Is it time to redefine democracy in today's India? Is it time to review the way we understand the Indian voter?
The results of the 288 assembly elections in the very important state of Maharashtra, that includes the great metropolis of Mumbai, are not surprising but even disappointing for some voters who voted the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance back to power.
This is the irony of 2009 assembly election in Maharashtra.
In Mumbai it was business as usual on counting day.
Aslam Bhai, an IT graduate living in a western suburb of Mumbai, says he voted for the Congress unhappily! In typical Mumbai style he says, "Sab chor hain." As a voter he didn't vote for change because he was not sure that alternate would be better than this 'wretched' incumbent government.
The Congress had everything going wrong, yet it has won. The party has emerged as the largest party in this election without having an iconic figure in the state. Their current chief minister Ashok Chavan is a faceless leader without any achievement to his credit. In the last 10 years, Congress chief ministers, ministers and leaders have provided a sub-standard governance and visionless leadership. In the last two years, the state's economic survey says out of every eight residents, three are below the poverty line. Every day since 2006, 1,800 people have lost their jobs. Since 1995, 40,000 farmers have committed suicide. The biggest issue outside Mumbai concerns load-shedding and food security.
Inequality in the state is so glaring that you don't need surveys to know it. The per capita income of a Mumbai resident is Rs 73,930 while in Vidarbha it is Rs 29,000. The mother of all scandals is obviously in the real estate sector. Land-grabbing in various forms is the biggest occupation in the state. The builder-politician-bureaucrat nexus is keeping government coffers empty. And, still, the Congress and NCP alliance has won this election! After failing to rule the state effectively and efficiently in the last 10 years, they are winning and that too democratically!
Corruption, lack of vision in development, issue of farmers etc, nothing went against this government. The biggest reason behind the Congress-NCP victory is the absence of a challenger among the opposition parties.
Uddhav Thackeray has proved colourless and flat. He got trapped in taking on his cousin Raj Thackeray, and the Congress was let off from his focus. No one would pity the Bharatiya Janata Party. Its voters have to wait till the party gets a younger leadership with credibility.
Vijay Jawandhia, the farmer leader from Vidarbha, says, "People ask how in spite of not being in power for 10 years the BJP and Shiv Sena leaders have made money? How come they are living in style? When the voter goes out to vote, corruption of the Congress-NCP doesn't dominate his mind. Voters simply ask who is not corrupt."
While commenting on the Congress-NCP win, he says voters are now better informed. They have judged the government fairly in spite of price rise and other serious issues. They know why the price of commodities rise and what is price correction.
He said, "How can this government lose the election when farmers got 50 percent more Minimum Support Price for cotton? When the media started writing about the plight of Vidrabha farmers, the government gave us an MSP of Rs 3,000 per quintal instead of Rs 2,050. The same is true of sugarcane. We are getting Rs 2,000 per tonne instead of Rs 1,400. Not only that, the government is buying 85 percent of our produce. We got a farm loan waiver and we also got more bank loans in spite of not paying last year's dues."
A Gujarati trader who owns a shop in the posh Breach Candy area of Mumbai, says, "Voters are consumers. These days they like the decent packaging of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi's Congress. They are not looking at the 'maal' (stuff) inside the package. They want political stability and not political values from the government."
Before the election more than the Congress party, leaders of the NCP were facing a crisis of credibility and anti-incumbency. The NCP has not only survived but done well in adverse circumstances. Its negative politics of keeping the Congress at bay has partially succeeded. More than 30 NCP rebels were challenging the Congress in different parts of the state.
Since all parties in the battleground were weak, the results are not one-sided.
The Congress has not got a sweeping judgement in its favour. It is below the 100-mark in an assembly of 288. In 1966, Congress leader Vasantrao Naik covertly helped his friend Bal Thackeray to form the Shiv Sena so that it can sabotage the rising clout of the Left parties in Mumbai's trade unions. Naik succeeded. Old Congressmen used to call it the Vasant Sena. Now, Raj Thackeray and his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena has helped the Congress indirectly.
The division of the opposition votes has helped the Congress-NCP alliance win for the third consecutive time.
Raj Thackeray has hit hard at his uncle's party. Raj's charisma proves that if Bal Thackeray had controlled his fatherly instincts the politics of urban Maharshtra would have been different.
Interestingly, when one talks to Congress voters in Mumbai, another factor that emerges is that more and more people identify Sonia-Rahul and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with stability. To them Rahul is sober, Dr Singh is an astute economist and Sonia means predictability and status quo. Sonia lacks the 'courage' that is associated with strong leaders. But in the absence of a strong opposition, her 'play it safe' politics is helping her and her party. She will never take steps that will usher in drastic changes, she will go slowly, she will not spring any social or cultural surprises. Sonia is now being branded on her virtue of stability.
The Maharashtra results are not a win for the Congress's strengths but represent the voters' desire for stability. In Maharashtra, the Congress has won due to the minimalist nature of hope of its voters.
The BJP and Shiv Sena didn't give the confidence to voters that they are better than the boring 'status quo' offered by Sonia's Congress. The Congress-NCP won because Raj Thackeray played spoilsport by bringing a nuisance value that forced voters to seek the protection of a national party. After all, voters do take sentiments of 'Marathi manoos' and politics played by Raj seriously.
From tomorrow it will be business as usual. Once again, the NCP will try and cut the Congress to size in the districts and in government, and compete with it in getting richer and richer. In the last five years, officially each Maharahstra MLA has got richer by Rs 4 lakh. Once again, as it happened in the last 10 years, Sonia Gandhi will forget that the mini-India named Mumbai needs mega vision, mega planning and great leadership. Till the next election Raj will be cuddled covertly by the Congress to keep him alive for future use. Floor Space Index is the only thing that would attract her party's leaders. Marathas will not allow the OBCs to get stronger in state politics and once again the new government will give us a bogus dream of making Mumbai into Shanghai.