Tuesday, May 19, 2009

THE MANMOHAN VICTORY: TIME WE GOT A PRESIDENT

The recently concluded Lok Sabha elections were the first near-Presidential type of elections held in the country. Well before polling day, Indian voters knew who the two principal Prime Ministerial candidates were. The moment Dr Manmohan Singh was declared as the Congress candidate for the job, in the minds of many floating voters, the choice became clear and simple: Was Advani better or Manmohan, or was it worth voting for an unknown candidate to be chosen messily after the elections by the so-called Third Front ?

Since the UPA has romped home handsomely and the Congress on its own has got over 200 seats, conventional wisdom suggests that, for all its weaknesses, the Parliamentary form of democracy that we have chosen is fine. Is that really so? The question that needs to be answered is: Would the Congress have performed as well had Dr Manmohan Singh not been its Prime Ministerial candidate?

Let us take the example of Delhi and Punjab. In Delhi, the vote share of the BJP declined only marginally from the 36.83% it had in the Assembly elections, to 35.19%. But for the Congress, the change was dramatic, its share jumping from 40.31% to 57.04%, an astounding increase of almost 17%. Similarly, in Punjab, the vote share of the SAD was almost the same, 33.9% as against 34.3% in the Assembly elections. The story of the BJP was identical too, the party getting 10.1%, down just 0.4%. But the Congress, like in Delhi, had a huge 11% gain compared to the 34% vote share it got in the Assembly elections. The dramatic change in both these states after the Assembly elections, was certainly not due to NREGA or whatever. It was a vote for Dr Manmohan Singh. There can be no other explanation for this rise. He was the only new factor introduced after the state elections.

In Rajasthan, UP, Bihar and MP, the Congress gained around 6% in vote share compared to the last Lok Sabha elections. There has been much talk in the media of the huge contribution made by Rahul Gandhi to revive the Congress in UP, where its tally has gone up from nine seats to 21. Rahul Gandhi has been looking after the state for nearly seven years during which the party suffered its worst performance in the Assembly elections of 2007. Yes, the Congress has gained 6% in the state, but this gain is equal to or less than than the gains made by the party in neighbouring states in North India. Surely, the persona of Dr Manmohan Singh has contributed substantially to this change too.

In BJP ruled states, it is only in MP that the Congress has improved its vote share at the expense of the BJP. In Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, it has lost substantially while in Gujarat it is down marginally by 0.5%. In Maharashtra, the MNS has got a 4% vote share in the state and 21% in Mumbai, helping the Congress to win, despite the poor performance of the state government. In Andhra Pradesh, the Congress has suffered a 2.5% loss but has got more Lok Sabha seats solely due to the 16% share that Chiranjeevi has taken out from the opposition. In Kerala and West Bengal, the party and its allies have put in their best performance, though due to local factors. In Orissa it has not done well only because the leadership and image of Naveen Patnaik has over shadowed national factors.

Overall, the Congress has got just 1.99% more vote share compared to 2004 but that has got it 61 extra seats to take its tally to 206. This is due to the concentrated vote surge in some states as shown above and multi-cornered contests. It is relatively straightforward to attribute the big gains made by the party in Delhi and Punjab - even Bihar to a great extent - to Dr Manmohan Singh alone because they have not come at the expense of the NDA. But, can it be denied that the gains made by the party in other states have also been substantially because of the image of PM? Also, does it take great intelligence to understand that even in some states where the party has not done well or just scraped through, it would probably have fared worse had the party projected someone else or no one as the PM?

No one had expected the people of India to throw up such a decisive result. Most exit polls had forecast a 10 seat or less difference between the UPA and NDA. Had that happened, the country would have been pushed into the arms of an unstable government that would have been hopelessly tied down to the politics of survival and the race to garner maximum spoils of office in minimum time. Also, the decision of the Congress to align with Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal would have emerged as its biggest blunder, with its potential ally, the Left decimated without the Congress gaining a single seat from it. In the event, thanks to the strong showing of the party elsewhere, that potential nightmare has fortuitously turned into a dream.

There is little doubt that this election has gone decisively the Congress way because the party put up a Prime Ministerial candidate of the caliber of Dr Manmohan Singh. His spotless reputaion, coupled with the very important fact that he is not from the Family, helped the Congress in a manner that no one had expected. LK Advani also inadvertently pushed a lot of floating voters to the Congress for a host of reasons including the fact that he launched petty personal attacks repeatedly on Dr Manmohan Singh, making him appear even taller.

It is worth mentioning here that this fine win notwithstanding, the vote share of the Congress is just 0.5% more than it was in 1999 even though its seat tally has gone up by 91 to 206. The vote share of the two national parties combined also remains roughly the same as last time. What this means is that there is every possibility that in the next elections, a hung verdict will be delivered by the electorate. This time that has not happened thanks to the fact the Congress projected a clean, respected and non-dynastic Prime Ministerial candidate. The BJP has perhaps not yet realised that the anti-Congress undercurrent that it speaks about has evaporated simply because the Family has receded somewhat into the background. That move by itself has got the Congress a lot of additional votes.

Can the country really afford to have, in this age and time, a government that is crippled and paralysed? Why the country alone? Even at the state level, the need of the hour is to have a government that focuses on governance and not petty politicking 24/7. The experience of the last few years has shown that voters have repeatedly rewarded good leaders who have performed, be it Sheila Dixit, Shivraj Chauhan, Raman Singh, Naveen Patnaik, Narendra Modi or Nitish Kumar. At the same time, thanks to the parliamentary system of democracy, we have also witnessed how governments at the Centre and the states have been held to ransom by shameless alliance partners, whenever the verdict has not been decisive.

The relief in the Congress at being able to form and run a government as it wants to is palpable, thanks to its clear victory. The Laloos, Mulayams, Sorens and Paswans of the world have been put in their place by the people. That is the way it should always be, no matter who is in power.

The people of India want good governments led by real leaders who deliver. The nation needs to make sure that they get a clear chance to elect them every time. That, as we all know, is not possible in a parliamentary democracy. Political parties, therefore, need to seriously consider and put in place a Presidential form of government somewhat like one that the US and France have chosen.

Our founding fathers chose a system that is fit for a tiny island but not for a huge, diverse country like ours. May be they never foresaw that a time would come when there would be many parties challenging the supremacy of the Congress, rendering governance virtually impossible. The completely unexpected but very welcome result of this near-Presidential election tells us that it is time we formally got a President who can run the country without being tied, bound, gagged and blackmailed. Rashtrapati Bhavan needs to become the unambiguous seat of power and authority that it was meant to be.
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2. Will the Congress do better without Sonia and Rahul?
3. Mayawati and dalit power
4. So who are the losers?
5. Election 2009: interpreting the results
6. India has voted