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August - September 2004

Political News

National Elections 2004 - Smooth Changeover of Power

by Sashanka Sekhar Banerjee


India showcases its passionate and boisterous love affair with mass democracy once every 5 years and only the determinedly blinkered or the most cynical of observers can fail to notice its colourful splendour and its appeal and impact on the systems of governance in large parts of the post-colonial world. Secular democracy, with all its flaws, has taken deep roots in India and the nation has every reason to be proud of it.

A Reality Check with some Facts and Figures.
Out of 675 million registered voters in a population of over a billion people, 60 percent representing 380 million constituents actually exercised their democratic right to vote and elect 545 members of the 14th Lok Sabha - the Lower House of Parliament. The electoral process took three weeks to complete starting on 20th April and ending on 10th May 2004 . The election results were announced on 13th May 2004. It was the largest electoral exercise in the world.

This was also the first completely paperless general elections held in India or for that matter anywhere in the world. Voters cast their ballot in around 800,000 polling booths set up for the purpose into 1.75 million Electronic Voting Machines or EVMs for short. There is a provision for linking the EVMs to centralised computers called Master Counting Machines
( MCMs ) for data compilation but these are still being tested and will be commissioned for use during the 15th Lok Sabha elections scheduled in 2009. Each EVM unit has a memory limit that allows only 3840 votes for a maximum of 16 candidates .

The total number of voters in any one booth does not exceed 1500. There were 12140 counting centres spread over 855 cities and towns across the country. When an EVM is activated for counting, the machine displays the number of candidates contesting and the votes polled by each candidate. The counting process takes no more than 10 minutes with each EVM but it is the inspection ceremonies by the respective election agents and officials that is most time-consuming . The advent of the EVMs has simplified and quickened the electoral process. Gone are the days of the ballot papers, some of them were as big as broad-sheet newspapers.

The responsibility of holding the elections in India both for Parliament, the State Assemblies and the Union Territories lies with the three-man Election Commission ( EC ) headed by a Chief Election Commissioner. They are all senior and experienced civil servants. The EC functions from out of Nirvachan Sadan, translated from Hindi, it means The Election Commission House in New Delhi . The EC is an autonomous body created by the Constitution of India and is completely free from any political influence or pressure from any vested interests whatsoever.

Parliamentary Constituencies - No Change in Numbers.
A noteworthy feature of the electoral process in India was that while the population increased over the years, the number of members of Parliament has remained almost unchanged, save and except some boundary readjustments which had become unavoidable for administrative reasons. In 1952, the year when the first national elections were held , the nation's population was about 350 million and the number of MPs was about the same as it is today. This meant that in 1952 an MP represented about 6,50,000 constituents . In 2004 as the nation's population expanded to 1.1 billion people, the head count of MPs remained static at 545, which meant that each MP now represents nearly 2 million constituents.

The population increase in the North - particularly in the Hindi speaking areas, also known as the Cow Belt, was far higher than in the South. Add to that, education as well as the general levels of development and economic progress achieved by the Southern States were much higher than in the Northern States. Therefore demands for an increase in the number of MPs that would have given the Northern States higher numerical representation in Parliament, were consistently opposed by the South .

Mindful of the North-South potential numerical asymmetry in representation in Parliament, the BJP-led NDA Government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee had argued in favour of the creation of smaller states claiming that this would quicken the pace of economic development. The Vajpayee Administration thus created Uttar Anchal out of Uttar Pradesh , Chattisgarh out of Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand out of Bihar. Cognisant of the experience of the last half a century that whichever among the major political parties wins the largest number of seats in Parliament in these 3 northern states, secures the right to rule at the Centre, the Indian National Congress did not hesitate in giving its approval to the erstwhile Vajpayee Administration's proposal of their redistribution into 6 states in the hope that the representation would increase in time and they would benefit from it.

Contrary to the rush to create smaller states in the Hindi belt , the Vajpayee Administration opposed the creation of a Telengana State out of Andhra Pradesh and a Vidarbha State out of Maharashtra, both lying outside the Cow Belt. The demand for the creation of these new states had the backing of mass popular opinion. BJP's perceived double-standards angered the people of Telengana and Vidarbha.

The E-2004 came as a golden opportunity to the people of Telengana to severely punish the NDA by voting against them almost en masse. The Congress, as luck would have for them, had entered into a pre-poll arrangement with the Telangana Rashtra Samity ( TRS ) led by K Chandrashekhar Rao who was in the forefront demanding a separate State of Telengana and won, with the Congress in alliance, a landslide majority in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly elections wiping out Chandrababu Naidu's Telegu Desam Party ( TDP ) and along with it sunk the BJP in the Parliamentary constituencies . Naidu's enormous contribution to the economic development of Andhra Pradesh went totally unrecognised. This was merely one of the many examples which would explain the complexity of the E-2004 in India and the mood swings of the Indian voters at local levels.

Vajpayee dissolves Parliament, calls Elections 2004 and Rides into the Sunset.
The full 5-year term of the outgoing 13th Lok Sabha was to last up to October 2004. However, completely taken by some rosy statistics like GDP registering a phenomenal growth of 10.4 percent during the third quarter of 2003-2004 fiscal year driven by a spell of good monsoons, a build-up of a massive forex reserve of over $ 115 billion, flushed by electoral victories in the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh , Rajasthan and Chattisgarh, encouraged by a promising peace process with Islamabad highlighted by a successful cricket tour of Pakistan , improving relations with China and the US and a perceived general feeling of well being among the people particularly among the urban middle class , the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance Government in Delhi decided to dissolve Parliament at least 6 months in advance and call general elections in April 2004.

Prime Minister Vajpayee's decision " to go to the country ",
as it turned out for him, was taken in indecent haste. Euphoria apart evidenced by such misplaced sloganeering like "India Shinning" or "India on The Move", there was not much of serious or responsible internal audit or reality check in evidence, coming out of the NDA. What the people saw before their eyes was a welter of make-belief misjudgements based on inadequate premises. In other words, the India shinning advertisement failed to impress the people who ensured the incumbent government's ouster a certainty.

The NDA led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost the elections conceding defeat, in a smooth changeover of power, to its rival the United Progressive Alliance ( UPA ) led by Sonia Gandhi, President of the Indian National Congress . When the NDA lost the Elections of 2004, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was at the height of his popularity, having firmly placed India on the fast track of economic growth, the author of spectacular foreign policy successes, revered and respected widely by the people of India and the world leaders. He rode into the sunset, perhaps a thoroughly dejected man, before his time had run out.

BJP Lost the People's Mandate, The Congress did not win it either.
The Bharatiya Janata Party's profound miscalculation was to take for granted the "Hindu vote bank" on the basis of which it came to power in 1999. It marked a historic shift in political opinion in India and only the naïve could squander the opportunity so tamely. The BJP had promised to build the Ram Temple in Ayodhya on the site of the demolished Babri structure, remove Article 370 from the Constitution of India which prevents the citizens of India from purchasing property or settling down in the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir, find a solution to the vexed long-festering Kashmir problem and enact a Common Civil Code for all the citizens . The Party failed to find solutions or long-term answers to any one of these promises. Add to these failures, were the negative media events like TV images of Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh accompanying the terrorist master-mind Maulana Muhammad Azhar, the founder of Jaish e Muhammad, to Kandahar in the wake of the hijack of the Indian Airlines flight 814.

It was a sad spectacle and it infuriated the nation. Not to be ignored was the NDA's failure to contain the onslaught of terrorist violence from across the borders which saw a daily diet of death of soldiers and civilians and destruction of property. India's over-cautious response to the terrorist attack by Islamic militants from across the borders on Indian Parliament on 13th December 2001 was a far cry from the tough US response to the 9/11 of 2001 terror attack on New York's twin towers and the Washington's Pentagon. The mighty Indian Army was mobilised along the western borders, which looked more like a show-biz than serious engagement, lasting one whole year which cost the tax payers billions of US dollars only to be ordered to return to the barracks without firing a shot.

Publicly the international community applauded India for showing maturity by not declaring war against nuclear-armed Pakistan, privately in the world's capitals India earned the reputation of being a " soft state ". If India was not ready for war why was the Army deployed so massively to battle readiness? Terrorist violence sponsored from across the borders continued unabated as more lives were lost. How can one forget the humiliation of the Kargil incursions of 1999 attributed to be the result of intelligence failure. Surprisingly, the ruling NDA alliance failed to factor-in the real possibility that the electorate would take into account the sordid litany of failures of the BJP, when the defining moment to make their political choices came up during E-2004.

The BJP is a party designed to serve the interests of the urban professional middle class, the traders, the wealth creators of the nation and the upper castes of Hindu society. Social justice and rural upliftment were almost absent from its political or economic agenda. It was rare to find a senior BJP leader contesting a seat in Parliament or the State Assemblies from any of the rural constituencies.

In stark contrast Sonia Gandhi , determinedly, focused almost exclusively on the rural heartland of India, and appealed to the backward classes and the religious minorities who have traditionally served as the Congress party's vote bank. The Congress had lost this vote bank for some time to the likes of Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajvadi Party of UP, Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party also of UP and Laloo Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal but Sonia Gandhi, the foreign-born leader who allegedly was not supposed to understand much of the complexity of Indian politics, wooed these sections of the society and secured substantial successes. Take the examples of Amethi, Rae Bareli, Phulpur, Siriperambudur , Chickmagalur - used over the years by the Nehru-Gandhi family - they are all rural or semi-rural constituencies. The family has always identified itself with the rural poor. This time round the BJP not only failed to get much support from rural India, it substantially lost the support of urban India as well.

Just a few days before the elections, Lal Krishan Advani, stood alongside Maulana Bukhari , the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid in Delhi and secured a dubious Fatwa from him asking the Muslims of India to vote for the BJP. This was the last nail in the coffin of BJP's Hindu vote bank. Given this curious development, a negative perception was created among the Hindu voters that the charges of " Muslim appeasement " or " pseudo-secularism " levelled by the BJP against the Congress were politically motivated and deliberately concocted. The BJP was now seen as guilty of having committed the same sin, if that be the word for it, as the Congress of practising the alleged " appeasement of the Muslims ".

The full article is available in the print edition.

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