Fooling Me Thrice

Once again, the Indian electorate confounded exit pollsters, media experts, political analysts and party stalwarts of every stripe, delivering a transformative mandate in this year’s parliamentary elections.

Going into the elections and even during the month-long polling every political party assumed that the country was in for a hung parliament, culminating in a long drawn out battle among four political fronts to cobble together a winning coalition among nearly two dozen national and regional parties. Indeed, so convinced was the political world of the outcome that most smaller players hedged their bets, assuming their bargaining power would be greatest once the results were in.


Instead, the left and many regional parties were clobbered and the leading opposition party, the BJP, also slipped, losing 22 parliamentary seats. The Congress, by contrast, picked up 61 seats, a 40% gain from the previous election. Far from witnessing an unseemly bazaar of crass horse-trading by bit players, the country was treated to the pathetic spectacle of many humiliated players grandly posturing with “unconditional” offers of support to the government from outside the tent.

As a result, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has returned to power with a more stable government than the one he inherited in 2004. That year too the Indian electorate stunned the political establishment, which had projected that the then BJP government of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee would comfortably coast to victory. Instead it was trounced handily.

After two colossal blunders, one would think that media pundits would become more circumspect. Instead, the Indian media are gushing with another inaccurate nomenclature for the elections, calling it a Congress landslide, a description embraced by some overseas media, such as the New York Times. If Singh’s election victory seems like a landslide, it is only because the media were so wide off the mark. In fact, the 206 seats won by Congress are 67 seats short of a parliamentary majority and 200 short of the party’s own best performance in 1984, when it did prevail in a landslide. This election cycle the Congress-led UPA coalition actually fell six seats shy of a majority. That is hardly a landslide by any stretch of the imagination.

No doubt, governing will be a lot easier for Prime Minister Singh now that he has the flexibility to reconfigure his governing alliance if any party becomes recalcitrant. But Singh is still presiding over a fragile coalition, something that was painfully clear during the struggle over the allocation of ministerial portfolios.

Indian politics has a habit of springing nasty surprises and it would be as foolish for analysts to be lulled into a theory of a Congress mandate, much less a landslide, as it was for them to deluded into earlier assuming that the 2009 elections would entrench the decisive national stranglehold of regional parties.

In fact, if history is any guide, the rise of the regional blocs is just around the corner.


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