Monday, May 18, 2009

What an election!

This has been an extraordinary election in many ways. It was long, protracted, stretching over a month -- the hottest -- and at times seemed never-ending. Yet even when it began, we knew it would end on May 16. A day many of us dreaded. Everyone predicted a hung Parliament, that neither of the two national parties, the Congress or the B JP would be able to form a government easily, that smaller, regional parties would play a much bigger role and that the days after votes were counted the country would witness horse-trading of the worst kind. This would undermine people's faith in politics and democracy.

Well, as usual the pessimists were proved wrong. The Indian voter surprised everyone, including the Congress and the BJP. And we now have the prospect of a fairly stable five years ahead of us as the Congress, with over 200 seats prepares to take office with a few of its allies.

But the question that needs to be asked is why so many people got it wrong? Has the media stopped going out and trying to get the pulse of the people? Have newspapers and media organisations now become so metro-centred that they believe more in the chatter of the pundits sitting in the big cities than the wisdom of the ordinary woman and man sweating it out in small towns and villages? At least one experienced political journalist told me that anyone covering Uttar Pradesh, where the Congress has made a spectacular come-back, would have sensed the growing presence of the Congress. Yet, there were few reports suggesting this. As a result, by most calculations, the Congress was going to fail miserably in UP because it had spurned an ally like the Samajwadi party.

Even in Maharashtra, when psephologist Yogendra Yadav stated that their survey had indicated that the Congress and its ally the Nationalist Congress Party would do quite well in the state, senior journalists were disbelieving. People in the state were fed-up of the state government run by these two parties. Why should they vote for the same people again?

Once again, it is possible that we in the media failed to understand that people have different compulsions when they vote for Parliament than when they do for the state Assembly. Although it is true that the Congress-NCP alliance gained from the split in votes between the Shiv Sena and its breakway Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, the increase in its seats tally suggests that voters did apply a different yardstick in voting for the Lok Sabha elections.

The final tally is a sum of the different compulsions that operated in every state. There was certainly no over-arching "national" issue that benefitted the Congress. But what is clear is that increasingly people seem to be veering towards parties that offer a path between two extremes and can also demonstrate an improvement in the quality of governance.

The real test for the Congress-NCP alliance will come this October when Maharashtra goes to polls to elect a new Assembly. It is then that the complaints about the poor quality of governance of this government might translate into a negative vote against the alliance.

These political calculations apart, I have argued for some time that the Indian voter has now got accustomed to using her vote and increasingly believes that her vote counts, that it can make a difference. Every election since 1977, the most spectacular election when Indira Gandhi and the Congress were voted out of power following the Emergency, has thrown up an unexpected result. No party can now afford to be complacent anymore. People are asking questions and making up their minds. They cannot be bribed and bullied into voting a particular way as they could before. Of course, some of that still happens. But not on the scale it did in the past. And certainly not on a scale that it can change the outcome of elections.

So even as there is much to worry about, with the recession, job losses, social indicators that are changing too slowly, the vulnerability of poor women and children etc, we can be glad that democracy is growing deeper roots every day.

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