Indian State Elections 2011: People vs Power?
May 25, 2011
While the central government continued to reel under charges of corruption ranging from the 2G telecom scam and cash-for-votes scandal to the Commonwealth Games fiasco, mounting attacks from the opposition, and high inflation, five Indian states went to the polls from April 4 - May 10 for the Indian state elections of 2011. Despite facing popular backlash during the months leading up to the polls, observers gave Congress and its allies an edge over other political parties. In a country where political personalities and populism plays a critical role in electoral politics, local political allies led the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition to victories in three out of the five states.
This election was the first big test for the Congress party following India’s recent “scam season”. The results brought a much needed morale boost to the party. However, the respite is temporary at best. If the loss of the DMK party in Tamil Nadu, a key federal ally of the Congress, is any indication, corruption played an important role in influencing the decisions of the electorate. With several rounds of state elections scheduled over the next few years leading up to the national election in 2014, it is imperative for the UPA government to immediately and substantively address issues of national concerns such as corruption and soaring food prices to regain some of its lost credibility with the people.
The Electoral Landscape
On March 1, 2011, Chief Election Commissioner of India Dr. S.Y. Quraishi announced the dates for the five states going to polls, staggered over several weeks to ensure security and transparency. Assam went through two-phase polling on April 4 and April 11 and West Bengal had six-phase polling on April 18, April 23, April 27, May 3, May 7 and May 10. In Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, people went to polls on April 13. As the only political party with a major stake in all five States Assemblies as well as at the Center, these elections were particularly significant for Congress and its coalition as it reaches the midway point in the five-year mandate it won in 2009.
The northeastern state of Assam kick-started the 2011 election season. The Congress party was the clear favorite to come to power for a third consecutive term in the state, taking advantage of a fractured opposition as well as making significant efforts to bring outlawed organizations like United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) to the negotiating table. Assam faces decades-old separatist violence, a major concern for the constituents.
In West Bengal, analysts predicted a landslide victory for Mamata Banerjee, leader of Trinamool Congress and a key ally of the Congress party, over the Communist Party of India or CPI (M), possibly ending a 34 year long communist rule in the state. Riding high on an anti-incumbency wave, Banerjee with her firebrand speeches and populist appeal managed to capitalize on people’s frustration towards the government. Many believe that communists have lost touch with the needs of the common man, with increased unemployment, poor economic growth, underdevelopment and state orchestrated political violence and forced land acquisition rampant in the state.
While observers had widely anticipated the end of the Communist rule in West Bengal, there were no clear pre-poll predictions for Kerala, another red state. Early projections of election results kept swinging between the CPI (M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). In the end, the Congress-led alliance seemed to have an edge simply because of an anti-incumbency tendency in this highly politically polarized state. Kerala too faces issues of high unemployment and a stagnant economy.
In both Tamil Nadu and the neighboring union territory of Puducherry, issues like 2G spectrum scandal and price rise were dominant during election season. In Tamil Nadu, the ruling DMK party was fighting a rival regional party AIADMK. In Puducherry, a Congress-DMK coalition was facing AIADMK and All-India NR Congress (AINRC), a breakaway group of the Congress party formed a few days before the announcement of elections. DMK, an ally of the Congress-led government, has been mired in corruption scandals. A. Raja, the disgraced former telecom minister currently awaiting trial for his role in the 2G spectrum scam, is a DMK member. Results in Tamil Nadu and Pududcherry, for many political analysts, were critical in determining whether recent troubles at the national level penetrated state elections and hurt local candidates.
Friday the 13th: Judgment Day for Congress?
According to leading Indian newspapers like The Hindu, despite a winning 3-2 scorecard, Congress can at best draw “limited comfort” from the election results. While the party registered a thumping win in Assam with Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi storming back to power for a third consecutive term, in West Bengal the party tasted success mainly because it firmly allied with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. In Kerala, the party barely made it through, with the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) defeating the Left with the narrowest margin ever in the history of the state.
In Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, states closely watched by anti-graft crusaders, the Congress-DMK alliance experienced major losses. Voters’ sentiments in Tamil Nadu were arguably sharper with the 2G-scam tainted DMK winning a measly 23 seats, while awarding AIADMK a staggering five-sixths majority.
There were definitely some positive outcomes for the Congress party. A 3-2 victory will help it regain lost political authority and relieve some pressure from the opposition. The reversal suffered by communist parties in Kerala and West Bengal could also give the central government more leverage to press ahead with economic reforms, such as raising fuel prices and cutting down on subsidies, measures that are key to keeping the fiscal deficit at the targeted 4.6 percent of GDP in 2011-12. The elections also demonstrated the failure of BJP, the country’s main opposition party, to make its presence felt in any of the five states.
To a large extent voters were influenced by local matters. But few national trends were discernable. CPI (M) and DMK’s resounding defeats in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu respectively demonstrated a pan-Indian demand for inclusive development and zero tolerance for corruption amongst the people. Prime Minister Singh and his government should take these elections as added impetus to find apt responses to questions of corruption and inflation at the national level. It is becoming increasingly clear that the middle class voters who bought the UPA government back to power in 2009 are no longer simply spellbound by PM Singh’s economic miracles. It’s time the government set out a fresh road map for the remaining three years of its term and take a hard look on how to deal with these pressing issues so as to regain the efficiency and integrity that their critics say they have lost.