Interview: Indian Election Results a 'Rejection' of Gandhi-Nehru Dynasty

India's Samjwati Party (SP) workers celebrate their victory in the state elections at their party office in New Delhi on March 6, 2012. (Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images)

Yashwant Deshmukh, the managing director and chief editor for India-based voter opinion and election research firm CVoter, says the recent drubbing of the ruling Congress Party in India state elections is a "rejection" of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty that has dominated India politics for decades. The political analyst also refutes reports saying Congress's setback will halt economic reform in India, which he says is supported in practice by most political parties in India.

Asia Blog talked to Deshmukh via email.

India's ruling Congress Party did not fare well in state elections. What are some of the reasons for voter discontent and was this a surprise to the political establishment?

The setback for the Congress in the latest state elections has not really been a surprise. What has been the surprise is the extent of the drubbing. The polls can easily be seen as a complete rejection of the Congress. Analyses before the elections indicated a difficult situation not only for the Congress, but the whole polity. Many, also indicated a hung assembly in the largest Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). However, considering the massive effort the Congress has had put in, some swing towards it was expected in UP. Especially, as it was quite certain that the ruling party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, a party considered to have a huge support base among the backwards [a caste classification in India], was losing much ground. However, considering the general bi-polar fight in UP, between the two regional parties of BSP and SP (Samajwadi party), nobody really expected the Congress to come completely on its own.

In Punjab, where the trend has been of anti-incumbency, the SAD (Shiromani Akali Dal) has wrested power quite comfortably, with the support of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). Interestingly, the SAD administration cannot be said to have performed well in governance. But the unpopularity of Congress has given them a second term in succession. Except in Manipur, which has very little effect on national politics, the polls have been a major setback for the Congress. Interestingly, it has not come as a gain for the other national level party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Its score in Punjab has actually gone down. It has come to power in Goa. However, it should be noted that both Goa and Manipur don’t have strong regional parties. The score in Uttrakhand has nearly been a tie.

It is still not clear who would form the government. Our studies have shown repeatedly that corruption and inflation have not gone well with the electorate. These two issues have been top concerns for the Indian public for a continuous 64 weeks. The Federal government is seen largely a fountainhead of corruption after the 2G and Commonwealth Games scams. This time, the states did not see local issues at the helm. The concern was overtly national.

How badly do these losses hurt reform efforts being pushed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his finance minister? Will there be fewer pro-market reforms in terms of opening up the economy to private enterprise because of these votes?

The Indian reform process has been consistent over the last 21 years now. It should be noted that no political entity (barring the communists) is ideologically against the reforms process. Even the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) kept on reforming the economy. Even in the states, the economic liberalization process is quite deep-rooted now with several states welcoming private investments. The differences are on micro level issues. And much of the opposition is for the sake of opposition as all parties are opposed to Congress. So, even though we saw support for FDI in retail in the BJP fold while it was in power, now most of its leaders oppose it today. The Left could have been considered the only ideological threat to liberalization. But we have seen that it followed reform agendas aggressively in Bengal and quite intensely in Kerala. Even though it kept on opposing it at the Centre. It should be noted that several PSUs (Public Sector Undertakings) have been divested. Even in the top performing PSUs, referred to as the Navaratna companies, much of the stakes have been divested. Overall reforms will be on track. Reformist agenda cannot be completely derailed. FDI opposition is an anti-congress issue. Barring CPM nobody is anti-reform.

Considering the democratic process in the country variance in the speed of reforms should not have been unexpected. The political compulsions are severe. But it should be noted that India is growing still at a pace more than 6 percent when the world is nearly flat. Also, India has managed to survive the ambitious social sector project the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). This budget may not see heavy reforms, but will not see any impediment in all probability either. It might be lackluster from a purely business point of view and has to be balanced from the political point of view. Right now the Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee is surely sitting on a hot seat.

Will Singh struggle to win a new term in 2014? If Rahul Gandhi is no longer a clear candidate for Prime Minister, are there any dominant figures for the position?

Indications are strong that Congress is going to face an even tougher time. The general mood is heavily against the Congress now. The Congress might experience a heavy defeat in the Parliamentary polls in 2014. It should be noted that in most places the presence of Rahul Gandhi has not helped the cause of Congress. Bihar and UP stand as examples. It can be safely said that Rahul Gandhi may be popular; but certainly not a vote-catcher as of now. And chances seem to be very low that he will be the PM after next elections. He himself has taken the blame for the UP debacle, as he led the campaign in the state. Right now, a list of possible PM candidates is extremely unclear.  What is clear is that the Congress is unlikely to come back. 

However, even though the BJP has not made much headway, the possibility of an NDA government headed by a non-BJP PM cannot be ruled out. In case the BJP does not get 150 seats on its own, then choosing a PM from the non-BJP fold will not be unlikely. In that case, the Bihar CM Nitish Kumar may turn out to be a choice.

How is the political landscape in India shaping up from these elections? Are there new dominant parties emerging, or is leadership simply becoming more fragmented? What does this new political picture mean for the coming years?

The political landscape has seen massive change in the past decade. Increasingly, the traditional caste or community-wide polarization is giving into development and governance issues. The SP in UP have cut across communities in the recent elections. 

It should be noted that in the post-liberalization era 98 percent of elections have seen strong anti-incumbency till recently. Before the post-liberalization period around 90 percent of the times the polls have gone to the incumbents. However, recently, like true consumers, the electorate has returned the proven brands to power. The examples are Sheila Dikshit in Delhi, Narendra Modi in Gujarat, Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Naveen Patnaik in Orissa. For the record, VS Achutanandan almost got the CPM (Communist Party of India-Marxist) back into power in the last assembly elections if it was not due to the infighting within his party. Achutanandan has been seen as a pro-people and honest administrator.

Hence, the ideological polarizations have been replaced by governance and economic issues, such as corruption and inflation. Performance is seen as supreme. The loss in this mood. of the CPM led Left Front in Bengal, after 34 years has been a high point. In absence of a strong third alternative, the regional parties, generally social democrats, have filled the void. In UP the fight has been clearly bipolar. The results have actually been worse for the two national parties, especially the Congress, than even the incumbent BSP.

The BSP has scored only 2.5 percent less than the SP in terms of popular votes. And in same parameters it has been the third largest party in 2009 Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) elections in 2009. With presence in 10 odd states, it is not out of the equation. So, keep a keen eye on its leader Mayawati, who without any doubt has become the tallest leader of Dalits in the country. It is important to note that even Baba Saheb Ambedkar, who was a freedom fighter Dalit icon, and who is considered architect of Indian Constitution, could never be electorally successful and was never treated as a possible PM candidate. But Mayawati is different. Not only she has single-handed made her party the third largest party in India; but she also happens to be a PM candidate in realistic terms. The possibility of both non-BJP led NDA or a third front cannot be ruled out. Like in the late nineties the regional parties may try to form an alliance if they garner enough seats.

What does this mean for Rahul Gandhi-and the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty going forward?

The Nehru-Gandhi brand has seemingly lost its charm. It has lost several seats in UP elections even in its traditional family stronghold Rae-Barreilly. It seems like a Wall Street company during recession, in which the management guys are running for cover. The ratings are not high for the family, which is perceived as the epicenter of Congress policies. Hence, the family has to bear the brunt of all corruption related angers. The family is seen as less active on anti-corruption front, fueling suspicion about their integrity. Successive measures in handling several issues have been severely criticized. And the recent remark of Sonia Gandhi that the party has too many leaders, perhaps hint at deeper differences within the party leadership that came out during the poll campaigns. It should be noted that the Congress campaign got heavy media coverage because of the all-out effort made by the Nehru-Gandhi family. Even, Priyanka Gandhi was campaigning hard for the party this time.

The polls have been largely a rejection of the Nehru-Gandhi clan and hence the family has a tough way forward in gaining popular confidence. However, that’s the only way they can cling to power, that is, gaining people’s confidence.

What do you consider the most interesting or surprising outcome of these elections?

The greatest surprise has been the heavy turn-out that touched 80 percent. The electorate has used its full power in drubbing administration. It has used the only viable mechanism in its hand to show that it means business. It is of course the success of the Indian democracy that turn-outs have generally remained more than the half-mark. But the latest figures show that the  whether its people’s eagerness to participate has only increased. The participation has been consistent in recent times, whether in Jammu and Kashmir, or in Goa, or in UP. However, the tally in the recent assembly polls is a remarkable one. One should note that in a geographical neighborhood, where most countries are either not democratic, or recently democratized or nearly failed states, this comes as an inherent success of the Indian system. 

The other surprise is the fast evolution of the polity from the traditional caste-based or even community-based equations to governance and economic issues. Not that the caste and community issues have completely vanished, but the trend is clear. There has been hardly any place for the BJP in UP for quite some time, which once dominated the state on Ram Temple issue. The effect has also been noted in local body elections. For a period of 65 weeks, we at CVoter have seen that inflation and corruption have remained to be topmost concerns of people. If seen in addition to the recent anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare, Indian electorate is tired of the demagogy of their leaders, and want results on the ground. The greatest example of the expulsion process has been the RJD (Rashtriya Janata Dal) that once ruled Bihar and the CPM that almost took West Bengal as a captive audience for 34 years. Now BSP’s Mayawati has joined the league for the moment. It saw a massive victory five years back in UP.

The writing on the wall has never been clearer.

About the Author

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Alex Ortolani is Asia Society’s Senior Media and Content Officer.