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Rajdeep Sardesai
Friday , May 29, 2009 at 03 : 21

Why India voted for Congress


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As a news anchor who lives in a television studio, and whose reporting days are rapidly becoming a fading memory, my one connection with the 'real' world is a morning walkers' group in the neighbourhood park. Located in an upper middle class colony of the national capital, the gathering includes senior citizens, service sector professionals and independent businessmen.

Their viewpoints on most issues - be it POTA, uniform civil code, black money in Swiss banks, or even Ram Mandir - are similar to a BJP manifesto. Yet, a majority of them voted for Sheila Dikshit in last year's Delhi assembly elections and Dr Manmohan Singh as prime minister this year. In their voting preferences lies the key to explaining perhaps the only nationwide trend of election 2009: the dominance of the Congress/UPA over the BJP/NDA across urban India.

As the comprehensive National Election Study done by Prof Yogendra Yadav and his team has shown, the UPA has gained in votes and seats in urban constituencies. With the exception of Bangalore and Ahmedabad, the Congress and its allies have swept metropolitan India. The UPA won 34 of the 57 major urban constituencies, the NDA just 19. The UPA won an impressive 81 of the 144 semi-urban constituencies, the NDA only won 39. Its not just the urban poor, the study shows that the UPA was 15 per cent points ahead of the NDA among urban middle class voters.

For the BJP, which once prided itself on being the natural party of urban India, its these figures that must spark off introspection: why has the BJP lost its appeal in its traditional bastion? After all, it was the rising clout of the new Indian middle class that was seen to have driven the BJP's ascent to power in the 1990s. This class was the economic beneficiaries of liberalization and socially conditioned to seeing the minorities as hostile to national interest. The journalists, bureaucrats, professionals, even army officers who embraced the BJP in the 1990s were products of this period which saw the Congress being typecast as a corrupt, dynastical, pseudo-secular party, while the BJP was seen as a moral, democratic, nationalist alternative.

With Atal Behari Vajpayee as the mascot, the middle class was attracted by the idea of a soft Hindu identity that would correct the anomalies of the Nehruvian period. The appeal of this identity politics was not just witnessed in election results - the BJP emerged as the single largest party in three successive elections in the 1990s - it could be seen in television studios as well: assertive voices that spoke out against the alleged 'pampering' of minorities, against foreign origins and which called for tougher anti-terror laws were applauded across audience-driven tv debates.

Those voices can still be heard, but their arguments seem to have lost their resonance. How long will we debate the anatomy of the Kandahar hijacking, or who was responsible for the Shahbano controversy, or who gave biryani to terrorists in Kashmir? These questions were relevant at the time, but slowly the priorities of a nation have shifted. The fact is that emotional issues matter much less now than ever before, that in a 'normal' election, the urban voter chooses present day governance over past animosities. We are now in an era of inclusive, 'identity-plus' politics, where winning elections is more about gaining new voters, not simply relying on narrow identities, be it caste or religion.

The BJP should have realized this last year itself when in the assembly elections that followed the 26/11 terror attack, the party did badly. Full page ads warning of terrorism on your doorstep did little to sway the average Delhiite: when he wanted to be comforted, spreading fear wasn't the way forward. Sheila Dikshit provided that comfort factor, the Delhi BJP leadership did not.

In a sense, what happened in Delhi has now been replicated across urban India. The BJP has acquired the image of being disruptionist where once it was seen to stand for effective law and order. Then, be it moral policing in Karnataka, Varun Gandhi's hate speech, or the violence in Kandhamal, the BJP is burdened with the tag of flirting with irresponsible forces.

When a Varun Gandhi spoke out against minorities, he energized the BJP's core constituency, but ended up alienating the moderate centre, which was more concerned with the economic slowdown and job losses. Unfortunately, instead of distancing itself from Varun's rhetoric, a section of the BJP almost justified it, leaving the undecided middle class voter confused about the party's true intentions.

This confusion was also manifest in the manner in which the BJP chose to oppose the Indo-US nuclear deal last year. Here was an issue which logically should have been championed by the BJP as its own: after all, it was Vajpayee who had opened a window of opportunity with Washington. Yet, somehow the BJP contrived to be seen as being on the same side as an 'obstructionist' left, further alienating the middle class voter for whom the US is far from being the Great Satan.

Moreover, the ethical core which the BJP once claimed made it a party with a difference is clearly gone. When a bureaucrat who is voted the most corrupt by her peers becomes a party member, when BJP MPs engage in passport rackets, when jailbirds are given party tickets, then the party loses the moral high ground. By putting 'winnability' ahead of idealism, the BJP leadership squandered the goodwill quotient. By contrast, Dr Manmohan Singh was seen to epitomize a certain decency in public life, an 'accidental politician' who was untouched by the trappings of power.

Perhaps, the BJP needs to rediscover the average middle class voter who isn't swayed by shrill vocabulary or marketing hype. In an increasingly aspirational society, this voter is only concerned with his personal well being and an assurance of future prosperity. Which is why the third front and the prospect of a Mayawati in power frightened him. In the loneliness of a polling booth, his voting choices are determined by a desire for stability, ethical behaviour, a violence-free society, rapid economic growth and a rising sensex. He wants an enlightened political leadership that offers a mirror to the future, and is not imprisoned in the past. In 2009, it's the Congress troika of Manmohan-Sonia-Rahul and not the BJP which offered him this futuristic vision. Which is why a majority of the middle class voted for them.    


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More about Rajdeep Sardesai

Rajdeep Sardesai was the Editor-in-Chief, IBN18 Network, that includes CNN-IBN, IBN 7 and IBN Lokmat. He has 22 years of journalistic experience during which he has covered some of the biggest stories in India and the world. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the Managing Editor of both NDTV 24X7 and NDTV India and was responsible for overseeing the news policy for both the channels. He has also worked with The Times of India for six years and was the city editor of its Mumbai edition at the age of 26. During the last 22 years, he has covered major national and international stories, specialising in national politics. He has won numerous other awards for journalistic excellence, including the prestigious Padma Shri for journalism in 2008, the International Broadcasters Award for coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots and the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for 2007. He has won the Asian Television Award for best talk show for the Big Fight on two occasions and his current flagship show on CNN-IBN, India at 9, has been awarded the best news show at the Asian awards for the last two years. He has been News Anchor of the year at the Indian Television Academy for seven of the last eight years and won more than 50 awards in this period. He has also been the President of the Editors Guild of India, the only television journalist to hold the post and was chosen a Global leader for tomorrow by the world economic forum in 2000. An alumni of St Xavier's College, Mumbai, he has done his Masters and LLB from Oxford University and has also played first class cricket for the Oxford University team. He has contributed to several books and writes a fortnightly column that appears in seven newspapers.
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