Every general election shifts the national paradigm a bit. The Lok Sabha election is at least four months away, but the shifting has already begun with the recently concluded assembly elections in five states. The outcome has thrown up several pointers to the shift; it is up to us to make what we can of them.
First, it marks the rise of urban politics. The stunning success of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) signals the arrival of the urban discourse into national politics. This implies the breakdown of identity politics of yore.
For example, Mayawati, she of the iron-clad Dalit vote bank, had two seats and a 14 per cent vote share in 2008 Delhi assembly elections. This time her BSP drew a blank.
The key to this urban constituency is its burning desire to move up in the world and its refusal to take things lying down.
Whether it is price rise, an incident of rape, police high handedness, people in cities are quick to take to the street and express their views. At the same time, they want better education, better transport, cleaner environment, jobs and reasonable healthcare systems.
They do not have the fortitude, or shall we say, the fatalism, of their rural cousins who have, till now at least, been fobbed off by endless promises.
Of course, whether such a polity emerges, depends on whether the AAP can replicate itself in the other urban centres of the country. They would be well advised to focus on the urban areas rather than countryside in the short time available till the general elections.
Rahul Gandhi’s ability to replicate the AAP effect in the Congress is debatable, principally because he seems to lack a fire in the belly. Without that you cannot really carry out transformational politics.
Second, this marks the end of indiscriminate welfarism. The real Congress-killer was the sustained inflation in the country for the past three years, in particular food inflation, manifested most recently through the volatile prices of commodities like onion and tomatoes. This, in turn, arose from the government’s inability to curb fuel and fertilizer subsidies. And, indeed, pay out huge sums as support prices for wheat and rice, whereas they should have undertaken policies to encourage agriculture to be more profitable and sustainable.
Third, and linked to this, people want real change, not merely a promise of one. The Congress party had, somewhat disingenuously, gone on a spree of passing legislation promising anything and everything to everyone. Beginning with the Right to Information Act, they took up the Right to Education, the Rural Employment Guarantee Act, and were building up towards the mother of all acts, a promise of subsidised food to most of this country’s massive population. Along with this were promises of low-cost housing, free medicine, and so on.
Many of the schemes did not really work and the subsidies did not reach the intended recipients. What people would really prefer are policies that provide them education of a quality that equips them for real jobs and policies that create them. The self-esteem that comes with standing on your own feet is something that the welfarist Congress party has never understood.
No one would argue against the need for the state to ensure health, education, nutrition and gender equality for those who lack them. The issue is just how this should be done. Some argue that growth must have primacy, because only then you can have the resources to invest in subsidies and welfare schemes. Others counter that without a healthy and educated populace, there will be no growth.
The issue really is balance, and this is where the Congress has failed, because it did not use its 10 years in power to seriously promote manufacturing and investment in the country, the only way in which the huge demand for employment can be met. Indeed, the UPA undertook policy measures that scared off investment, and on the other hand, it squandered a huge amount of resources on welfare schemes that had little yield in terms of enhancing growth.
Fourth, it marks yet another step in the regionalisation of our politics. It is clear now to the Congress party, that in a country of the size of India, you can only function if you have strong regional straps.
Raman Singh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Vasundhara Raje and Narendra Modi are proof of this. In this context, Narendra Modi’s call for a debate on Article 370 should be taken seriously and linked to an earlier perspective of the BJP, as expressed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, that such an article should define the relationship of all the states of the Union with the Centre.
Fifth, the outcome cannot really be seen as a definite statement of the electorate in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
The BJP got the advantage of the deep anger of the people against the Congress party, but, while Modi was one channel of this anger, so was the AAP.
Despite Modi’s efforts, the party’s performance in Delhi and Chhattisgarh was less than emphatic. As it is, it has done well, spectacularly so in Rajasthan and MP, in an area where it was already a major force.
There has clearly been a Modi effect in the assembly polls, but but whether or not there is a Modi wave in 2014 will depend on just how the BJP uses the momentum it has now gathered.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi