The great unwashed have spoken -- not on their cell phones but with their votes.
The sock they delivered in the face of the BJP-led NDA government will burn for a long time. Even the day before the first results were announced logging out the Cyberabad King Chandrababu Naidu from his e-life, the conventional wisdom in Delhi was that the NDA will scrape through. So seductive was the self-perpetuating myth of Shining India that the punditry circuit had simply switched off the other India. The uncharitable called it the "whining India" and the somewhat sympathetic called it the "pining India."
The BJP thought peace with Pakistan will take care of the shame of Gujarat. Not so, said the Muslims in India. The party apparatchiks thought Narendra Modi and his bloody legacy will be washed away by Atalji’s skillful politicking. Not so, said the Muslims. It appears the Congress gained from Vajpayee’s dissembling and late attempts to make it right. A Pakistani academic friend called this weekend to "congratulate" me on the people’s verdict, marveling that the voters had thrown out a coalition whose victory was seen as a foregone conclusion just a few weeks ago. He went on to say that an exercise such as this was the stuff of dreams in Pakistan.
I was in India for a few days just as the last phase of voting ended and the dust settled from the millions of feet marching to the voting booths. There was an air of nervousness about the results with talk of a hung parliament but no one was betting on the Congress Party. Well-informed friends talked of how Vajpayee had outflanked the extremist fringe in his party, performed the miracle of sidelining LK Advani, courted the Muslims, made real progress with Pakistan, moved closer to the United States and even read the tea leaves in China. At home he was riding high on a robust economy, the "feel good" factor and his charisma. Not much ink was wasted on the prospect of Sonia Gandhi becoming prime minister save by a random columnist of a Delhi paper who regularly froths at the idea, unable to digest it. They thought Rahul and Priyanka were cute but no match for the battle-scarred stalwarts of the BJP. Very few realized the limited nature of the BJP’s reach, the local factors of governance and misrule that dominated millions of lives. Then there were others who simply but fervently hoped that this arrogant bunch would somehow disappear. But they didn’t really believe the BJP would actually lose.
The verdict is good for India because it will revive the Congress Party from its shavasana position. It will breathe life back into the party that many still see as lesser of the two evils. The BJP came in promising clean government and efficiency but corruption was in its soul. One of the young Turks was moved as minister after he used the timing of government decisions to make money on the stock market. He was so blatant with his scheming that he became an embarrassment even for the brazen BJP. When Tehelka exposed the top leadership, the Vajpayee government reacted by shutting down the organization, blocking all avenues of funding and slapping cases against the journalists instead of cleaning house. It was a shameful chapter.
When the Muslims in Gujarat were massacred, the BJP talked of action and reaction. It watched gleefully as Ahemdabad became a permanently divided city with a "border" as tense as the Indo-Pak border. Those who protested against the bloody dance were denounced as pseudo secularists and worse. The Muslims of Gujarat were isolated, robbed of their livelihood and consigned to a corner. The soul of India was under siege, the idea of India blood-stained.
No, the Congress Party is not saintly and its hands are dirty with the many communal riots of the past. But if the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 were allowed to go on for four days by Rajiv Gandhi before he ordered the army to intervene on the streets of Delhi, the violence in Gujarat broke all previous records. But Gujarat wasn’t an issue this election season. The Congress didn’t raise it with the intensity it should have or could have because of its insecurities about its own shady past.
Washington is and will be nervous for a while at the regime change in New Delhi not merely because of the obvious lessons it contains for the Bush crowd but because of what it means for the geo-politics of the region. The Americans worry if the new government would be as amenable to their presence next door. They wonder if the Congress foreign policy gurus will adopt a more strident stance on Iraq and Israel and go further in befriending Iran. The Indian markets are jittery and it could be some time before stability returns. My guess is that not much business will be transacted this year between the two countries. As India comes out of election mode and a new government takes over, it will be time for the Americans to get busy with their democratic exercise. They too may deliver a shock and punish the incumbent.