or not, he campaigned well this time. He has developed into a good speaker and traveled round the country to see for himself what life was like at the grassroots. It paid off.
He also gambled that Congress should contest many more seats rather than join in seat sharing alliance with coalition partners. This has also succeeded in Uttar Pradesh (UP), the largest state, where Congress had declined for 20 years. Now Congress is almost level pegging with BSP, the dalit party whose leader Mayawati is the chief minister, and her arch-rival the Samajwadi Party. For Congress to have a quarter of the 80 UP seats is historic.
As for Mayawati, after all the hype and hope, she has been cut down to size. She was hoping to be a big player in any post-electionnegotiations about government formation. She needed to win around 40-50 of the 80 UP seats and the elections had to have a fractured verdict. In the event she only got around 20 seats (the final count is not yet in) and the verdict was not fractured but a stunning vote for Congress/UPA. The fact that she has been rejected by her voters indicates that she has not delivered what she promised. Many other caste-based parties which played identity politics have also suffered setbacks. But parties that deliver good governance such as Janata Dal (United) in Bihar with its charismatic chief Insiter Nitish Kumar have thrived. Lalu Prasad Yadav, the colourful “King” of Bihar, whose party held power for 15 years has crashed out with only 4 out of 40 seats.
The BJP, the Hindu nationalist party that is the main rival to Congress, has now fallen nearly 100 seats behind Congress. Its leader L.K.Advani resigned as leader of opposition, though the final decisions will be when the parliamentary party meets. The BJP has much thinking to do about how it renews itself. As do the Communists who fell from 66 to 25 seats. In West Bengal, an allinace of Congress with Trinamool Congress took the majority of parliamentary seats. For the left, which has ruled the state for 32 years, this was a big shock. If it is repeated at the state elections in 2011, it will mean a sea change in the history of the left in India.