An election is worse than a love affair: it leaves more people disappointed than happy. The most disappointed of them must be Lal Kishenchand Advani. He spent an entire lifetime waiting while the weak, laid-back Atal Bihari Vajpayee led the party and finally became prime minister. He kept himself fit and strong while Vajpayee enjoyed himself. The long years of discipline seemed on the point of paying off. Vajpayee at long last retired and Advani became leader. All that remained for him to do was to defeat Manmohan Singh, the weakest prime minister he had seen. Now, instead, he must see Manmohan Singh return as prime minister for the second time. He must wonder why Indians prefer weak prime ministers when such square-jawed leaders like himself are available.
It is not just Advani’s personal disappointment. The leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) have an even more bitter pill to swallow. Only five years ago, they were kingmakers. They put the Congress in the driving seat. It is true that Manmohan Singh ran away with the car; but the communists had learnt their lesson. No more purity and sacrifice for them; they were determined this time to get into the government. Instead, they find themselves relegated to the wilderness together with Bharatiya Janata Party.
The victory could not have been sweeter for the Congress, not least because of the humiliation it has heaped upon its foes and tormentors. But that apart, this election is likely to do much for the Congress’s self-confidence. Ever since the near-defeat of 1991, the thought cannot have been far from Congress leaders’ minds that India was moving away from the party. A new generation of Indians had grown up. It did not care for the Congress’s heroic past and nationalist credentials. It flirted with various fronts, and was attracted to the BJP’s brazen nationalism. A party in decline is not simply susceptible to depression. It is also liable to shrinkage as leaders in search of power leave it and join other parties. The Congress has been through all that; it has seen entire parties emerge and come to power out of its renegades. Success is all the more appreciated when it follows a series of near-failures.
Behind these jubilations and lamentations lie the surprises. The Congress has, of course, surpassed its highest expectations, and the BJP and CPI(M) have been humbled. Once they are over the shock, these parties will look for lessons in that experience. The BJP has seen its tally shrink from 182 to 138 and now to 116 in the past three general elections; it will want badly not to have to read a trend in these figures. The communists have seen their stronghold breached in West Bengal. Worse, they will reflect that their ambition of industrializing West Bengal has been rejected by its people, and that an alternative is not in sight.
The Congress would no doubt conclude that its populism paid off. The Rs 60,000 crore thrown at farmer borrowers and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme bought votes precisely the way they were intended to. As of last count, the NREGP claimed to have given an average 48 days’ employment to 4.46 crore workers. Of the 216 crore days of employment, 47 per cent went to women. Of the 27 lakh projects, 12 lakh were completed. How reliable these figures are is anybody’s guess, but to a believer, the statistics must reflect a considerable achievement.
Populism, however, is as old as politics; it has failed more often than it has succeeded. Why did it succeed this time? I think it worked because this time it persuaded people to vote who would normally give the elections a pass. The Indian elections are believed to be a great popular mela. Pictures of common people forming long queues outside booths early in the morning are the staple of election news. Still, the voting percentages seldom exceed 55 per cent; in other words, almost a half of the adults do not vote in most elections. Middle-class characters are enthusiastic voters. In rural areas, vote banks of influential politicians no doubt vote religiously. Who, then, belong to the silent half that does not vote? The ones who do not vote, I suspect, are the poor — those who have no sense of property in democracy and who can think of something better to do than vote. A larger proportion of them has voted this time than before. For once, populism worked. It worked this time because its target voters had received some tangible benefit. Populist measures fail most of the time because their benefits are intercepted by corrupt beneficiaries before they reach the poor. This time they reached some poor; the impact on election results was dramatic.
The next few days will no doubt be spent on the formation of the cabinet and the passing of the budget. The prospects are not very exciting. Manmohan Singh kept out the younger generation from his last cabinet; there were too many old fogies to reward. This time, at least a few of the young will enter the cabinet; but the old guard will continue to command the heights. The last term of the Congress government was distinguished by budgets that ranged from the mediocre to the terrible; the new government will no doubt uphold the tradition. But it will face an enormous fiscal deficit, and will not face the same pressure to spend more as it did before the election. So with luck, we may see some improvement in the budget balance. But it will be difficult to achieve because tax revenue will be shrinking — thanks to the slowdown.
Thus the immediate prospect for economic policy is not exciting. But that may change before long. The Congress inherited an economy in such good condition last time that it could indulge in folly and still coast along happily. The times today are very different. The textile industry is suffering from a collapse of exports. More than half of the gem-cutters of Gujarat are unemployed. The engineering industry is sinking. This is just the beginning, for I believe India is entering a long period of poor growth, and that stimulating the economy will become less and less easy as the balance of payments deteriorates.
From 1947 till 1991, we had a long period of inflationary growth punctuated by payments crises. In the 1990s, decontrol and delicensing led to a spectacular boom followed by a slowdown. In the early years of this century, George Bush’s deficits led to the build-up of dollar reserves by many countries including India. The reserves led the last government to spend its way regardless of the worsening payments deficit. That phase has ended; the reserves may last another year or two, but are no longer beyond the power of a foolish government to exhaust. Once they decline, ever larger populist programmes financed by running higher fiscal deficits will no longer be practicable. Some elements of the economic policies that will then be required are evident — for instance, action to improve the balance of payments. Others will need to be worked out. Economically, the new government is likely to live in interesting times.