It is impossible to deny that all of us underestimated the resurgence of India’s Congress party. It is also equally clear that undaunted by soaring heat and a long and exhausting campaign, roughly 420 million voters have produced the best possible outcome for India in what was the largest election of world history.
Multiple factors are always involved in producing a clear outcome in Indian elections, but these elections will be widely read as a moment of national redemption and renewal and a retreat, though not the end of, parochial political noise.
India’s economic downturn and security dilemmas require political stability and national resolve. Whether that is why the electorate produced such an unexpected verdict in favor of the Congress alliance remains unclear, but the election results will take India in that direction.
The wisdom of the electorate is often congratulated for such results. Only with greater election statistics, which will come later, can we establish the existence of such wisdom. It is, however, beyond doubt that a rising power like India, located in a dangerous neighborhood, needs such luck. Both South Asia and the world will be a better place as a result.
The victory of the Congress alliance needs to be put in historical perspective. Right since the birth of the Indian republic -- indeed, right since the freedom movement—India’s tallest leaders have always intuitively grasped what their greatest challenge was: how to stitch the nation’s diversities together.
It was called nation-building to begin with. Of late, it has come to be viewed as giving the various groups a share in the power structure.
Historically, more than any other political organization, the Congress party has understood the centrality of this task. In terms of language, it was always federal, incorporating the various regional diversities into its internal structure. In terms of religion, it sought to bring Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians together.
But in terms of castes within Hindu society, India’s divided majority community, the challenges have been unexpectedly formidable. The Congress sought to put the upper castes, middle castes and the ex-untouchable Dalits together, but sandwiched between the upper castes and Dalits and feeling uncomfortable with both, the middle castes, the largest demographic category of Indian society, started leaving the Congress in the 1950s and 1960s.
By the 1990s, the migration of middle castes from the Congress in much of Northern India was nearly complete. In two of India’s biggest states, Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar, the Congress was decimated by the mid-1990s.
Once the middle castes and later the Dalits formed their own political parties, Muslims and the upper Hindu castes also did not wish to back a losing horse. They left the Congress, making its hold over power in Delhi extremely shaky.
Basically, UP’s size is so huge that without substantial support in UP, it is extremely hard to form a stable government in Delhi.
The electoral revival of the Congress party in UP is the biggest news of these elections. It means a return of substantial parts of the Muslim community and upper castes, in addition to some middle castes. It also signifies weakening of lower caste parties that had begun to worry even those, who supported the ideology of social justice and greater power for lower castes. Unlike the plebeian parties of Southern India, the lower caste parties of UP, and also the neighboring Bihar, had become passionate advocates of a rather coarse form of identity politics. Arguing that “Robin Hoods” corrected social injustices on the ground, they openly celebrated “Robin Hoods”, inducted them in large numbers in their parties, and gave them offices.
Identity politics came to overwhelm law and order, governance and policy seriousness. The shock delivered to such parties in Northern India in these elections almost certainly represents new citizen aspirations for governance and development, not simply an embrace of caste identity.
The defeat of the Communists, especially in West Bengal, also represents a triumph of national purpose. During 2004-2008, India’s Communists were noted for their resistance to economic reforms and nuclear deal.
It is one of the hidden transcripts of Indian politics that in West Bengal, the Communists also represented a regionalist aspiration. Right through the 20th century, Kolkata and Delhi had an uneasy relationship. Kolkata was the center of British India till 1912, when the capital moved to Delhi. Since then, Kolkata and Bengal in general have felt an increasing erosion of power.
The victory of a Congress alliance in West Bengal brings Kolkata into the national mainstream for the first time in over three decades. Two of India’s historic cities—Kolkata and Delhi—will now have a much better conversation, a development worth applauding.
Finally, these elections have boosted the fortunes of Rahul Gandhi as a national leader and deepened the anxieties of the BJP about its future. In a coming-of-age press conference two weeks ago, Rahul Gandhi made two arguments with clarity and passion.
First, economic growth, he said, is a necessary (though not a sufficient) condition for poverty removal. No politician of consequence in India’s mass politics (as opposed to its elite politics) has made this argument openly on public stage for decades.
Second, he argued that internal elections were a pre-requisite for the revival of the Congress party, especially in UP but also elsewhere. For more than three decades, the discipline of political science has had a professional consensus on this point. It is striking to see a rising political figure agree so much with what the intellectuals and researchers have been saying.
The rise of the Congress in UP is mostly due to Rahul Gandhi’s efforts. Many of the national gains of the Congress will also be attributed to his electoral campaign.
The Congress party now has a leader not only known in the country for the accident of his birth, but also one whose politics appear to be based on ideas and arguments. For a whole variety of reasons, combining mass appeal with serious arguments has not been easy in Congress politics for a long time. The Congress also has other younger-generation leaders of promise.
In contrast, the BJP’s future appears to be very shaky. Its current leader is too old to have the energy to lead for long, and the next in line is Mr Modi, Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat. Mr Modi, a hero of Gujarat and of the right wing of the party, is a deeply divisive figure.
In March 2002, he presided over the greatest massacre of Muslims in independent India. The BJP’s future is unlikely to be bright, unless it gets rid of its anti-Muslim prejudice and becomes a Tory or Republican-style right-of-centre party. If Mr. Modi takes over the leadership of the BJP, this historical challenge is likely to be more elusive than ever.
The 2009 elections redeem a pluralist and inclusive view of India, defeating narrower visions. The elections also promise political stability. When the campaign began in March, it was hard to imagine such a benign outcome for the country, South Asian region and the international system.