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Tentative Emergence of a New and Tentative Coalition?

Many myths have begun to be propagated about Verdict 2009 but in order to even begin to make sense of the outcome, we must employ the filter of state specificity, remind ourselves of the eminently "normal" nature of the election and appreciate the strength of middle-of-the-road politics. More than the recovery of the Congress, the tentative coalition of the middle classes and the poor that seems to have tentatively emerged could arrest the onward march of various politics of exclusion and bring the poor back into the policy consciousness of our polity - to the extent this is possible within a liberal democratic framework.


Tentative Emergence of a New and Tentative Coalition?

Suhas Palshikar

of Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi by the Congress for the job meant that the election was not about leadership.

Then, does this election indicate the rise of national parties and the fall of the state parties? Does this indicate the rise of a bi-party system as some BJP leaders

Many myths have begun to be propagated about Verdict 2009 but in order to even begin to make sense of the outcome, we must employ the filter of state specificity, remind ourselves of the eminently “normal” nature of the election and appreciate the strength of middle-of-the-road politics. More than the recovery of the Congress, the tentative coalition of the middle classes and the poor that seems to have tentatively emerged could arrest the onward march of various politics of exclusion and bring the poor back into the policy consciousness of our polity – to the extent this is possible within a liberal democratic framework.

Suhas Palshikar ( is with the Department of Politics, University of Pune, Pune.

n a second consecutive Lok Sabha election, the Congress Party has succeeded in gaining seats and vote share as well. The last time this happened, in 2004, this could be partially ascribed to a “coalition” effect. Also, while the seat gain was substantial in 2004, there were no clear signs of recovery of the Congress.

The outcome of 2004 led to a bewilderment and the characterisation of that election as an “elusive” mandate. The recovery of the Congress in the recently concluded 15th Lok Sabha elections is much more visible and less disputable (a gain of over 60 seats and an increase in vote share of more than 2 percentage points).

This Congress recovery can be read either simplistically or by contextualising it against the complexities of contemporary politics. Most early reactions seem to be tilting to the former. The media seems to be in a hurry to make grand declarations and the commentators and observers from the finance and business sectors are misreading the election outcome so as to suit their expectations from the political system. This note argues that in order to make sense of the outcome in 2009, we need to employ the filter of state specificity, remind ourselves of the eminently “normal” nature of this election and appreciate the strength of middle-of-theroad politics.

It is necessary to begin by stating what these election results are not. To begin with, we can quickly and summarily dismiss the ideas that secularism, the Indo-US nuclear deal, terror attacks, etc, were major issues, and similarly dismiss the possibility that the result was the outcome of or a mandate to the leadership of Rahul Gandhi. While the announcement of L K Advani as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate for prime minister did give some element of a presidential election to the contest, the non-projection

may 23, 2009

have been claiming on television? Does it mark the beginning of the end of coalition era?

The formation of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the late 1990s and later of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) gave a neat bipolarity to the complex and messy political scene. The 2009 election has seen the crumbling of that neat bipolarity. On paper, of course, the two coalitions remained; but they had lost the capacity to occupy enough political space to shut out the “others” from the portals of power politics. The Congress has emerged stronger, but that is far from saying that the state parties have been eased out. With its 200 plus seats, Congress is still very much dependent upon the state parties like Trinamool, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and probably a couple of others like the Nationalist Congress Party, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, etc, and some others as well. We are still far from having a one-party central government. And outside of the current NDA and UPA, you have significant political forces such as Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party, Telugu Desam Party, Biju Janata Dal and All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Within the NDA, the Janata Dal-United has emerged as a powerful state party and the Shiv Sena is also not exactly on the decline in spite of a fratricidal war within the first family of the Sena.

So, while the gains for the Congress are clearly evident and also the losses for the BJP are there to see, there is simply no evidence that national parties are emerging as major players replacing state-level parties. This also means that the era of coalitions is far from over, though internal balance within each coalition has undergone a change. Here too, it is possible to imagine that at the moment, within the UPA, Congress has become stronger, but within the NDA, the BJP has become weaker – throwing up the possibility that fresh reconfigurations

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Economic & Political Weekly


are possible and a new oppositional coali-state-level specificity. Its victory in Kerala, e xtra-ordinary situations: going back to tion can emerge in course of time which its return to power in Andhra Pradesh, the times when Indira Gandhi’s leadership may exclude the BJP altogether. gains in Rajasthan, revival in Uttar Pradesh, was contested, as in 1967, 1971, 1977 and

and progress in West Bengal, all have state-1980. Then after the extraordinary elec-Stable Governments level factors that made the outcome possi-tion against the backdrop of her assassina-Was this election a “vote for stability”, ble at the state level. These state-level fac-tion in 1984, emotive issues continued to another myth that is being heard in the tors are not easy to replicate in other states dominate elections more or less all first elections? But, compared to the t umul-and there was no specific design for the through the 1990s. While Rajiv Gandhi tuous 1990s, the two previous govern-success and revival that the Congress had was at the centre of the controversy in ments of 1999 and 2004 were relatively planned and implemented. To wit, in states 1989, and his assassination turned the stable. Implicit in the stability argument like Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, the tide in 1991, the rest of the decade that is usually made, however, is a tendency Congress gained in spite of itself! But the w itnessed the rise of the Mandir and to put a premium on one-party gov-M andal paradigms that accom-

Table 1: Lok Sabha Elections – Data for Main Parties

ernment. Studies have pointed out modated political contest. Lok

Party Seats Contested Seats Won Vote Share (%)

time and again that for the voter, this 2004 2009 2004 2009 2004 2009 S abha 2004 was a near-normal is not a major issue as long as the gov-INC 417 440 145 206 26.53 28.56 e lection after a long time. The BJP 364 433 138 116 22.16 18.81

ernment runs e ffectively. Voters do r ecently concluded elections were

JD(U) 73 55 8 20 2.35 1.52

not mind coalitions per se, as some much more so. In elections that are

CPI 34 56 10 4 1.41 1.43

sections of the intelligentsia do. And not normal, you get readymade

CPM 69 82 43 16 5.66 5.33

if by stability we mean continuity of p aradigms within which to fit the

BSP 435 500 19 21 5.33 6.17 policies, there was remarkable conti-IND 2385 3829 5 9 4.25 5.16 election outcome. But a normal elec

nuity even when there was consider-TRMC(AITC) 33 35 2 19 2.07 3.20 tion throws up the possibility that

able poli tical instability. So, it is not NCP 32 68 9 9 1.80 2.04 people may after all have voted for SHS 56 47 12 11 1.81 1.55

possible to a ccept the argument that routine issues of governmental per-

MUL 10 16 1 2 0.20 0.21

one-party gov ern ments or “stable” formance, livelihood and economy.

JD(S) 43 33 3 3 1.47 0.82

governments are necessary for conti- Therefore bijali, sadak, paani or the

SP 237 193 36 23 4.32 3.43

nuity of policies. By way of an aside, aam aadmi became issues in 2004,

JKNC/JKN 6 3 2 3 0.13 0.12 we must also note that only when SAD 10 10 8 4 0.90 0.96 when the energies of the Mandir

there were weak and unstable gov-JMM 9 42 5 2 0.47 0.40 and Mandal debates were either

ernments engaged in struggles for AIADMK/ADMK 33 23 0 9 2.19 1.67 d issipated or absorbed. DMK 16 22 16 18 1.81 1.83

survival, were certain economic poli- If this is a correct assessment,

TDP 33 31 5 6 3.04 2.51

cies pushed through without political then it is not surprising that the

PMK 6 7 6 0 0.56 0.47

opposition. Strong governments tend 2009 Lok Sabha election, much re-

AGP 12 6 2 1 0.53 0.43

to assert the auto nomy of the politi- moved from those tumultuous con-

LJNSP/LJP 40 106 4 0 0.71 0.45 cal, while weak governments abdi-RJD 42 44 24 4 2.41 1.27 troversies, would draw people’s at

cate that autonomy easily. TRS 22 9 5 2 0.63 0.62 tention to issues of performance of

BJD 12 18 11 14 1.30 1.59 the government and the delivery DMDK – 40 – 0 – 0.75

No Return of the ‘National’ end of politics. So, the Narendra

MNS – 11 – 0 – 0.36

Then there is a more serious argu- Modi gov ernment in Gujarat

IND: Independent. ment that there was a national char-Source: Computations by CSDS based on Election Commission Data.

acter to the 2009 election. This needs to be seen against the backdrop of the a rgument that the state is emerging as the theatre of poli tical contestations and that the “national” or all-India is a somewhat artificial terrain for depicting and understanding politics. Indeed, the revival of the Congress appears to have an all-India character – it has either gained everywhere or avoided massive losses anywhere. Thus, the story is surely an all-India story? Does that signal the decline of the state and rise of the national? Perhaps, it is too early to declare the decline of the state-level factors. While the Congress story has an all-India element, it has become possible only with absence of an overall design for recovery belies the assumption of the rise of the national as the main theatre of politics.

While it will take some time to make a careful analysis of available evidence in order to explain how this result came about, it is possible to propose a broad framework to understand Verdict 2009. So, how does one read the success of the Congress in starting on the path of its recovery?

‘Normal’ Election

We need to realise the difference of this election from many in the past. Elections for too long were set in somewhat

Economic & Political Weekly

may 23, 2009 vol xliv no 21

m anages to gain not by the Modi

of 2002-03, but by the overall record of the state government; the Y S Raj asekhara Reddy government r eturns to power in Andhra Pradesh on claims of having cared for the poor; N itish Kumar in Bihar surpasses all expectations on grounds of stalling the downfall of governance that took place during the Lalu-Rabri Devi regime; the Left Front fares badly in both Kerala and West Bengal because it lost the script of being a government that cared.

Governance Issues

But it is a mistaken view that governance is only – or even primarily – about routine


Table 2: All India Lok Sabha Election 2009
Turnout 58.42
Party Contested Seats Won Vote (%)
Congress allies 526 261 36.22
Congress 440 206 28.56
JKNC 3 3 0.12
MUL 2 2 0.20
KCM 1 1 0.10
NCP 23 9 1.78
DMK 22 18 1.83
Trinamool Cong 27 19 3.19
JMM 5 2 0.21
RPI 2 0 0.12
IND(Congress) 1 1 0.11
NDA 512 159 24.11
BJP 433 116 18.81
AGP 6 1 0.43
JD(U) 27 20 1.42
INLD 5 0 0.31
Shiv Sena 22 11 1.51
NPF 1 1 0.20
SDF 1 1 0.04
RLD 7 5 0.43
Akali Dal 10 4 0.96
Left 177 24 7.61
CPI 56 4 1.43
CPI(M) 82 16 5.33
FBL 21 2 0.32
RSP 16 2 0.38
KEC 1 0 0.08
IND(Left) 1 0 0.07
BSP 500 21 6.17
Fourth Front 343 27 5.15
SP 193 23 3.43
RJD 44 4 1.27
LJNSP 106 0 0.45
Others 6,021 51 20.74
Total 8,070 543 100.00

Source: Computations by CSDS, Delhi, based on Election Commission data.

matters of efficiency and administrative competence. Governance is a matter of politics. The controversies over Mandal and Mandir allowed political parties to sidetrack this “politics of governance”. Routine or normal elections may just have facilitated the entry of that politics – unannounced. The volatility of the vote of the poor during the 1990s and the slight shift of their vote in 2004 were remarkable factors still waiting to be fully analysed and understood. But it is reasonable to suppose that the economy mattered in the outcome of 2004. Herein lies the riddle: in 2004, people saw unemployment as the most worrying problem; a significant proportion of the voters wanted the Atal Behari Vajpayee government to r eturn to power; but that government lost

power. In 2009, employment still contin most other parties followed the same
ues to be the concern; people did want the strategy. The Congress thought that it
M anmohan Singh government to come could rely only on the middle classes for
back to power, and it actually has come its political survival. In reality, this led to
back. What made this possible? its decline.
Politics of Exclusion Coalition of Middle Class & Poor?
The 1990s were characterised by the poli- Elections 2004 took place against this
tics of exclusion. The BJP unleashed its backdrop. While the NDA government
politics of exclusion based on Hindu com could not disassociate itself from the
munalism while the politics of backward m andir baggage, the Congress too could
castes soon adopted the exclusionary form not infuse confidence among the poor at
in order to consolidate its social base. Some that time. It was a sum total of circum
of these exclusionary politics actually paid stances that brought the Congress to
dividends in the short run and also repre p ower five years ago. Once in power, the
sented limited democratic claims as in the UPA government shifted away from mere
case of the politics of the Other Backward technocratic strategies of governance and
Classes. Given the difficulties of forcing an adopted a political approach. Although
entry into established politics, such strate nothing dramatic or radical may have
gies of exclusion prove instrumental. t aken place, the language of politics and
These developments had two effects: one, direction of policies changed just enough
the politics of exclusion was accepted as for the poor to be talked of. Politically this
being democratic and, two, limited and means that in 2009, the Congress may just
exclusionary social b ases came to be have forged – very tentatively – a coalition
recog nised as being a dequate for gaining of the middle classes and the poor. A slight
power. The decline of the Congress and shift away from the middle classes brings
the emergence of the state as the core are the party to the middle road once again.
na of politics meant that a narrow social The results are there to see – a recovery of
base could still be a road to power – at the Congress.
least a road to sharing power. But more than the recovery of the
On top of all this, throughout the 1990s C ongress, the tentative coalition of the
there were attempts to redefine the social middle classes and the poor could arrest
contract and forge a policy framework the onward march of various politics of
that depended only on the middle classes. exclusion and bring the poor back into the
This implied an exclusion of the poor from policy consciousness of our polity – to the
policy considerations. The Congress was extent this is possible within a liberal
initially responsible for this though later democratic framework.

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