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THE WAGES OF DISCONTENT
- There is now proof that growth alone does not win elections

The 2004 Lok Sabha elections have produced a result that is a landmark in more ways than one can list. Not since the Janata Party’s victory over the Congress in 1977 has the ouster of a ruling party from power been so dramatic, and a source of relief to so many. The election possibly spells the end of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s extraordinary political career. It will put the Bharatiya Janata Party in the awkward position of having to rethink its ideological strategy and leadership issues. This opens up at least the possibility of a significant realignment of forces in Indian politics. It would be churlish to deny that this result is a significant victory for the Congress. But it would be equally in bad faith to argue that this result has come about because of the Congress’ leadership, ideology and organization, rather than despite it. This election is a negative vote for the National Democratic Alliance rather than an overwhelming mandate for the Congress.

The fact that the electorate could so easily contemplate change is a sign of its maturity and confidence. The electorate refused to be held hostage by arguments about stability or continuity, it did not bow to the widely acknowledged charisma of one leader, and propaganda or populism did not easily manipulate it. It did not remain tied to its own past commitments or succumb to formulaic vote-bank politics. It actively made choices. The Congress will do well to remember this lesson. Although the BJP emerges considerably diminished from these elections, it is far from being a spent force. Much of the meaning of the result of this election will depend upon how the Congress and its allies exercise their political judgment and policy choices. They have been given a historic opportunity, but it is still uncertain whether they are up to the task.

There is an old Viking fable about a king who was perturbed by the fact that his subjects seemed perpetually dissatisfied with him. He seemed not to be able to meet their expectations or solve their problems. So one day he took all his subjects to the seashore. In full view of his subjects he commanded that the placid sea produce a huge wave. The king, unlike Moses, did not have god on his side. The sea did not respond. But the king managed to drive home the point to his subjects that there were many feats even he, the king, could not accomplish.

Across India, many incumbent governments must have sympathized with the king’s predicament. What could they do to make their subjects more content' Why do incumbents, with a few exceptions, of all parties, find it difficult to hold on to power' Vajpayee is surely asking this question, as is N. Chandrababu Naidu, S.M. Krishna; and just a few months ago Ashok Gehlot and Digvijay Singh must have been haunted by the same thought.

It appears that, with the exception of Bihar and West Bengal, the party that has been ruling the state for more than a year seems to have done less well in that state, suggesting a kind of vote against state governments. But what else can we conclude from these results' What is the Indian voter looking for' If we are candid we will have to admit that the only thing we can say about the Indian voter is a banal thought: the Indian voter is deeply dissatisfied and will not let anyone take him for granted.

There is something to the thought that the electorate has something of a “plague on all your houses” approach to politics. But it still remains something of a mystery: how does the electorate choose between the concrete alternatives' Is it largely retrospective voting, punishing governments for what they failed to do rather than worrying too much about what any new government might have the capacity to pull off'

Surely the most interesting aspect of this election is the way in which it reveals how complicated the relationship between economics and politics has become. We now have proof, if ever one was needed, that growth alone does not win elections. This is so for two reasons. First, the distributional consequences of growth matter in no small measure. Shining India has not seriously diminished unemployment and its impact on rural India has been modest. Second, growth itself changes patterns of expectations, and the electorate is more prone to punishing for shortfalls than it is to rewarding politicians for success. But there is no simple story, economic or otherwise, that will explain these results. Sure, you can run the line that India Shining and Naidu and Krishna neglected Bharat at the expense of India. But that would not explain the Congress’s poor showing in Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan. Remember, just a few months ago, the Congress was supposed to be a strong contender in these states precisely because it catered to rural constituencies' And is “Bharat,” by objective indicators, any better off under Laloo Prasad Yadav, the one leader who consistently confounds any economic explanations of electoral politics'

The deeper lesson of this election is twofold: first, we are at an economic conjuncture where it is very difficult for any government to send credible signals about its governance capacities. Almost all state governments are locked in a vicious cycle: there are serious fiscal constraints on what they can do in terms of providing the goods people want: power, infrastructure, health, education, social security. So government reform has been more successful in those sectors where the government can easily withdraw: trade, regulatory reform and so forth. Reform has been less successful in enabling government to provide the goods it needs to provide, because these require greater restructuring of state finances than our political economy will allow. No party has yet devised a way of breaking this logjam. And the Congress will have as much difficulty on this front as the BJP.

Second, the voter is in a position to have his cake and eat it too. The fact that there is greater ideological convergence across the political spectrum paradoxically makes elections more independent of ideological partisanship. We can switch governments more easily because the ideological stakes are less in moving from one government to another. It would be to grossly exaggerate the significance of this election if Hindutva or liberalization were to be pronounced dead as a result. Hindutva, as an ideological configuration, straddles many parties; and with the BJP in opposition it is likely to become an issue again, not immediately but in the near future. Again, the Congress’s capacity to take us beyond the confines of a cloistered identity politics will be severely tested, because the BJP has no place to go but towards the right.

This was an election oddly bereft of populism on the one hand, and an apocalyptic politics of self-esteem on the other. This is perhaps the first anxiety-free election India has had in two decades, an election not fought under the shadow of polarizing issues. It was not preceded by popular mobilization of any ideological stripe. But this surface calm can scarcely disguise the coming challenge for Indian democracy. Indian democracy has become more representative, the electorate more assertive and demanding.

But there is a growing gap between what we expect of governments and what governments have been able to deliver to us. This gap is the source of so much turnover in Indian politics. But unless new political formations can bridge this gap somewhat, the calm dissatisfaction we saw in this election could become something altogether more alienating and sinister. My first vivid political memory is of Mrs Gandhi’s spectacular loss in 1977 and the thrill it produced. That moment of rapture swiftly gave way to disappointment. Those wishing for a non-BJP alternative hope that this moment of liberation is not as short-lived. But the political work has to begin rather than end now.

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