Electoral mix and outcomes inspire shocks and surprises to the immediate stakeholders in particular and others, including various moulds of observers, in general. In the 2016 presidential election in the United States, Donald Trump did not win the majority of popular votes. His Democratic Party opponent, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, obtained more votes. Trump’s popular vote counted 46.1 per cent as against the former First Lady’s 48.2 per cent. Constituency counting, which forms a kind of electoral college, translated the final outcome into 306 electors for him as against 232 electors on Clinton’s side. The event reminded the public that, even if extremely rare, the probability of a contestant making it to the White House without the majority of popular votes cannot be discounted. In India’s West Bengal state last week, Trinamool Party president Mamata Banerjee became chief minister for the third consecutive time. Having wrested power from the Communist Party (Marxist) that had ruled the state for 34 uninterrupted years, Banerjee gave early indications of the stuff she was made of.
Decisive plunge Dissatisfied with the leadership’s casual attitude toward the deserving, she quit the Indian National Congress, founded TMC in 1998 and proved her mettle quickly with considerable energy to fight her way to scintillating success in such short time. Today, the INC, founded in 1885 as the first nationalist movement organisation in the British Empire, stands licking the severe wound inflicted by Banerjee’s walkout and subsequent accomplishment. Gone are days when the INC headed most state governments. It now wears a forlorn and downcast look at the central as well as state levels. Many have described Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party having lost the West Bengal election as a big setback. In reality, the poll outcome might have disappointed BJP and its supporters but its strength in the assembly has soared from three seats five years earlier to 77 seats now. On the other hand, the INC nurses the consolation of indulging in nostalgia when it ruled majority of states. In the 1914 parliamentary election, it obtained a record low 44 seats in the 545-member Lok Sabha. Five years later, the tally was 52- a pathetic presence even by the measure of the post-emergency rule debacle 1977 when it collected 153 seats. Assembly elections and parliamentary elections regularly deliver different sets of results. In the 2019 general election, BJP won 40 per cent of popular votes that delivered it 18 out of the 42 parliamentary seats in West Bengal. In the recent assembly polls, it obtained 38.1 per cent of votes cast that translated into 77 seats—a massive improvement from the three seats it had registered five years earlier. After Indira Gandhi lifted the notorious 1975-77 Emergency rule and called for fresh elections, many opposition parties hurriedly cobbled together Janata Party with the sole objective of dethroning Indira Gandhi. Voters punished Gandhi’s party with a crushing defeat and handed over a massive mandate to the newly formed party. But constant bickering among the Janata Party constituents enabled Gandhi’s party to quickly recover from the 1977 disaster. The 1979 mid-term poll saw the INC bounce back in power on the shoulders of the ever squabbling opposition that belied the hopes created by the huge voter backing. Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination during the 1991 election campaign prompted his widow Sonia to wheel out P. V. Narasimha Rao from all but formal political retirement to lead the organisation and resume the election campaign. A handful of seats short of a clear majority, Rao engineered a split in the regional party Jharkhand Janamukti Morcha and managed the required majority to complete a full five-year term as prime minister. Nehru was prime minister for 17 years since the country’s 1947 independence until his death in 1964, leading to remarks that “nothing grows under a banyan tree”. Several decades later, Manmohan Singh found himself in the premier’s chair for 10 years, thanks to petty calculations by the INC leadership. Singh was no party organiser or great orator—traits generally considered essential for a prime minister. Singh, who represented Assam in the Rajya Sabha in 1991, 1995, 2001, 2007 and 2013, never bothered contesting direct elections for the Lok Sabha, the popular house, even when he was appointed prime minister at the expense of the much experienced and shrewd party organiser Pranab Mukherjee, of West Bengal. Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul schemed to kick Mukherjee upward as India’s president (2012-17) and plant a pliant prime minister to keep the seat warm for Rahul. The mother and son team wanted to avoid risking the installation of the politically ambitious Bengali Babu as prime minister. Rahul Gandhi desired to be appreciated as a star voter-getter rather than being seen as someone who inherited the prime minister’s chair on the strength of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. To Rahul’s misfortune- and to Singh’s good fortune- such ambitious image in the public perception was never accomplished. As a result, no Gandhi has become prime minister since Rajiv Gandhi lost election in late 1989.
New equations The clearly declining party is paying the price for years of dynastic domination. In contrast to the crushing debacle the Congress under Indira Gandhi suffered in 1977 obtaining 153 seats, the party’s total in the Lok Sabha was 44 seats in 2014 and 52 currently. In 1989, its strength shrunk by more than 200 seats. After Chandra Shekhar broke away from the VP Singh-led Janata Dal in 1990 with barely 10 per cent of the Lok Sabha’s total seats, snap polls were conducted in 1991, enabling the Congress to return to power. The BJP and the Congress are the two parties with nation-wide organisational networks. BJP has risen from four seats in 1984 to 84 in 1989 and progressively increased the share in parliament, heading the government several times. In contrast, the Congress remains a pale shadow of even the 1990s. India’s regional parties have a strong presence at state levels, and have also made a notable mark at the centre. In this year’s four state assembly elections so far, the same trait was reiterated. In Tamil Nadu, the fight continued to be between two local parties, DMK and AIDMK, just as two local Left parties have more or less alternatively ruled the roost in Kerala for the past 40 years. BJP retained power in Assam and went on to head a coalition government in the union territory of Puducherry. TMC’s position in West Bengal is formidable. The rise and growth of regional parties in a country with vast diversity can push the “largest democracy” to constant instability and the Modi magic might not convince people perennially.
(Professor Kharel specialises in political communication.)