The people of India, supremely indifferent to the prognostications of policy makers, psephologists, political scientists, and the various other pandits that populate the public sphere, have gone about their business and delivered a verdict at the polls that has delivered an emphatic victory to the Congress party and the United Progressive Alliance that it leads. Last year, having survived a no-confidence vote in the Lok Sabha, and, a few months later, a terrorist assault upon the nation that had left many wondering about the government’s ability to thwart terrorist threats, Manmohan Singh and the Congress may not have appeared to be the fittest candidates to serve out another five-year term. One might, on the other hand, quite reasonably argue that Manmohan Singh, who started his tenure as a something of a reluctant Prime Minister and has established a reputation as a man of unimpeachable integrity and decency, had shown his mettle when he outclassed Prakash Karat and his other detractors over the nuclear deal. If Manmohan Singh’s triumph at that time should have sent signals to Karat and many others that he could be shrewd, savvy, and determined in his ability to persevere against unremitting and often unprincipled opposition, those signs were obviously not read by many who were predicting, until just before the counting commenced, difficult times ahead for Congress. Similarly, notwithstanding the somewhat inept handling of the crisis that erupted in Mumbai when the city was taken hostage by a handful of terrorists late last November, it is clear that the electorate refused to be taken in by the thunderous criticism that the government was ‘soft’ in its handling of terrorism and that the reigns of power should be handed over to a party that prides itself on an apparently more masculinist and hard-nosed response to terrorism.
The results of the Indian election of 2009 may be parsed for many arresting developments and portents of things to come, but it will be difficult to resist the overwhelming impression that the electorate has embraced a party that is a centrist in Indian politics. The voters, it seems, have embraced the Congress as a party most likely to furnish political stability to the nation and also steer it, under the able hands of a Prime Minister who as an economist first ushered in the reforms that moved India beyond its infamous ‘Hindu rate of growth’, to safety and even growth at a time when the word has been beset by a financial crisis of proportions that are unsettling to people in two generations. However, it appears to me that what the electorate voted for is much less clear than what they rejected. What the voters repudiated, in the first instance, is the Hindu nationalist agenda of the BJP, as poisonous a brew as any that has been put before the Indian public. Those who are interested in the future of the BJP can engage in rumination over the causes of its comparatively poor performance, from the lack of young faces in the party to the evidently egregious error of casting the election as a Presidential battle between Manmohan and Advani. But it is the punishment meted out to the Left Front, and in particular to the CPM, that is in some respects the most interesting result of this election. One might say that Karat has now had to pay the price for his decision to withdraw support to the UPA over the nuclear deal, but this would be far too generous an assessment of the limitations of the CPM. The CPM has long thought of itself as the guardian of the interests of farmers and the working class, but the events at Nandigram showed amply the party’s inability to tolerate dissent, as well as the huge distance between the commitment of some of its cadres to grass-roots political changes and the capitulation of much of the party’s leadership to the free market economy.
Though it would be distinctly premature if not foolish to speak of the demise of the CPM, the fact can barely be disguised that the party had succeeded in rendering itself irrelevant. The post-mortem will doubtless suggest where the party leadership erred, but the party’s demise at the electoral booths calls for the kind of introspection that party apparatchiks, Karat and Buddhadeb included, have seldom shown themselves capable of displaying. The party leaders have long fancied themselves as the vanguard leading the listless, misled, and unenlightened masses to freedom, and at the heart of this bureaucratic and official Marxism lies a deep-seated contempt for the very masses in whose name revolutions are to be fought. The Marxists in West Bengal certainly have, for the most party, displayed the same kind of contempt for the masses that the advocates of Hindutva have for Hinduism, the very religion that they purport to defend and champion. It is these twin pretensions, at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, which have been put to rest in this election. The fact that so intellectually vacuous and unprincipled a person as Mamata Banerjee, at the helm of the Trinamool Congress, could prevail in West Bengal suggests the depths to which the CPM has shrunk in public estimation.
In 1977, supremely confident that she would stand vindicated by the electorate, misled perhaps into thinking that she had won the affection of the masses by, so to speak, making the trains run on time, Indira Gandhi called for elections and suffered a crushing defeat. She had underestimated the people of India, the same people in whose ability to distinguish between right and wrong Mohandas Gandhi — who knew a thing or two about politics, popular passions, and the wisdom of the illiterate — had something of an abiding faith. That was not the only revolt of the masses. The BJP ran a ‘shining India’ campaign in 2004, and it was, as I was to write at that time, a ‘shining moment’ in Indian democracy when the voters sent the BJP to a humbling defeat. The same loud noises which pass for ‘analysis’ were content to point to the anti-incumbency factor in Indian politics, but luckily they will have no easy satisfactions this time. As I wrote in the postscript to the new edition of my The History of History (Oxford UP, 2003, 2005), ‘Whatever the shortcomings of electoral democracy in India, the untutored Indian voter still retains the capacity to surprise and inflict punishment.’ The voter in Andhra, for instance, did not mistake the posturings of Chandrababu Naidu, who paraded himself as a CEO as much as a CM and was busy earning the applause of the elites as a technology-savvy politician while the farmers in increasing numbers committed suicide, for progress, growth, and social change. We can say that, with the election of 2009, the Indian electorate has once again established itself as one of the most formidable forces for democracy anywhere in the world today.