| Atal Bihari Vajpayee
It began as a home run for Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The real story of the election can be told in two words: Sonia Gandhi.
She covered more miles across the country than any Opposition leader did. Her speeches focused on the big questions that bothered the common man and woman: jobs, agriculture and the need for harmony.
The late surge of the Congress was missed by the pollsters. The results left not a shadow of doubt. It was a tidal wave that swept away all in sight. By end of the day, the ruling National Democratic Alliance slipped to a distant second.
Congress wrested back the status of the single largest party after eight long years in the second slot. Even BJP spin doctor Pramod Mahajan was at a loss for words, admitting he felt “like the only one in a hundred crore Indians who had objections to Sonia’s foreign origin”.
If anything, it was the micro-management gurus of the ruling alliance who got it all wrong. The attacks probably helped Sonia gain a sense of empathy from the voters. All the more so once Rahul entered the fray and Priyanka hit the trail.
The NDA retained the number one slot in the three states that it swept last winter: Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The unpopularity of the ruling Congress government delivered a bonanza of seats in Punjab and Karnataka.
Elsewhere, the story panned out simply. It was downhill all the way. By forging alliances with a host of parties, Sonia’s front actually cut into the NDA score by as many as 83 seats.
The mantra of alliances meant the Congress contested less than 400 Lok Sabha seats for the first time in history. But the gamble paid off and in a very handsome fashion.
The ruling alliance had hoped to retain a lead in western India but suffered significant, though not crushing, reverses. In Maharashtra, it could only restrict losses despite a severe drought and the non-performance of the Shinde-led coalition.
‘Hindutva’ did not work its magic even in Gujarat as bread and butter issues moved to the fore, a rap on the knuckles for chief minister Narendra Modi. The BJP actually reported a score of 14 of 26, the worst since 1996. Even epicentres of the communal fratricide in 2002, like Vadodara and Anand voted Congress. Among the fallen fortresses was Mehsana, a seat won by the saffron party even in 1984 when it had only two Lok Sabha seats in the country.
Since 1991, the south has been the gateway to power in New Delhi. But the NDA’s two southern allies were completely out of tune with the popular mood. Jayalalithaa’s strident anti-Sonia language was rejected in Tamil Nadu where the DMK-led alliance annexed every seat in sight. In Andhra Pradesh, the results of 1999 were neatly reversed, with the Congress and allies taking all but six of the 42 seats.
The north reported a similar picture. Saffron was washed off the map in Bihar where the BJP and its ally were sent reeling by polarisation of the Mandal communities, Dalits and minorities not seen since 1991. Only this time, Laloo Prasad Yadav led the charge with the Congress as a small, if respected, ally. Uttar Pradesh saw a surge in Congress votes though not in seats. Here, the BJP was reduced to a few oases like Bulandshahr where a chastened Kalyan Singh won. The Samajwadi Party-led alliance cornered the cultivator’s vote and took nearly half the 80 seats. It seems the Centre’s handling of relief in last year’s drought, the worst in 35 years in north India, convinced the kisan that India was not shining.
Mayavati got her best-ever total of 20 seats. In fact, the “reverse social engineering” worked all the way. In a fascinating twist, Unnao has a Brahmin MP for the first time in nearly three decades, ironically under the banner of the Dalit-led BSP.
There is little doubt the verdict was stunning and momentous. Its scale left even seasoned observers stunned, while all pollsters ran for cover.
The facts are simple. The NDA was sadly out of touch with reality. It was lulled into complacency born of three state victories. It also misread the monsoon magic in north India. Despite a bumper crop in the valley of the Ganga, it was routed all the way. In the combined tally of UP, Bihar and Bengal, it was reduced to 24 out of 162 seats.
The flip side of the coin is worth a look. After a decline that goes back to 1989, the Congress has recovered significant ground among its traditional voters. All the states with large numbers of Muslims, like Andhra, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Bengal, have either rallied to the Congress or voted for the Left. The alienation of the Babri Masjid era is but a dim memory.
Sonia has not only recovered the ground that Rao lost. She has trodden on ground her late husband never covered. Building an alliance was the first step to power and she succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations.
The NDA dismissed her as a paper tiger. Once it was too late, it tried damage control by wooing the most unlikely of potential allies. But the voters had other ideas.
They put an end to plans for a fresh raj tilak for Vajpayee. As with Rajiv Gandhi in 1989, early polls backfired as India’s first BJP Prime Minister was left contemplating possible retirement.
For Sonia, winning might have been the easy part. Ruling a diverse coalition with competing demands is a new game for the Congress. But the voters rung in the new and rung out the old. And they did it as they often have in the world’s largest democracy, decisively and clearly.