The Great Indian Elections
Shastri Ramachandaran

India’s 2004 Elections: Grass-roots and National Perspectives
Ed. Ramashray Roy & Paul Wallace Sage. Pages xvi+341. Rs 720.

India’s 2004 Elections: Grass-roots and National PerspectivesThis is the third volume on Indian politics and elections by the two distinguished editors whose scholarship commands respect and attention. The first collection Indian Politics and the 1998 Elections: Regionalism, Hindutva and State Politics was followed by India’s 1999 Elections and 20th Century Politics.

As in the two earlier books, in this volume, too, Ramashray Roy and Paul Wallace have brought together eminent and insightful contributors who map how the elections played out, what factors operated, the positions of various players and the effect of their platforms and policies. The analysis is rigorous and the interpretations many-layered.

The book is in two sections. Part I deals with the national context and issues such as the impact of federalism, caste and regional dynamics, participation of women, factionalism and comparison of coalition governments in select states. Part II is devoted to a study of the states and how the regional parties dealt with questions of identity and mobilisation. The format is similar to that of the earlier two volumes.

The editors, to their credit, have not imposed any ‘line’ on the contributors, and their inputs are from their own divergent perspectives. This makes the collection of writings somewhat disparate. The result, though, is a welcome variety of perspectives that raise a number of critical questions about the health of Indian democracy and whether elections enrich the process or denude it of people-biased content.

In his Introduction, ‘India Shining Trumped by Poverty’, Wallace points out that in the 2004 elections, India’s two major parties – the BJP and the Congress — together received less than half of the total votes. This has been true of the two parties since the 1989 election, the exception being in 1999, when, as Wallace notes, the Congress and the BJP together polled 52.05 per cent of the total votes.

Regional parties have not only been eroding the vote base of the national parties but gaining in prominence and clout at the central level since the 1989 elections. The book does not go very much further than the earlier two volumes in exploring how this movement towards regional exclusivity has developed a tendency to further sub-divide and fragment around narrower caste identities. This is looked at in Bihar in the context of the new alliance against Lalu Prasad, but the phenomenon is much wider and goes deeper, especially in states like Tamil Nadu.

His conclusion that the Congress and the BJP-led coalitions are not incompatible ideological formations but competitors would be challenged by many as would his observation that "Extremist rhetoric based on religion, caste and even secularism is moderated by the compulsions of electoral politics as filtered through India’s diversity". Under the BJP-led NDA, there was no evidence of this: the Togadias and Modis went about spewing hate and Gujarat witnessed barbaric communal killings. Doubtless, Ghanshyam Shah points out that Gujarat is conditioned by the 2002 communal carnage as well as "three decades of constructing Hindutva ideology and action". How this laboratory of communalisation and hate politics not only held the NDA to ransom but also won new votaries from among the avowed "liberals" in the ruling coalition is not examined as it deserves to be.

Ramashray Roy’s chapter on ‘The Text and Context of the 2004 Lok Sabha Elections in India’ is a lucid exposition on how every election highlights the growing distance between what people need and want and what the rulers of different hues and colours are able to provide despite their high-sounding rhetoric.

He points to the trap of unimplementable promises which have increased the strain on the state and its financial resources. Political parties obsessed with capturing seats of power are "outbidding each other" to gain voter support. In the process, even as frustrated expectations accumulate, the parties contribute to "escalation of expectation".

The book does not clarify whether the electoral outcome points to a trend of Hindutva revival or a shift towards regional parties that are neutral/opportunistic in negotiating their equation with the BJP. It also does not enlighten on how Hindutva impacted on regional parties and with what consequences; nor does it take note of new regional groups that received an impetus under the NDA.

More importantly, coming 30 months after the elections, it would have been expected to throw more light on the personality clash in the 2004 elections. Every election is defined by a face; and, at times, by two dominant faces. The 2004 face-off was between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi. This was the first election, where, at the start, a non-Congress leader of national stature, who could have completed a full five-year term had he opted for it, looked unbeatable in the glow of a ‘Shining India’. Sonia Gandhi was still not seeing as a winning vote-getter, and even when the tide turned it was because of ‘Shining India’ failing to dazzle the electorate.

Yet, there is no analysis or insight offered on the chemistry of personalities for its impact on the electoral ‘mood’, particularly when mood itself is elaborated upon and examined. More important than the defeat of the NDA and the victory of a Congress-led coalition, is the singular, post-election triumph of Sonia Gandhi where she ‘sacrificed’ to conquer. This was no less an outcome, and an important one, of the 2004 elections. The absence of any attention to the power and potency of this "act of renunciation" – though it may have been intended to secure a more resounding mandate for the dynasty at a later stage – appears to be a serious omission.

Yet, despite deficiencies, like Indian democracy, the Roy-Wallace production on the Great Indian Hope Trick – the general election – is the best we have and very valuable for all those interested in politics.