History has repeated itself twice. The first time to create amazement, the second time to deliver a clear verdict. The repetition is contained in the surprise element. In 2004 when the Congress secured 144 seats in the Lok Sabha, it surprised itself. In 2009, the surprise lies in the scale of the victory. No one quite expected these numbers. The enormity of the Congress victory, of course, carries with it the stamp of endorsement but it also brings the messages of responsibility and of a challenge.
To dwell a little on the surprise. The general impression among the pundits was that, bereft of most of its allies in many states, the Congress would be lucky to retain the numbers it had in the 14th Lok Sabha. Only the diehard loyalists anticipated the Bharatiya Janata Party to gain. The reading of the political tea-leaves suggested to most people a strengthening of the regional parties. The 15th Lok Sabha was expected to be even more fractured than its predecessor with no one party having the numbers to command a majority. The fear was that the nature of the popular verdict would inevitably lead to wheeling-dealing and horse-trading before any one political formation, possibly some gimcrack coalition, could enjoy the confidence of the House and then form the government.
People often undo prophecies. This became clear by the forenoon of Saturday. It became clear from the leads emerging from the counting of the votes that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance would be short of the magic number of 272 needed to secure a majority in the Lok Sabha by only a handful of seats. The Congress by itself was ahead of the seats it had won in 2004. Surprise predictably turned to euphoria.
It was also evident, almost inevitably, that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance was not even a close second, and the Third Front, which Prakash Karat, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), had conjured up, was nowhere in the picture. Like a conjuror’s trick, the Third Front had disappeared.
As Manmohan Singh prepares for his second term as prime minister, it is time perhaps to look backwards and forwards. In many ways, the performance of his government over the last five years reflected the personality of the prime minister. Manmohan Singh, as by now everyone knows, is not given to great rhetoric and grand gestures. He believes in doing his work quietly and efficiently. Most important, he places his own values and integrity above everything else. Thus the Congress did not launch a grandiose campaign, like “India Shining”. Its campaign was free from stridency, and it laid more emphasis on the work that it has done. Despite the phenomenon of the Left parties continuously sniping at its flanks, the government had provided stability and had kept India on the path of economic growth. When the latter received a severe jolt because of a depression the like of which the world has not seen, Singh did not lose his nerve. He argued that the Indian economy was strong enough to take the knocks without being completely derailed. This is precisely what happened, and Singh accomplished this without any fanfare. This absence of grand slogans and postures conveyed the impression of strength contained, and contributed to the impression that under Manmohan Singh stability was assured.
Manmohan Singh’s greatest achievement was in the field of foreign policy and, ironically, his critics thought this would cost him his premiership and the fall of the government. This was the Indo-US nuclear deal for which Singh was indeed prepared to stake his government and his claim to the top job.
The two most momentous decisions of independent India were authored by the same man — the decision to liberalize the economy and the one to sign the nuclear deal with the US. The former freed India from the shackles of the Hindu rate of growth and the latter gave India entry to sit at the high table of international politics. It is significant that these steps were taken by the man who is often scoffed at for being too weak. This criticism revealed that in Indian politics basic decency and civility are interpreted as weakness. Manmohan Singh demonstrated his strength through his actions and not through the power of his lungs.
His personality contributed to the Congress’s success. The other person whose role was significant was someone who comes from the other end of the chronological spectrum. Rahul Gandhi, despite the derision about Rahul baba from the chattering classes, chose the hard way to success. He realized that if the Congress was to recover ground, a short-term view would be self-defeating. He decided to work sincerely among the people. The word ‘sincerely’ needs to be underlined. This has not only brought obvious electoral dividends, it has also put the Congress on the road back, as is evident from the results of Uttar Pradesh. Behind Rahul Gandhi was, of course, the enigmatic figure of his mother, who appears unfazed by either failure or success. Without her hand on the helm, the Congress could well be a rudderless ship.
Away from personalities, there are some factors to consider. From the 1990s, post-Mandal and post the rise of Hindutva, two features had appeared to be obvious: the shrinkage and the breaking-up of the secular space, and, following from this, an expansion of the Hindutva space. The Congress and the many caste-based parties competed for the secular space and the BJP dominated the Hindutva one. The result was reflected in unstable coalitions and the two BJP-led governments. The Congress seemed to have been reduced to a marginal player from a national actor. The result was a rise in communal tension, whose most grotesque manifestation was the Gujarat pogrom and the emergence of a polity that was perpetually unstable. The Indian people have had enough of this. They decided to put in place a government that was stable and led by a man who was civilized and trustworthy.
Indian politics is poised to return to some sort of equilibrium. The excesses of religion and caste will no longer be allowed to define the character of the Indian republic. This is the challenge and the responsibility that the mandate carries. In a very profound sense, Manmohan Singh faces a more difficult task than the one he faced when he took his oath as the prime minister of India the first time round. Large sections of the people of India have put in him their unqualified trust. The privilege of bearing this trust will enhance the prime minister’s humility. It will add to his strength. India expects, Mr Manmohan Singh.