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Paying for insensitivity towards graft, price rise

LiveMint logoLiveMint 16-05-2014 Liz Mathew

New Delhi: India’s grand old party has paid a big price for its failure to read and contain the simmering anger against it. The Congress, which won 37 seats and is leading in seven others in the 543-member House, has seen its lowest tally in the Lok Sabha, down 162 from its previous strength of 206.

The results show voter anger with the 10-year-old government. It was an expression of a strong resentment against the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) insensitivity towards issues such as corruption and price rise. This resentment was reflected not only in its poor performance but also in the defeat of a majority of its sitting lawmakers.

The disapproval ran so deep that even party vice-president Rahul Gandhi did not have a cakewalk in his family borough of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, where the election issue has shifted from personality, or the Nehru-Gandhi family, to performance. His victory margin narrowed from 333,000 to 107,000. In the Congress-ruled states, despite the popularity of the state governments, the party’s performance was poor.

The voters’ resentment, commonly referred to as anti-incumbency, was not limited to the Congress alone. Uttar Pradesh’s ruling Samajwadi Party won only in five of the 80 seats against its earlier tally of 21, Bihar’s Janata Dal-United (JD-U) has been reduced to two from 20 and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the ruling party in Punjab and a constituent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), could not raise its seat position from four despite a wave in favour of the alliance at the national level.

But some regional parties have beaten anti-incumbency and the sentiment in favour of the BJP. While Tamil Nadu’s ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) has swept the state, Odisha’s Biju Janata Dal dominated the elections in the state. No resentment was reflected against the BJP state governments, too. Political analysts attribute it to a pro-Narendra Modi sentiment, coupled with a general goodwill in favour of the state governments.

Undoubtedly, the unabated rise in prices of essential commodities and the series of corruption scandals that plagued the Congress-led UPA’s second term have hurt the party’s prospects. The Congress, which had always enjoyed an even support base across the country, has failed to overcome the intense polarization on the basis of religion and caste in politically crucial states. This, coupled with an erosion in its capacity to retain the political loyalty of socially disadvantaged communities and women, two sections that have traditionally backed India’s oldest political party, has added to its woes.

“Obviously, the Congress imploded on so many fronts. The economy was struggling, inflation has been high, there was a leadership vacuum and abdication,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think-tank.

Mehta pointed out that there were anti-incumbency factors in the past elections, too, but Modi channelized it well this time around. “We had anti-incumbency votes in the past like the 2004 vote was an anti-NDA (National Democratic Alliance) vote. But the fact of the matter was that it took Modi and the BJP to crystallize it into a national political formation. The significance of this vote is that there is actually a pretty wide social base of support. Dalits have voted, scheduled tribes have voted,” he said. “It is not a purely negative vote. It is a positive, affirmative mandate.”

In its second term, the UPA also faced an unprecedented challenge of having to handle a massive mobilization of people against corruption led by anti-graft activist Anna Hazare, whose hunger strike demanding a stringent anti-corruption law in 2011 drew strong support, especially among young urban people. The middle class, which had so far been largely politically detached, found a platform to channelize their dissatisfaction against the political class as well as the system.

The Congress also had to bear the brunt of disappointing a critical young voters group by mishandling protests demanding stronger measures on women’s safety in the capital in December 2012 after a brutal gang-rape.

Modi, who in a way started from where Hazare left, soon became the champion of anti-Congressism and emerged as a popular alternative. With a splendid marketing strategy, an unprecedented blitzkrieg and a tireless campaign, Modi has captured the imagination of the urban voters, transformed the months-long campaign to one centred around him.

But it was the anger against the Congress-led UPA government, mired in a series of scandals and controversies, that helped Modi and the BJP to surge ahead of all parties months before, which was reflected in the opinion polls.

Modi’s emergence as a strong leader was pitted against outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was repeatedly accused of being a weak leader. Singh’s image was further sullied with the release of two books written by two of his former colleagues—The Accidental Prime Minister by Sanjaya Baru and Crusader or Conspirator? Coalgate and Other Truths by former coal secretary P.C. Parakh. Besides, the presence of leaders without mass support in Singh’s cabinet has also been pointed out as a major handicap for the party and the government.

The UPA’s inability to create jobs for the rising number of educated youth also disillusioned young voters, a significant demography—52% of voters are in the age group between 18 and 40 years. Whereas, the BJP’s record in creating employment opportunities—the NDA created 60.7 million jobs in five years from 1999 against the UPA’s contribution during 2004-05 to 2011-12 was just 15.4 million—has also made the party more acceptable to the demography.

The Congress’s complacency, and its flawed and outdated strategies, also spoiled the game for it. The party leaders now admit they failed to foresee the widespread acceptance of Modi as a prime ministerial candidate. The Congress expected Modi to be a prisoner of his image, which was damaged after the 2002 Gujarat riots. The four-term Gujarat chief minister was accused of failing to fulfil his responsibility when communal violence swept Gujarat in 2002. At least 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the violence. Modi denies any wrongdoing.

Experts, who are kinder, also attribute voter disappointment to high growth and rising aspirations. They say when the economy grows rapidly in a developing country, it puts too much pressure on the system because growth leads to rising aspirations, and the government’s inability to address them could create frustration.

India’s swelling middle class, projected to rise from 160 million today to 267 million by 2016, according to the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), could be another factor for the rising expectations. Satisfying their aspirations has been the biggest challenge to the government in power.

The elections were more of a positive vote for governance efficiency and performance at the administrative level, according to A.K. Verma, a Kanpur-based political analyst and professor at Christ Church College in Kanpur.

“In many states like in Bihar, people were unhappy with the state government not because of poor governance,” Verma said. “They found JD(U)’s decision to sever ties with the BJP in wake of Modi being declared as the prime ministerial candidate unethical.”

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