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21 May 2016 Editorial


21  MAY 2016

Against all odds

Nothing is more difficult than to turn the tide of history. That All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam general secretary Jayalalithaa won the support of the voters of Tamil Nadu for a second consecutive term as Chief Minister, defying the historical weight of six previous Assembly elections, which had voted out the incumbent, is truly remarkable. That she achieved this without any significant allies — more out of choice than force of circumstance — is quite extraordinary. Ms. Jayalalithaa adopted a high-risk strategy that relied as much on opposition disunity as on the strength of her own party. There was a mild swing of votes away from the AIADMK; and the main Opposition, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, gained from the collapse of the third front led by the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam. But, in the end, Ms. Jayalalithaa was the clear winner, leading her party to success in 134 seats, 16 more than an absolute majority in the 234-member Assembly. What separated the AIADMK from the DMK-led front was only 1.1 per cent of the total votes, but this was enough for a party with a more or less uniform support base across the State. Not even her political mentor M.G. Ramachandran, the charismatic founder of the AIADMK, who won three elections in a row beginning 1977, had dared to contest all the seats without entering into seat adjustments with other parties. In doing so, Ms. Jayalalithaa revealed herself as a shrewd strategist, building on her political experiment in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, in which the AIADMK fought all the 39 seats and lost just two. The victory has dispelled any remaining doubts that the AIADMK is the single largest force in the State; in a situation where the rival DMK is unable to stitch together a viable alliance, it can expect to triumph. This election was also a much-needed reminder to political parties that people do not vote as a Pavlovian response; anti-incumbency was mitigated this time by a shrewd mix of populism and social welfare programmes, something that a clutch of political pundits and opinion polls failed to detect.

Although the AIADMK has been voted in with a reduced majority, and the Assembly will have a strong Opposition, Tamil Nadu seems to have given Ms. Jayalalithaa the mandate to continue with her social welfare programmes initiated over the last five years. The AIADMK leader had expanded welfare measures by opening canteens with subsidised food, and selling everything from salt, bottled water, and medicines to maternity kits and cement at subsidised rates. During the next five years, the tasks before her are greater and possibly even more challenging. They include expanding the achievements on the education and health fronts, improving Tamil Nadu’s infrastructure to attract more investment, and ensuring that its manufacturing sector is not hobbled by power shortages and growing competition from neighbouring States.

The message from West Bengal

The Red disaster has drawn the spotlight away from the Green splash in West Bengal, and recriminations in the Communist Party of India (Marxist) are ringing louder than celebrations in the Trinamool Congress. The verdict has expectedly opened old, unresolved debates in the CPI(M). The decision of the State unit of the party to forge a seat-sharing agreement with the Congress was taken against the central leadership’s firm reservations, and the air is already thick with both misgivings and excuse-making. It is not clear if the party will take away from its West Bengal disaster lessons of theory, praxis or realpolitik — or none at all. But on a larger canvas, the election result suggests significant messages from the electorate. Indeed, these messages could be projected nationwide. For one, the electorate has again rejected the politics of cynicism. Voters have showed that they couldn’t care for an alliance that is scared to even utter its own name. The Congress-CPI(M) seat-sharing was referred to as jot in Bengali, but quibbles about its definition gave away the lack of conviction in the two parties for it to be anything but an expedient measure, with no positive outreach. Left Front chairman Biman Bose would say in interviews that it was not an “alliance”, simply seat-sharing. It is impossible to say after the event whether the Left-Congress combine would have got more seats had they gone to voters with a common minimum agenda, and levelled with voters on the obvious contradiction about facing each other down in the Kerala elections. But certainly, the Left would not have found itself floundering to give an honest account of itself, as it is today.

The fact, however, is that the West Bengal elections were not lost by the Left Front and Congress. They were won by the Trinamool Congress. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee went back to the people with a firmness of conviction. She owned the record of her five years in office. Elections in India, especially at the State level, now pivot less on anti-incumbency. With the increased focus on development and delivery of essential services over the last two decades, incumbency is not always a disadvantage. Governments that defend their record, that do not get squeamish about taking on election-time charges flying their way, are usually unbeatable. Ms. Banerjee won West Bengal in 2011 when the Left Front had its back to the wall. She has retained it, now in 2016, by knitting together a welfare politics that not only borrows freely from the Left’s economic agenda, but also customises outreach — Rs.2 per kg rice, cycles for students, stipends for young women who continue their studies, recruitment of special police constables from the Maoist belt of Jangalmahal, recreation facilities, and so on. This has left Ms. Banerjee’s government struggling with a debt-GDP ratio of 35.5 per cent. But her opponents were not exactly cornering her on that.

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