The Indian general election of 2009 is finally over. 445 million voters entered 828,000 polling booths to elect 543 candidates to the lower house of the parliament, the Lok Sabha. An immense state apparatus went into play to ensure that the voters’ will was not subverted by theft (2.1 million security guards were joined by 74,729 videographers to observe the polls). The entire process took just over a month. On Saturday, May 16, the Election Commission released news of the outcome. This is the first election in decades where there was no foreseeable victor; neither was there one singular issue. Four major coalitions vied for position, and the issues on the table appeared to be far more local than national. The result has belied this expectation. The Indian National Congress won decisively, over 200 seats, and for the first time since the 1960s, is able to form a government in Delhi without any major allies. This is a remarkable feat, given that the Congress ran an election promising more of the same, a certain tonic for defeat in anti-incumbency democratic politics. It projected the current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as its leader, even as it had the various scions of the Nehru family as the central icons of the party and of its campaigning (Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi both won their seats this election). Little suggested that the Congress would do better than it did in 2004 (with 145 seats).
The Congress’ victory came at the expense of various regional parties, and the Left. Its gains were taken directly from the Left (in West Bengal and Kerala), and from two other regions where it had previously been shut-out (Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh). The Left suffered, in many ways, from the perils of governance in neo-liberal times: able to bring justice to the countryside, the Left faced a growing unemployment problem that it could not solve through a feasible alternative. Attempts to break the intractable bind of jobless industrial growth failed, not only because the Left had to operate within the confines of bourgeois law, but also because of the privations of governance in regions without the treasury of oil. The Left’s allies in places such as Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh had an overly expedient relationship to anti-capitalism; the voters saw right through them. The Left had engineered a Third Front, which, at one time, projected as its prime ministerial candidate the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Mayawati. The BSP was originally the party of the most oppressed, Dalit, castes, but it has since crafted itself as a wily player, making alliances with Brahmins to fend off the dominant, rural castes who are not at either end of the hypothetical caste totem pole. Mayawati’s party maintained its 2004 position, making no gains.
The party of political Hinduism (the Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP) won 138 seats in 2004, but this time could only pull off 117. Confined to a few states, the BJP suffered from the gradual demise of its irascible politics: when one of its candidates, Varun Gandhi (another great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, as it turns out), made anti-Muslim statements, it dented the BJP’s claim to being an inclusive party. Its leader, L. K. Advani, wanted desperately to be the next Prime Minister, but his close association with the politics of animus failed him. Concern for their economic well-being trumped any anxiety among the voters about national security, so that the BJP had little to run on. Both the Congress and the BJP have close ties to big money, and to economic “reform” (which is essentially the process to dismantle the public sector), but the Congress unlike the BJP also has some measure of commitment to social welfare. The siren of national security was so weak that the BJP was unable to make capital out of the Mumbai terror attacks of last year. The BJP’s alliance partners have also failed it, afraid for good reason that Hindu supremacy’s engine might be slowly winding down. Advani has resigned as leader of his party. In the wings stands Narendra Modi, the leader from Gujarat, who is known for his efficiency and his brutality, a combination that chills. The BJP is not down and out, only wounded. Its social base has not abandoned it, even as the party has left them down electorally.