A new phase of the polity

Suhas Palshikar, The Hindu May 23th, 2014

In the history of elections, India has seen both “normal” elections and extraordinary ones. Normal elections follow the routine logic of political competition — how candidates are selected, what caste-community calculations go into the strategy, and so on. Extraordinary elections also do accommodate these concerns but there are overarching concerns that finally shape the outcome. After two consecutive normal elections in 2004 and 2009, India has witnessed another extraordinary election in 2014.

For a long time, elections to the Lok Sabha did not produce a clear majority. In that sense, this election will certainly be seen as something extraordinary. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) became the first party to have won a majority in the Lok Sabha in the post-Congress era, since 1989. In fact, if one does not count the Janata Party as one single party, then the BJP is the first non-Congress party to have won a parliamentary majority. This ushers in a new phase in the life of the post-Congress polity. So much so that the Congress may now cease to be the reference point in analyses of Indian politics. In this sense, the 2014 election becomes not just dramatic or non-normal (like the 1980 and 1984 elections) for the element of shock (or relief) it brought about, but a critical election.

Era of single-party majority

This election needs to be seen as a critical one primarily because it has redefined the nature of the post-Congress polity. The first decade of the post-Congress polity saw uncertainties and political instability. Those were the years when political actors were adjusting to the new reality and to the responsibility thrust upon them to form national governments. This situation stabilised somewhat over the next decade with the rise of bipolar coalition politics. All through, State-level parties continued to be crucial with their vote shares and seat shares remaining almost as if there were fixed apportionment of votes and seats for them. States became the critical theatres where much of the political drama was actually scripted. Yet, the two main parties, the Congress and the BJP, managed to bring together two rival coalitions that gave a semblance of discipline to the fluid political competition that the decline of Congress brought about.

In the second decade of the post-Congress polity (1999-2009), elections at last began to produce majorities. The ruling coalitions remained comfortably in power for entire tenures, and by 2009, one of the two main contenders managed to inch ahead of the other in terms of seats and votes. Following that trend, Elections 2014 have firmly pushed the polity back into the era of single-party majority. The post-Congress polity has taken a firmly non-Congress route.

Dynamics of power-sharing

Second, the outcome of 2014 is likely to transform the terms of trade between “national” and State parties. Through the 1990s we witnessed the rewriting of the terms of power-sharing between the two larger parties on the one hand and the many State-level parties on the other. Except for their reach, the distinction between “regional” and “national” parties almost disappeared.

Will that change now? Of course, there is a remarkable stability to the votes and seats shared by non-Congress and non-BJP parties amidst the political upheaval of 2014. However, the roles and leveraging capacity of the State parties will undergo a change. As the structure of competition gets transformed, State-level parties will face their biggest challenges in the coming years. Some parties have emerged, if not stronger at least intact mostly thanks to their alliance with the BJP. Some others have withstood the rise of the BJP and held on to their own strength.

But it is clear that the ruling party will no more require a coalition arrangement to come to power. In a sense, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) now becomes redundant. Sure enough, the BJP will not immediately dump its partners But in the absence of their relevance for the survival of the government, NDA partners will have lost much of their shine.

Besides, State parties will now be pushed back to the concerns of their respective States. None of them will have much of a say in the so-called national affairs of policy, or in power-sharing. Their assertiveness will be limited to the matter of Central aid to their respective States. This leaves a huge vacuum in terms of the oppositional space.

Yet another dimension of the criticality of Elections 2014 is the near-dramatic decimation of the Congress (this is discussed in greater detail separately in this series). This will have far-reaching effects. But the one that concerns us here immediately is the internal equilibrium that had been shaped between the two parties and among various parties more generally. Upsetting that equilibrium, the polity has entered a phase in which a single dominant party is weak and the Opposition is fragmented. With its reduced power and concomitant demoralisation, the Congress will not be in a position to play the role of the Opposition.

The ruling party will now be less encumbered by the parliamentary opposition, and much less so outside Parliament. It is in this sense that this outcome represents the new phase of post-Congress polity. In all likelihood, the Congress will not be the main contender against the BJP in this phase; it will not have the intellectual capacity or political energy to truly put forward an alternative to the BJP either in terms of governance or the ideological moorings of politics. Therefore, this election has at least opened up an interregnum during which there will be no strong and organised opposition to the ruling majority.

Fourth, this election saw the return of the plebiscitary mode based on a personality. Personality politics is not entirely new, nor was it absent all these years. However, at the all-India level, this feature had almost disappeared after the 1980 Lok Sabha election. Starting early on in 2013, Narendra Modi turned this election into a plebiscite on his leadership. He even challenged the Congress to similarly enter Rahul Gandhi’s name in the contest. While the Congress did not do that officially, it was left with no choice but to counter Mr. Modi with Mr. Gandhi. But it was not a competition between two leaders. It was plainly a plebiscite on Mr. Modi. The BJP as a party was only the backdrop to this main script.

Opinion polls conducted by Lokniti since July 2013 show that initially in many States respondents were not interested in naming their favoured candidate for Prime Minister. However, as the electoral campaign progressed, voters were caught up in the game of “kaun banega prime minister,” trumping all other considerations. In July 2013, almost four out of every 10 respondents would have no answer to the query who they would prefer to be the next Prime Minister. This proportion came down to less than three in every 10 by the time elections happened. The acceptability of Mr. Modi across States neutralised the importance of the State in shaping voter choices. This marked a clear reversal from the past few elections that were practically shaped at the State level.

Reading the mandate

Finally, this election will prove to be critical in one more sense. As the BJP consolidates itself and the Congress licks its wounds, the polity suddenly becomes unipolar. For the past quarter of a century, elections barely if at all produced a parliamentary majority. Often that majority was fragmented and truncated in nature. This election has the distinction of having provided a clear majority to one party. Will the BJP over-read the mandate? While the BJP did get a clear majority, its overall vote share is only 31 per cent. We must note that in India’s history the lowest vote share of a “majority” party has been 41 per cent. Compared to that, the BJP’s share of 31 per cent is abysmally low. Hence, the so-called mandate is, to say the least, a very thin one.

Intellectual supporters of Mr. Modi (outside party circles) are arguing for a more impatient restructuring of the economy. On the other hand, given its inclination towards a more radical rebuilding of the Indian nationhood, there is no guarantee that the BJP itself will not indulge in an adventurist reading of the mandate. But it will be worth remembering that the electoral majority the BJP has achieved has happened only in the broader context of the 1990s.

However drastic this outcome may appear to be, in one fundamental sense it does not depart much from the outcome of previous elections. That relates to the new social contract that India of the contemporary moment seeks to enter into, consisting of three basic elements: decent governance as the outcome of electoral democracy, recognition of dignity and community identities as an outcome of nationhood, and a move towards qualitative improvement in livelihood opportunities as an outcome of the new economy.

Much will depend upon whether the BJP confines its reading of the “mandate” to this consensual social contract. This outcome has all the properties of fundamentally shifting the structure of political competition, and yet it does not comprise a mandate that allows a departure from the consensus that has implicitly evolved through the tumultuous 1990s. This could be somewhat disappointing for the BJP: it has finally succeeded in transforming the structure of competition in its favour, and yet it might not have enough space to transform the content of politics.

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