State assembly elections can be important land-marks in the evolution of a polity. This is how it has been in the past. In 1967, the first-ever collation dominated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) came to power in WestBengal, a prelude to what a decade later would lead to a period of Left- Front domination that has just received from the voters a ringing validation. It was also the year that the Congress lost power to a regional formation in Tamil Nadu, and the red and black flags of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a party that combined fierce regional pride and lower-caste aspirations for upward mobility, fluttered high on the skyline.
The elections this time had a certain significance for their resonance in the field of economic policy. The first public acts of the new chief minister of Tamil Nadu were the announcement of new schemes. These included rice at two rupees a kilogram for the poor and also the waiver of loans to farmers, the latter to the tune of nearly Rs 7,000 crore rupees.
The Union Finance Minister, who represented the Sivaganga constituency in the state, was instrumental in persuading voters to back the Democratic Progressive Alliance. His eloquence was much in evidence in the way he outlined how such a scheme could be financially viable. The arguments seemed to work and voters preferred the Karunanidhi-led alliance (which promised rice at Rs 2) to the one led by Jayalalithaa that spoke of rice at Rs 1.75 a kilo. Trust mattered more than economic gains for the later plan. Yet, the same issue is bound to be raised at a wider level. The expansion of the public distribution system and the provision of credit to cultivators have been a vote-winning plank two years after the United Progressive Alliance took office in New Delhi.
Tamil Nadu was a state where the two leading parties vied with each other to offer rice to the poor at a subsidized rate. The the slogan caught on because of the distress after three years of drought, the fall in paddy and groundnut output, and the rise in neo-natal mortality. Farm labourers who had 24 days of work a decade ago can barely find work for 14 days. Things were different in the neighbouring state of Kerala where the Left Democratic Front won a hefty 98 out of 140 seats. But again, the extent of the agricultural crisis in the plantation sector played a key role in the denouement that led to the rout of the ruling Congress-led front. It was not simply a case of the collapse of prices of commodities such as pepper and vanilla, but the failure of the administration to assist cultivators that engendered a crisis.
If there is a major contrast between the two large southern states and West Bengal it is not merely in the absence of a wave against the ruling Left Front in the latter. The extensive land reforms and growth in the farm sector created the rock- solid base of rural voters who have helped the formation to win an unprecedented sixth straight win while holding office.
Needless to add, West Bengal is ahead of Kerala, if not quite at the level of Tamil Nadu, in its programme of economic reforms. Despite setbacks owing to three years of drought, the tsunami and the crippling floods of December 2005, Chennai remains the capital of a bustling, thriving economy with a credit deposit ratio of 90. But the announcement of the Tata small-car project is the best evidence yet of the industrial renaissance of West Bengal.
How does all this really affect the larger picture of the Indian polity' Where and when these elections matter become evident when one considers the unique constellation of forces in the country today. The CPI(M), which wrested power in Kerala with its allies and beat back the Congress in West Bengal, is part of a bloc of MPs that props up the ruling Congress-led coalition in New Delhi.
The DMK, a party with a long anti-Congress past, and a party in the Front ranks of those who fought the Emergency, is a constituent of the UPA at the Centre. Unlike the Left, it runs a minority government in the state and Congress is the largest supporting party. It also shares power in New Delhi.
This flow of power to regional parties has not been even as was evident in the remarkable victory of the Congress in Assam. Breaking with precedents of the last two decades, the voters gave the Congress the status of the single largest party and set the seal of Tarun Gogoi as a second-term chief minister.
Yet the implications of the verdict are less in state-specific outcomes than in what they imply for the larger picture. The UPA and the Left have shared the honours between them. In all four states and in the Union Territory of Pondicherry, the broad social alliance that voted out the NDA two years ago is intact. It is a bit frayed at the edges in Tamil Nadu and Assam, but has actually expanded in West Bengal.
This will explain the clarity and precision of the oft-repeated statement of the CPI (M) general secretary, Prakash Karat, that the Left will not endanger the survival of the Manmohan Singh ministry. The twin pillars of the Manmohan Singh government, the Left from without and the regional parties from within, have both become closer to it as a result of the polls.
This is a paradox for another distinct reason that has to do with the issues that face political India. None is as contentious as the nature of economic and foreign policy. The two are closely inter-related. Unlike her late mother-in-law and husband, Sonia Gandhi steers a party that has to work in close tandem with regional allies and the Left.
The Congress-led government and the Left have radically different views on what are seen by many as the issues at the heart of reform: the size of the public sector and the entry of foreign capital, the pricing polices for grain and fuel. These debates will gather force and momentum. Yet, these only touch on the heart of a larger, possibly more inescapable dilemma. This can simply be called-the re-invention of the state. Not just to ameliorate the poor but to enable a substantial expansion of the job base in the rural sector will be the major challenge.
As it nears the halfway mark, the UPA government needs to draw a deeper insight from the state-level election results. These show a popular mood that has to be read against the tendency of seeing it in the narrow terms of partisan interests. Governments that deliver on peace and prosperity can hope to be voted back to office. Others will be shown the door. An emphasis on reform has to be combined creatively with ameliorative measures. Only by putting the last first can the artifices of growth be given a firm foundation. For the winners of May 2006, the hard task really begins now. But it is not they alone but the UPA that will have to respond to the larger message in the details of the results.