Rahul Gandhi and his Congress Party lost big in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, in recent elections for the state assembly. The left-wing Samajwadi Party (SP) won a large enough majority to oust the incumbents (Bahujan Samaj Party) from the roost.
This is bad news for the Congress Party, dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has reigned over Indian politics with only brief interruptions since independence. Rahul represents the hopes and dreams for the future of the Congress Party. Many hoped he would one day replace the aging Manmohan Singh as prime minister. That could still happen, but after his humiliating shellacking in Uttar Pradesh, Rahul is damaged goods. He bet big on the elections in UP, and lost badly.
Rahul’s failure looks to many Indians like one more symptom of the exhaustion of the Congress Party. The Congress-dominated coalition government seems aimless and lost, and the electoral failure is one more piece of bad news for India’s economic reform agenda in the short term. Singh had ambitious plans for opening and liberalizing India’s economy, but his agenda took a backseat when scandal after scandal swept through Delhi. Now the task of securing a consensus within the ruling coalition is increasingly difficult.
The vote in Uttar Pradesh showed that voters are unhappy with the incumbent Bahujan Samaj Party that has ruled the state assembly, but it also showed they have no faith in the Congress Party’s ability to fix problems. Voters rejected the scion of an aristocratic political dynasty, Rahul, who is seen as a golden boy and out of touch with the common man despite his efforts to appear local. Mayawati, the ousted former chief minister, was a populist who wasted money on large statues of herself while promising and failing to deliver more tangible progress. Akilesh Yadav, who led the SP to victory, campaigned on a development agenda. Lower middle class by origin, Akilesh captured voters’ aspirations for more social mobility.
The tea leaves are mixed as to what all this means for India. The good news is that India’s electorate is maturing. Across the country—for regional administrations in a number of states are gaining strength at the expense of the traditionally powerful national parties—Indian voters are giving increased support to regional leaders and local administrations who they think can make concrete changes. They are, slowly, becoming less easily bamboozled by glamorous dynasties and ritzy Bollywood stars.
On the other hand, the rise of regional and local-issue based parties makes it harder to put together effective coalitions at the national level. A dirty secret of Indian democracy is the degree to which its effectiveness (such as it is) at the national level depends on non-democratic and even anti-democratic practices at the state and local levels. Feudal landlords can tell their tenants how to vote; ethnic, caste and other subgroups form blocs who are more interesting in voting for the home team and bringing home the bacon than in good governance and other lofty abstractions.
India’s population is almost four times the size of ours here in the United States; its cultural and linguistic diversity is almost infinitely greater than ours. Some Indians are on the cutting edge of the new global culture and flit from Davos to London to Manhattan with the greatest of ease. Hundreds of millions have never traveled more than a few miles from the place where they were born, have often lacked enough food for the day, and may never have made a phone call. For decades after independence, those voters, often illiterate and utterly dependent on local landowners, were essentially passive and voted (or were voted) in predictable ways.
Democracy may be the only way a country like this can govern itself, but it remains to be seen whether the increasingly voluble and self confident Indians in the new era will be able to muster effective coalitions for strong and focused action on national problems.