Contrary to a view inspired by late Raj fiction, the British valued India as much as they held Indians in contempt. The British Empire on the subcontinent owed far more to the man who saved it around the world, the Duke of Wellington, than to Robert Clive, who has got excessive credit from history. Clive defeated a tottering, self-indulgent Nawab of Bengal; Wellington buried Scindia’s ambitions at Assaye and destroyed Tipu Sultan at Seringapatnam. They were the two most powerful Indian princes of the 19th century, perhaps the only ones who could have checked the British. Indians, said Wellington, were “the most mischievous, deceitful race of people… I have not yet met with a Hindoo who had one good quality and the Mussalmans are worse than they are”. At least he was secular in his prejudice.
When the British Raj was on its deathbed, its great champion Winston Churchill sneered that Indians would never be able to understand democracy. He thought that they would be a disaster and come running back to Mother England. I shall spare you the precise quotations; we don’t want you to get unnecessarily angry on a day when there is so much else to digest. He was not alone. In 1967, the Times of London, now the pipsqueak of a fading power rather than a thunderer of the Empire, wrote the obituary of Indian democracy. It survived.
However, there was a growing view that the 15th general election would leave behind just the kind of mess Churchill predicted.
The Indian voter has just proved once again that those who underestimate India do not understand India.
The most important result of this election is that the elimination of regional parties from national space has begun. This was the message in north, south, east and west where Congress expanded its space at the cost of both friends and foes. Chandrababu Naidu will survive to fight another election, but the votaries of Telangana have probably been marginalised out of reckoning. The Congress did better than Sharad Pawar, grew in Punjab, hammered the Left, aborted Mayawati’s national ambitions and checked Mulayam Singh Yadav. In fact, Mulayam Singh Yadav may face the humiliation of being the unwanted guest at the party for a second time, since the Congress can now afford to sniff at the support he offers. The two regional powers that triumphed, Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik, won because of their individual qualities rather than because of the parties they lead. The Congress and the BJP, between them, will occupy two thirds of the seats in the next Lok Sabha. This is the real game-changer because the next general elections will be a straight contest between these two parties in most of India.
This election was a successful base camp for a much higher ascent. The true Congress summit is the achievement of a single-party majority in the Lok Sabha after the next general election. When this peak was outlined against a still bleak horizon during the Panchmarhi resolution years ago, it seemed a thrust too high, but its moment has come. Just as it did in this election, it will seek to grow at the expense of either ally or enemy. The Congress already had candidates in 14 seats in Tamil Nadu; the next time, it might contest all 39. It will pressurise Sharad Pawar to merge into the parent party or perish. Mamata Banerjee in Bengal might be more resistant, because she knows that she cannot dominate the Congress as much as she can her own party, and total power can be very alluring. But the Congress can live with a variation or two, as long as Mamata does not through self-inflicted wounds revive the Left in Bengal. In any case, there are great pickings elsewhere for the Congress.
It will of course hope to exploit the anti-incumbency factor in the BJP States in the North, particularly if the BJP goes into disarray after its second collapse from high expectations. The last time the Congress had a majority on its own was under Rajiv Gandhi.
The restoration will be in the hands of the son, Rahul Gandhi, who has earned his political legitimacy in this election. Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s role as leader of the party will ebb as the pace of transition speeds up. It is highly likely that at some point there may even be a transition in Government, with Dr Manmohan Singh making way for Rahul Gandhi. Dr Singh has already done more than anyone expected for the party, and he might prefer the comfort of retirement since he has had a serious heart attack.
Will the BJP, suffering from a second unexpected defeat, be able to resurrect its fortunes and face an aggressive Congress? Some things are apparent. It will need to choose the person who can lead the party into the next general election without much delay.
The BJP realised that development and governance were the decisive issues. But although its venerable leader L.K. Advani tried to define the party around modern needs, he was tripped by the rhetoric of those who thought that the country still wanted to hear the war cry of social conflict. The swivel moment of the campaign came when Varun Gandhi, in a flurry of immaturity, revived every toxic memory that Advani wanted the electorate to forget. He compounded the mistake by glorying in its aftermath. BJP leaders realised the danger. The Madhya Pradesh party publicly asked Varun Gandhi to remain in UP, and not bother about the neighbouring State. But the leadership merely distanced itself from the young man, when it should have disowned him.
This is the major lesson for the next leader of the party: India wants peace with prosperity because Indians realise that prosperity cannot come without peace. Narendra Modi may be a powerful and effective leader in Gujarat, but the stamp of one defect will always mar his future. He can be a successful number two at the national level, but will remain a divisive number one.
We have also just witnessed the last election of the older generation. Youth is not just arithmetic; you have to be young in your outlook, and be able to identify with the aspirations of those seeking a profitable place in the international economy, as much as the poor who feel that they are being marginalised in the domestic economy. It is difficult to span both edges of this challenge, but no one said that public life was easy.
Defeat can be a moment of transition, unless you succumb to despair.