The Political Editor of The Economist returns to the last General Election to make sense of India 2014
The Political Editor of The Economist returns to the last General Election to make sense of India 2014
The view from Chiranjeevi’s shoulder was of an unbroken ocean of humanity, rippling with love and adulation, and stretching far into the offing. This had been planned as quite a modest rally, Chiranjeevi had told me, as we flew by helicopter together from Hyderabad to Rajahmundry a few hours earlier. But I had never seen, indeed could scarcely have imagined, such a crowd as this. Later estimates suggested it was one of the biggest rallies for the 2009 Lok Sabha election, attended by around 400,000 people.
Most had stood sweltering for hours for a glimpse of the star of 148 Telugu and Hindi films, whose political debut had introduced new confusion into a state that could well decide the make-up of India’s next government. As my first major rally of a campaign that I would cover vigorously for its duration, criss- crossing India from Kashmir to Chennai, to attend meetings and rallies with campaigning politicians or in the crowd, it was an exhilarating start. It was also, for quite a few of Chiranjeevi’s devotees, nearly calamitous.
It was midway through the film star’s long and rambling speech, as darkness descended, that disaster struck. One of the lighting towers, a vast assemblage of metal scaffolding rising 30-feet up from the crowd at its densest place, had been overloaded with men and boys clambering up for a view of the mega- star. As he forged through a long list of promises—free food, free shoes, free land to the poor, and better everything—it began toppling backwards, slowly at first, then quickening.
It was the most horrifying thing I had ever seen. At the microphone, Chiranjeevi briefly froze, then clutched his head in his hands, and staggered as if he had been shot. He was not acting. The tower, it appeared certain, was about to crush hundreds of people and, being festooned with live wires, perhaps electrocute as many again.
But it did not happen. Within a second of a hysterical clamour erupting beneath the falling hulk, and as bodies dropped like stones from it, hundreds of eager hands reached up and caught it as it fell, rippling along its length, from the foot of the toppling construction upwards. Thus cushioned, its descent was slowed and controlled. With a ghastly thump, it was brought down to earth on bare ground. No one was killed. It was the most remarkable act of collaborative self-preservation imaginable.
Indian democracy, it often struck me during the 2009 campaign, is a lot like this incident— a regrettable mess, in some ways, but also a disaster magnificently averted. It is too dysfunctional to celebrate fulsomely; I have never been one for the carnival-of-democracy claptrap. But for its astonishing ability to function and save Indians from a worse fate, India’s political system is remarkable—and that is no mean feat. Democracy, wrote the polymath Australian Clive James, is always better justified by what it prevents than what it does. And long before Mrs Gandhi proved the point, it was hard to imagine India holding together under any more-prescriptive, less-negotiable arrangement. Indian democracy operates because it can, but also, in such a vast, poor and cacophonous country, because it must. India’s integrity depends on it.
The 2009 election encouraged such abstract thoughts. Because it was hard to see much of a clear, India-wide story in it. Of course, no Lok Sabha poll is merely an accumulation of state-level contests, any more than even the most sweeping— in 1972, 1977, 1980—were purely national votes. The result is always a mix of national sentiment, local issues and the political happenstance that comes from the world’s most convoluted electoral arithmetic. That is why the pollsters are so often proved wrong, as they would be in 2009. Indeed, it was more than usually indeterminate, and, for a hard-travelling foreign correspondent, often perplexing.
By this time in the campaign, five years ago, there was a gathering consensus that the Congress was coming back to power. But it was not a confident one. On my periodic returns to Delhi, back from Pune, Kolkata or Bihar, I was routinely quizzed by more sedentary friends on what the mood had been here or there. Among the Indian commentariat, I sensed an unusual diffidence, a reluctance to predict. Yet, within that uncertain context, the election would be overlaid by three or four India- wide themes, which became clear on my travels—and which may be instructive in consider ing the current election and hopes for change that attend it.
One was the remarkable weakness of the BJP. This was not for want of effort by Narendra Modi, who addressed an estimated 270 rallies during the campaign. But when I went to hear India’s most skilful demagogue in Meerut, it yielded a stark image of his party’s weakness. The large roped-off compound in the middle of the city had been filled the previous day, when 100,000 turned out to see Sanjay Dutt campaign for Amar Singh. But barely 5,000 turned up to hear Modi. Even in safe saffron territory, Indians didn’t seem terribly interested in what his party had to say.
Part of the reason for that was its leader, LK Advani. The octogenarian had never been especially charismatic, even when riding a chariot, and in 2009 he seemed old and weak, a poor successor to Atal Behari Vajpayee. In the salons of Delhi, abuzz with political gossip, the old pugilist was spoken of with new, ever so slightly ironic, deference—“Advani” was now “Advani-ji”. But it seemed that hardly anyone could imagine him as India’s next leader. Perhaps even more than any personal failing of Advani’s, the problem was ideological. Having failed to frighten Indians in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks—the BJP’s blood-spattered campaign literature hardly moved voters in the state-assembly elections that followed it—the Hindu party ran an aimless campaign. It downplayed Hindutva and communalism (Varun Gandhi was a dishonourable exception). At the same time, however, Indians had little enthusiasm for the liberal economic reforms which had become, almost by accident, the party’s alternative guise.
There was a sense of unenthusiastic, yet palpable, national goodwill towards the Congress. Many gave Rahul Gandhi, the party’s most prominent campaigner, credit for that—which was clearly nonsense. The Congress’ main achievement, at the helm since 2004, was to have ruled in lucky times—the swollen tax receipts that came from rapid economic growth having allowed the most enormous spending splurge. And how it had splurged; just one scheme, NREGA, the party’s subsidised ditch-digging scheme, claimed resources equivalent to around 1 per cent of the GDP. And then there were the rural electrification schemes, the fuel subsidies, the widows’ pensions. Sadly, new roads, power stations and railways, infrastructure that was badly needed to sustain the growth spurt, were much harder to find.
But almost no one was thinking of that. Manmohan Singh was still respected as an economic manager—chiefly on the back of a budget speech given almost two decades before. Congress allies had no complaints—for which many greasy- palmed reasons would soon emerge. And in these propitious circumstances, the Gandhis were also an advantage. Even awkward Rahul was, as I saw from amid a crowd of poor farmers who greeted him at a rally in Vidarbha.
As the dauphin’s helicopter buzzed down from the skies, it was greeted with profound interest by thousands of silent faces. And when Rahul spoke, he was listened to in an atmosphere of peculiar intensity. The Gandhis were long since fallen saviours— no one really loved them. But all important things being equal, the average voter seemed unusually willing to give them his attention. Opinion polls confirmed that. Asked by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies who they would choose as Prime Minister, 38 per cent of respondents chose either Sonia or Rahul Gandhi, or Manmohan Singh. Advani polled 14 per cent—Modi, only 2 per cent.
And then, there were the dogs that didn’t bark in this election. Strange to recall, Mayawati, the diamond-loving Dalit leader, was one of the big stories in the run-up to it. On the back of her 2007 surge to power in Uttar Pradesh, she put up candidates and campaigned across India. She hoped to win 50 or so seats, sufficient to play kingmaker to either of the big parties, and so become India’s first Dalit Prime Minister. But in the event, the BSP won only 21, including just one seat outside UP. For those who suspected this showed the limits of her narrow caste-based appeal, Mayawati then offered additional evidence, sacking 100 senior civil servants who she had charged with delivering her victory.
These were dramatic developments. The demise of caste and communally-based parties, if that was what we were witnessing, would bring to an end the dominant themes in Indian politics over two decades. For those, including most of the Delhi- based commentariat, who ached for this, the results lent superficial support. Indians, many thought, had cast a vote for a national, unifying government—the age of unruly coalitions was coming to an end. But unfortunately, this was nonsense.
In many places, voters had preferred the Congress to the BJP, and in UP, some even returned to the Congress from the BSP. But overall the combined vote-share of the two main parties continued its historic fall, to 47.3 per cent. And the rise in Congress’ share, from 26.5 per cent in 2004 to 28.5 per cent, was modest considering that, having fewer allies, it contested 23 more seats. Its tally of 206 seats—on the face of it a tremendous result, representing the biggest share of seats secured by any party since 1991—owed more to the vote-splitting effect of an ever crowded field than a Congress surge. That was Chiranjeevi’s main contribution in Andhra, where the Congress won a staggering 33 seats; the film star’s Praja Rajyam Party didn’t win even one.
Given its genesis, hopes for UPA-2 were exaggerated from the start—certainly by the Bombay Stock Exchange, which leapt by 17 per cent on the morning of its formation. There was, in fact, no reason to expect the liberal reforms that investors craved. There was reason to hope that, less encumbered by troublesome factions—including the Left, who were smashed in this election—the Government would be more harmonious and efficient than its predecessor had been.
But there were also, in retrospect, serious reasons to doubt that—of which weak leadership loomed largest. In Manmohan Singh and Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, India was saddled with leaders who would respectively prove to be undemanding, unwell and unfit.
Looking ahead, with another turn in the Lok Sabha’s pentennial cycle of damnation and redemption upon us, what lessons does the 2009-2014 revolution offer? An obvious one is that the size of the ruling party matters less than the quality of its stewardship; Vajpayee achieved a lot more, with fewer seats, than the Congress has. Perhaps Modi really could, as so many hope, replicate that success—even if he has shown nothing of Vajpayee’s skill at calm consensus-building.
Another lesson is that the Gandhi dynasty, whose electoral potency has for so long been exaggerated by its acolytes, really should be done with now. But it probably will not be. India is still too fractured, vast and poor for any irrevocable shift in its voting patterns. Caste, feudalism, patronage and corruption have not gone away, so governments are bound to disappoint. Whatever progress transpires in this election will be to some degree reversible, therefore. If Modi sweeps this time, even Rahul could sweep next. But change, though partial and slow, is still coming to Indian democracy. The demanding urban middle- class vote, for prosperity and stability, went to the Congress in 2009; in 2014 it may go to the BJP. What is more important, for India’s long-term improvement, is that it will be much bigger.
On a personal note, the 2009 poll, unlike the Congress, was anything but disappointing. Nothing in world politics is so engrossing and satisfyingly perplexing as a Lok Sabha election. In Indian public life, nothing—not even the cricket World Cup— exposes the vastness, endless variety and common purpose of the nation more clearly. To cover the election was a joy and a privilege. I will have many more occasions to sit with ordinary Indians, talking politics, for this is my delight. But I may never again fly over the parched expanses of Andhra with an amiable mega-star, talking movies, prohibition and free shoes.