The triumph and the glory

There are moments in the life of nations that are harbingers of deep changes. The Congress has achieved what even so many of its friends thought was unthinkable: not just a return to power, but a return with such aplomb. No amount of psephological quibbling can take away from this achievement. They put a lie to the proposition that this was not a national election, but a sum of state elections. The swing towards them across large parts of the country is too significant to be dismissed as a conjuncture of lots of local factors. But this is also a moment where the nation is also entitled to some degree of self-congratulation. Small exceptions apart, this election represents a big defeat for the politics of opportunism, obfuscation and obscurantism. Those political forces that thought that mere political bargaining with others was a substitute for an electoral strategy have lost. Instead a message has been sent out, loud and clear, that playing spoiler, switching sides in order to pre-empt the people's mandate, changing positions at the last minute are simply not on. Elections are fundamentally about comparative credibility, and those who were foolish enough to assume that mere words could hoodwink electorates have been cut to size. A large number of parties have been punished for this reason and rightly so.

This election is also an indicator that the era of votebank politics as we have known it is over. Parties that placed undue confidence in the fact that they had secure vote-bases amongst particular political groups have been given a severe blow. For instance, Mayawati made the same mistake Lalu made in Bihar. She took the Dalit vote so much for granted that she felt even less compelled to deliver. She has not yet recognised that a functioning state, freed from the local political economy of extortion and violence, will be to her benefit in the long run. Lalu's constituents gave him 15 years; Mayawati's will give her even less. The Congress did extraordinarily well to step into the breach. The Muslim vote will show a similar trend; here is a group that also feels it now has choices, and this is a healthy sign for Indian politics. It is too soon to say that caste and identity have become irrelevant for politics. They may seem so because the policy agendas that came out of that politics are now deeply entrenched; yet its logic is also involuting, creating new coalitions as in Bihar. It is inevitable that there will be a search for new paradigms. But the post-Mandal age of identity votebanks is over.

The standard thesis that Indian politics is centrist and moderate in its orientation also holds. The BJP's core dilemma is that the politics of polarisation can give it local victories, a Gujarat here, a Pilibhit there. But it cannot sustain a broad national presence. Its leadership has consistently failed to recognise this point. Indeed, aversion to a politics of polarisation may also explain the backlash against Mayawati. Hazari Prasad Dwivedi once wrote a remarkable sentence in the context of Indian culture that sums up our politics as well: bharat ka loknayak wahi ho sakta hai jo samanvaya kar sake. This was the core premise on which the Congress was built; it was punished when it departed from it. It may now be able to reoccupy that space.

The election has also complicated the dialectic of fragmentation. While smaller parties have played the spoiler in a few states, they have ended up reinforcing the space of national parties, as in the case of Maharashtra. The election also demonstrates the Indian electorate's aversion to hubris. One of the most dramatic results is from West Bengal, where the Left has suffered a serious setback. Much ink will be spilt over the analysing of whether it was its opposition to Manmohan Singh or Nandigram that did it in. But the Left, particularly in Bengal, had acquired a sense of hubris that was overdue for a rebuff. This is also an era where two things are evident in voters' responses to governance and development issues: on the one hand, their expectations are rising; they want a politics of hope, not resentment. On the other hand, they are exercising nuanced judgments, not instinctive anti-incumbency.

But in the end nothing can take away from the fact that the Congress's strategy was hugely successful. Even his critics have to acknowledge that Dr Manmohan Singh's government seemed to be a safer pair of hands than any of the competitors. He can claim credit for the fact that this election was not taking place against the backdrop of deep discontentment; if anything, most people have more cash in their pockets. Agrarian growth has been impressive, procurement prices high, subsidies galore, government employees with cash in their pockets; and despite the recent slowdown, the continuous record of growth was a strong hand with which to go to the elections. Rahul Gandhi should rightly get the credit for laying the political foundations of this victory. But in end that could not have been possible, without the fact that the government, for all its imperfections seemed more credible than all the rivals.

Rahul Gandhi's three gambits seem to have paid off handsomely. The first was the decision of the Congress to go it alone; if nothing else, this decision was a reiteration of its character as a special national party. And the timing for this was just right in UP. Second, and more subtly, in states like Punjab,

Uttarakhand and even, to some extent, in Gujarat, the strategy of energising the Youth Congress and bringing an element of organisational vitality seems to have paid off. And finally, his own subtle strategy of positioning himself as an "outsider" to the system, a source of real, even if somewhat indeterminate newness seems a master stroke. There is no question that at the moment people see Congress as a party of the future, and he was able to embody that idea in all its concreteness. If outcomes were a consequence of predetermined logic, no politics would be necessary. Rahul Gandhi has demonstrated the dividends that risk-taking can have in politics: it can change the rules of the game. This is his moment. He has changed the rules of politics. The country will now look to him to change its horizons for the future.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

express@expressindia.com

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