Post-Election Analysis: Why everyone called it wrong

May 19, 2009
*Special to asia!

On Saturday May 16th, India's ruling Congress Party was kept in power, winning an astonishing 262 votes, its best results since 1990. Just ten votes short of the 272 needed for a parliamentary majority, it will be able to govern without the need to make deals with regional parties. The markets responded with a resounding 17 percent surge in share prices, its biggest one-day-gain in three decades. Yet this was a victory margin none of the pundits saw coming.

As India Votes 2009

Illustration: Vikash Sharma

Security issues in Mumbai, land issues in West Bengal, migration in Bihar, all these were being catered to by the regional parties, smaller parties. Because of these very local issues, it was said that regional parties were becoming far more important because they were the only ones who could deliver to voters what they wanted, issues on their doorsteps.

The two main parties, Congress and the BJP would have seen their power base erode. Everybody had been saying that for the last six months, that is why the stock market had been doing so badly and foreign businesses were not going to invest in India because nobody knew what the government was going to be.

This was the way the story was going to be, and then on Saturday, everybody got it wrong. It was very clear within the first few hours of counting, it was obvious that the Congress party had won. It had won astoundingly, and this is the best result it has had since the 1980s.

It took everybody by surprise.

It is mainly the people in the lower classes in this country who vote; it was the man on the train in Bihar and the farmer out in West Bengal and the taxi driver in Mumbai. These are the people who voted Congress in.

From what we understand, now that the numbers have all come out, the reason that people voted Congress in, was because Congress was on the ground, at the grassroots level, in particular, Rahul Gandhi. For a long time he was written off as a spoilt son of the dynasty, who always seemed to be taking on his role, but not really deserving it. Then it turned out to be completely untrue.

He had a Discover India tour about three to six months ago, and he went out across the country in a fashion very similar to what we did on the train. He connected to people on the ground, spoke to them about the issue and he would have probably heard about the things that we heard about. His strategy was to follow what his grandmother Indira Gandhi did, which was to go to the people. She was famous for holding these mass football stadium meetings where she would walk through the crowds of thousands of people who would try to meet her and tell her their problems. She was like a deity to many of them. And this was what Rahul did.

A lot of the things that Congress won points on were policies at the bottom, for example, the Rural Employment Guarantee Plan, which is 100 days of work guaranteed to people below the poverty line. These are the policies that appeal to people at the bottom of the economic ladder.

I think also people are becoming more savvy. Cable television is in a lot more places that it wasn't five years ago and I think people were able to see through the media that the regional parties hadn't really done much to improve their lives.

If their lives are better than they used to be, there is an overall sense that the economic growth that had benefited the cities like New Delhi and Mumbai has in a way filtered down. The people at the lower levels don't want to let go of this and they have thus rewarded Congress, by voting them in for a second term in power. It has to be said, this is unprecedented in recent history. Indians do not vote in the incumbent, and certainly not with a mandate like this.

Congress now does not need a partner (to form a government) and it can go ahead and do all the reform work it wants. The BJP is in a bit of a mess now, as it tries to ask itself what its relevance is.

The problem with the BJP is that it went on the basis that it tried to attack Congress for not handling the Mumbai attacks well, for not giving enough attention to people at the bottom of the economic ladder. They didn't offer any solutions but instead what they did was offer two leaders for the party.

They had LK Advani and Nahendra Modi who could have put a lot of voters off. Modi is a hugely controversial figure. Although he has done a lot of good for the economy of the state that he runs, he also is accused of having turned a blind eye to the riots in Gujarat which killed scores of Muslims. (He is not allowed to travel to the United States because the US has refused to issue him with a visa. They see him as a proponent of terror.)

The BJP is now sitting down over the next few days, trying to think in which direction it should go. It did not expect to lose as badly as it did. It is a soul-searching time for the BJP. Halfway through the day on Saturday, they came out and said that they had lost. It was an anti-climax because everyone had expected a nail-biting finish.

For regional parties, they are now hanging their heads in shame because for all the bravado and arrogance that we have heard before the votes were counted, they are not even asking for portfolios right now. What happens usually when an election is over, they would, but now they will be happy with whatever they are given. Again, this is highly unusual in Indian politics.

The mandate that Congress is given means that India should be headed for a very clear and strong economic future. In a sense, this is the first time we will actually get to see what the Congress Party is made of economically. They have talked a great game and they have got Manmohan Singh as the prime minister. An economist and Harvard-educated, he was the architect of India's economic liberalisation in the 1990s.

In the last five years that they have been in power, they have always pointed the finger at their partners, in the last case, the Communists, for having held them back from pushing for foreign investment or deregulation. Now they are on their own and they do not have anyone to blame.

Are they capable now of pulling India out of the global economic slowdown, bearing in mind that the last five years that they were in power, they had benefited from huge global growth and taken advantage of how the global economy was doing? But now things have changed. India's growth rates are falling. On the day before the results came out, industrial output reached a dire low. These are much more difficult times than when Congress came into power in 2004.

In theory, Congress has the ideal team to rescue India out of this economic crisis. In practice, whether they are going to be able to do it, only time will tell.


This is the concluding story in the series.

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karishma vaswani

Karishma Vaswani presents India Business Report for BBC World News. The Mumbai-based correspondent has interviewed numerous political and business leaders in the region. Karishma's family hails from Sindh and she was educated at Warwick University in England where she read English and American Literature. Karishma will be travelling with the BBC India Election train for the entire journey across Northern India.