This Article is From May 16, 2014

Rahul Rejected Most by India's Youth

(Patrick French is an award-winning historian and political commentator. His books include 'Liberty or Death: India's Journey to Independence and Division', 'The World Is What It Is' and 'India: A Portrait')

At India's first general election in 1951, the Congress won 81 seats in Uttar Pradesh alone. Today, they are reduced to 40-odd seats across the entire nation. Not only is it a stunning reversal for the outfit that has long considered itself India's natural party of government - it is also an upending of many of the truisms surrounding electoral politics. Like the 1977 general election, which saw the Janata Party win over half of the popular vote, 2014's result is a turning-point that reconfigures Indian democracy. Many old assumptions will have to swept aside as a new dispensation forms.

First is the rule that the BJP can win support nationally only by appealing to the baser instincts of voters, and will govern only by forming post-poll alliances with reluctant allies. Neither of these is true any longer. The BJP has an undeniable mandate. Their campaign conspicuously avoided invoking Hindutva as a reason for voting BJP, and focussed instead on governance, development, aspiration and the promise of jobs.

Second is the Congress convention that leadership is unimportant, prime ministerial candidates don't have to be declared and the press will take care of itself. The amateurishness of their media campaign, compared with the slickness of the BJP's operation, had a direct bearing on the number of votes they received: Rahul Gandhi's flat-footed TV interviews inspired nobody to join the cause. Astonishingly, given his third-person oration about how "Rahul Gandhi and millions of youngsters in this country want to change the way the system in this country works," it was the young who turned most defiantly away from his Congress worldview, and towards a 63-year-old leader. Narendra Modi won a sweeping victory partly because he broke with convention and campaigned in presidential style. According to exit polls, it was first-time voters aged 18-22 who backed the BJP more strongly than any other demographic.

Third: even disadvantaged voters no longer regard the dispensing of entitlements as a reason to back a party. They may have no objection to support from the centre, but are more concerned with getting opportunities to make a living on their own terms. Gifts handed out by Delhi - the granting of a right to cheap food, statehood for Telangana, or the promise of jobs through MGNREGA - do not translate into seats in the Lok Sabha. The 2014 election result was much more than an anti-incumbency wave: it was a dismissal of the traditional right to rule, a vote against both entitlement and entitlements. An old kind of politics practiced by India's parties of the left, including those like the Congress which depend on a swathe of junior hereditary politicians, was rejected by voters. Many of the 'Young Turks' have been evicted from office.

Fourth - and this is the most important message of today's historic election - the Indian electorate is more volatile than it has been before. The extent of the swing away from Congress and towards the BJP is greater than any psephologist could have predicted a year ago. Expectations that a region or community will reliably support a particular leader no longer hold true, as Mayawati has discovered to her cost. The speed of this change shows that younger Indians in particular obtain their information and make their choices about which party to support on their own terms, not on the basis of caste and family. This volatility will be both a threat and an opportunity to Narendra Modi's new government: he knows voters now want results, delivery, better infrastructure and jobs more than they want uplifting words and promises.

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