Democracy in India – 8: Dissecting the Election

Seen as separate events both the 2004 and the 2009 elections in India surprised the analysts and the political parties as well. But is it possible that seen in tandem the surprise falls away and a perfectly plausible story can be told?

Let me attempt such a broad-brush explanation before fleshing out the story:

In 2004, there was an anti-incumbency sentiment but no one magnet to which the disaffected were attracted resulting in a scattering of the vote and a fractured outcome. In 2009, there was a pro-incumbency sentiment with a clear recipient of the goodwill yielding a much more consolidated outcome.

Is that too simple an explanation? Remember that the very different outcome does not need the entire electorate to change its mind – a swing of less than ten percent of the total votes cast could yield the 2009 outcome.

And of course, there are many epiphenomenal factors but do we really need them to find a plausible explanation?

Now let me flesh out the story and try and get a sense of why the voter sentiment was what it was in the two elections.

Remember that the 2004 election was all about “Shining India” – the celebration that India had arrived in the world and was being hailed as a global power.

But what is the reality of India? Most Indians are still rural and over a third of them still struggle below the dollar a day poverty line. Even urban constituencies are so delimited that the rural vote has a significant impact on the outcomes of urban seats.

And so it is easy to see why “Shining India” was nothing but a false celebration as far as the majority that did not see any trickle down benefits was concerned. Seen in this light, the 2004 result was no surprise.

This is where the chance factor comes in. The fractured electoral outcome could still have left the BJP with a viable coalition. But it tilted the other way allowing the Congress-led coalition to form the government. And the Congress President made the unusual decision for a South Asia politician to hand the reigns to the most competent and context-sensitive technocrat in South Asia, if not in the world, as far as understanding the realities of poverty are concerned.

Dr. Manmohan Singh rightly focused on the rural majority with an employment guarantee and debt relief program. Add to that the golden years of globalization which, leveraged with competent management, yielded unusually high rates of economic growth and at least some palpable trickle-down effects. Seen in this light, the 2009 results are also no real surprise.

This is a plausible story but it does not accommodate some simplistic interpretations of the vote.  One that is of interest to us is that the Indian electorate has voted for secularism.

Not necessarily. This was never the issue in the vote for the rural majority. The fact remains that the Indian corporate sector favors authoritarianism and is impatient with the imperfections of democracy. And the growing urban middle class representing “Shining India” is much more communally minded than the residents of India’s villages.

Over the next twenty-five years as India transitions to an urban majority the weight of the new voters and business interests would make itself felt unless people with Manmohan Singh’s competence and awareness are sufficiently sensitive to the possibilities.

The future can indeed be shaped. We know from the example of the US that racial antagonisms have continued to decline after reaching a boiling point in the mid 1960s. But it requires decisive and proactive intervention by policymakers who can see into the future and have the conviction to take the risks in the present.

The prospect of a “Shining India” is very much there but a number of bridges still need to be crossed. The fact that has gone without recognition is that regardless of outcomes the democratic process gives India the opportunity of achieving that vision by ensuring orderly transfers of power.

The fact of the losing parties conceding defeat, congratulating the winners, and going back to the drawing boards to rethink strategy is a remarkable and uplifting phenomenon in South Asia.

Earlier posts in this series:  Democracy in India – 1 2  3 4 5 6 7













For an excellent analysis based on vote-share data at the state level arguing that the wrong party got the credit for the rural policies, see The Left and Electoral Politics in India by Deepankar Basu.


  • Vinod
    Posted at 04:50h, 20 May Reply

    The analysis makes a lot of sense.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 04:08h, 21 May Reply

    I have conflicting thoughts about secularism and this election. On the one hand, Karnataka was swept by the BJP, a state which is fast becoming the RSS’s next lab of hatred. On the other hand, the BJP seems to have been totally crushed in Orissa.

    The interesting result for me was in Gujarat. Here is an interesting tidbit of news, “candidates handpicked by Modi in eight seats of Dahod, Surendranagar, Patan, Rajkot, Bardoli, Jamnagar, Porbander and Anand lost.” The BJP has only managed to win 15 here up one from last time. I think a lot will depend on the direction Gujarat takes. The middle class there is quite large and mostly radicalized. The silent majority has been bullied into submission by the right-wing bigots. Lets see if the Congress can re-organize in Gujarat and throw the BJP out.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 22:18h, 21 May

      Vikram, It may not be right to interpret the elections as a single-issue referendum on secularism. People would have voted one way or the other for many reasons of which attitude to secularism could be one. We need an empirical analysis to tell us what the importance of any particular motive was in a given constituency. It would be great if readers in Karnataka and Orissa could give us an explanation based on more complete knowledge of the political realities in those states.

      An excellent analysis based on vote-share data at the state level is provided by The Left and Electoral Politics in India by Deepankar Basu. Incidentally the analysis argues that the wrong party got the credit for the rural policies.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 14:32h, 21 May Reply

    Most political analysts and psephologists are proved wrong at election results in India due to the fact that most Indians are loyal supporters of different political parties while fence sitters are very few. Even a small swing, in combination of equations political parties form, brings in dramatic result. In that sense this election in no different from any other. The Kerala example illustrates this so well; a mere two percent swing creates a landslide for either Congress led front or Communists led front. And it is very difficult to notice two percent swing!

    One major trend that I see is gradual but sure preference people are showing for good governance. Gujarat, Chattisgarh, Bihar, MP etc have returned ruling parties.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 22:24h, 21 May

      Anil, The undecided vote is usually quite small in most places. In the US also it is very small which is why political parties zero in on what are termed “swing” states. However, the predictions are usually a lot better than they are in India. So something else might also be involved in the explanation.

      I agree that the vote for good governance is quite noticeable.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 21:31h, 22 May Reply

    I thought this analysis by Devinder Sharma ties in well with what you have said in your post.

  • kabir
    Posted at 01:17h, 23 May Reply

    Here’s an analysis by Ashish Nandy in the May 30, 2009 issue of Tehelka.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 23:46h, 08 November Reply

    This analysis of the last two national elections can now be read in the light of an explanation of the distinction between growth and development by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen. The authors ask whether India is doing marvelously well, or is it a terrible failure?

    One can interpret the voters’ answer to the question leading to the conclusion that the majority voter has a better intuitive feel for reality than elements of the middle class that are relatively unmoored – existing in a different country according to Arundhati Roy. But these elements have a disproportionate influence on intellectual discussion and economic policy.

    One change from 2009 blog entry is the dent in the perceived competence of of MMS. That could have as simple an explanation as slowing down with age or the inability to face down big money. Human beings are multidimensional – good at some things, less good at others and all dimensions tend to decline beyond a certain age.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 02:55h, 26 January Reply

    An excellent elaboration of the Sen-Dreze position by Professor
    Sankaran Krishna. An important articulation of the fact that the middle-class is not the middle-class is not the middle-class. Context matters and in India the middle-class is not a progressive one. In fact, it is not even a middle class.

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