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Modest Swing Effects a 61 Seat Bounty

By: Vivek Gumaste
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Sixty years after independence that problem is still there. India has no autonomous intellectual life.
V.S. Naipaul, A Writer"s People.

An electoral victory is a schizophrenic moment both for the victor as well as for the vanquished. It amplifies ones worth and deposits the victor on a lofty pedestal far removed from ground reality. Sycophants mill around engaging in panegyric expositions that extol the non-existent virtues of the conqueror and claim infallibility of his/her deeds both good and bad. For the looser it is an occasion for self-recrimination. Defeat exaggerates ones defects, thrashes sound policies and throws the victim into an abyss of despair far deeper than what reality warrants. Nothing captures this notion better than the post-election scenario. Caution is necessary to temper this emotional surge.

As the results poured in, newspaper editors and columnists fell over each other in eulogizing the Congress party, complimenting its leadership and hailing this victory as a historic win that ratified each and every action and inaction of the UPA"s 5 year tenure.

Vinod Mehta, the editor of Outlook (May 25, 2009) proclaimed emphatically: The "pseudo-secularists" have won. And won stunningly. The small print in the triumph ("victory" is too soft a description) is breathtaking. Savour. For the first time, a Congress prime minister, who is not a member of the Gandhi family, will enjoy two successive terms; and for the first time since 1977, a Congress government will be returned to power. In a TV studio on Saturday, a glum cheerleader for the BJP accused me of being a cheerleader for the Congress. Happily, this is not a time to settle scores or wisecracks! Verdict 2009 is an unambiguous, comprehensive and titanic rejection by the country of extremist politics-of the BJP and the CPI(M).

For the Congress leadership, Manmohan Singh, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi (with contributions from Rajasekhara Reddy, Sheila Dixit and Ashok Gehlot), this is a moment for unflamboyant self-congratulation. Despite some gaffes, they stayed the course and relied on the good sense of the citizen, who recognised that in these perilous times, India needed a steady, sober and experienced response to the multitude of crises facing the country, both internally and externally. With the global economic meltdown, Manmohan and his "dream team" were seen as best suited to overcome the financial turmoil.

India sends an urgent message through this election. The world"s largest democracy, which embraces at once slumdog and real millionaires, remains firmly committed to secular politics. Our neighbours may be flirting with religious and ethnic extremism, but we have manifestly renounced them.

This result is, of course, a thumping victory for the Congress.However, the real victors are the 714 million voters of India. Therefore, not two but three cheers for inspirational Indian democracy and three cheers for the wise Indian voter. Without the latter, you wouldn"t have the former.

Not to be outdone, the Indian Express (May 18) in a terse editorial dubbed the Congress win as "an unequivocal mandate to govern."

Calling the Congress victory spectacular, the grand old doyen of Indian journalism, Khuswant Sing went on to outline what he thought were the three major reasons for this win (What the Congress did right and others wrong. HT.May 29, 2009): Three factors contributed to the spectacular performance of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in the recently concluded general elections. First and foremost, the general perception of Manmohan Singh as an able and honest prime minister. Second, the vigorous campaign conducted by Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Digvijay Singh and others on issues that concerned the common people without trying to score brownie points against the conglomeration of opposition parties. And finally, the inability of opposition leaders to sense the mood of the people, particularly the younger generation voting for the first time.

Sadanand Dhume, an Asia Society fellow based in Washington, perceived this electoral outcome as an endorsement of the Congress party"s values and policies (We are the World. Outlook. May 22, 2009):
The stunning victory of the Congress party in India"s recent election is a shot in the arm for globalization. The results show that most Indians approve of a policy of gradual economic reform--including openness to foreign investment--as long as the benefits are seen to trickle down to the country"s vast rural population. The lesson: A pro-globalization and democratic government can succeed in a poor country if its policies are seen as favouring the majority and not merely a tiny elite. As for values, the second straight defeat of the Hindu nationalist BJP by the ardently multi-religious Congress shows that pluralism, if properly nurtured, is a universal value and not merely a Western one.

The Hindu right has also shrunk. The BJP, which led a coalition that ruled India between 1998 and 2004, slumped to 122 seats, its worst performance since 1991. Unless it can find a way to expand its appeal to more liberal Hindus, as well as to Muslims and Christians, it faces the prospect of permanent exile to the opposition benches.

Kumar Ketkar, the editor of Loksatta celebrated this victory as a negation of the BJP and acceptance of the Congress party"s pluralistic values (Mask upon mask in the BJP. IE. May 21, 2009): "In Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, the vast majority across classes and castes, has found the real plural India. Today, along with the markets, most Indian people have introspected and recognised the the folly of militant Mandir and Mandal politics. That is why we saw the decimation of Mulayam and Mayawati, the marginalisation of Pawar and Paswan, and the discomfiture of Advani and Modi. Plural India has triumphed.

Rajdeep Sardesai opinioned along the same lines (HT. Past its blooming period ,May 28, 2009): In an increasingly aspirational society, this voter is only concerned with his personal well-being and an assurance of future prosperity. His voting choices are determined by a desire for stability, ethical behaviour, a violence-free society, rapid economic growth and a rising Sensex. He wants an enlightened political leadership that offers a mirror to the future, and is not imprisoned in the past. In 2009, it"s the Congress troika of Manmohan-Sonia-Rahul and not the BJP which offered him this futuristic vision. Which is why a majority of the middle class voted for them.

So was this victory, really "unambiguous, comprehensive and titanic" as Vinod Mehta pronounces? And was this win "spectacular" as Khuswant Sing surmises? Can this be defined as an "an unequivocal mandate to govern."? Or are these wordy theses a mere exhibition of a scribe"s lexicon rather than a realistic summation?

Let us scrutinize the results objectively shorn of the accompanying hoopla to deliver an honest judgment. The Congress party lauded as an outright winner won 206 seats constituting 38% of the overall strength of the Lok Sabha; a number though notable falls short of a simple majority by 66. Even with the added strength of its pre-poll allies the UPA was not able to breach this decisive number. Therefore to hail this victory as "historic" or to dub it as a mandate is hyperbole unmitigated.

Analyzing the voting pattern further one finds that the dominance of Congress party is not matched by an appropriate increase in popular vote. In fact this time around the Congress party polled 28.52% votes compared to 26.53% in 2004 representing an increase of 2%. To emphasize the insignificance of this change let me put this in simple terms: 2 additional voters out of every 100 decided to switch to the Congress party; certainly not an exodus.

By proportional representation this accretion should have resulted in an increase of about 10 seats (one percent being equal to 5.43 seats) giving it a final score of 155 up from 145, its tally in 2004. Instead, this 2% swing in favor of the Congress translated into a handsome bounty of 61 seats facilitated by the idiosyncrasies of our electoral model. Therefore the ubiquitous perception of an overwhelming voter preference for the Congress party in this election is erroneous to say the least.

A victory facilitated by 2% increase in votes can hardly be heralded as titanic or characterized as an unambiguous mandate. Further to extrapolate this victory as a vindication of the Congress policies vis-a vis 26/11, the Sachar commission findings and its monetary principles belongs to the realm of fantasy as opposed to hard logic. Such a distorted view indicates the limited scope of Indian intellectualism or what passes for that nowadays.

The outrageous conclusions and sweeping assumptions apropos verdict 2009 lack incisive dissection or constructive forethought, both reflective of the banality of the Indian intelligentsia. Leadership is a function of the intellectual class that spans political organizations, think tanks and news media. Handicapped by his/her ideological trappings, the Indian intellectual has been unable to deliver a sincere judgment or provide effective leadership. He has abdicated his role as a detached philosopher guide. The net result, time and again has been a faulty analysis that misleads the nation. This is one such crossroad.

It was neither a faith in the Congress, nor an out right rejection of the BJP that prompted this somewhat palatable outcome. Neither was this a vote for Manmohanomics, or an endorsement of the government handling of 26/11. It was happenstance, plain and simple. How else can you explain a modest voter swing to effect such a disproportionately large alteration in seats? It was a fluke that vaulted the Congress to a seemingly spectacular victory. I have no qualms about that for it provides us with a much needed stability that seemed elusive a few days ago. This was a modest win, made impressive by the quirks of our electoral process and spectacular by the low expectations that preceded this sentinel event. Nothing more, nothing less. Let us not read too much into it.

Vivek Gumaste

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