So what did it mean, this election just completed? Five days on, just before Manmohan Singh is sworn in for his second term, some thoughts:
* Is this the end of the era of coalition governments?
A resounding no. The Congress and the UPA improved their haul of seats, sure. But the Congress alone got only 206 seats, the UPA 266. Both short of the required 272 for a majority. We're a long way from the days of 400-seat Congress majorities. Even going by vote-share, the Congress is just short of 29%. Over two-thirds of the electorate voted against the Congress.
That last, of course, continues the trend we've had since Independence: in every election, a majority of the electorate has voted against the Congress.
The Congress is emerging from the nadir of 1999, yes. But I suspect we'll see many more years of coalition governments.
* Was it a vote against the "Left"?
At best, a hesitant nod of the head. If by "Left", we mean the parties that have the word "communist" in their names, yes, they lost plenty of seats.
But if we mean instead the ideology of the left, I'm not so sure. After all, in West Bengal it is the ruling CPM that has worked hard to attract big business and capital. It is Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool that has found new popularity in being the voice of the small farmer and the near-mythical "common man". (Case in point, Nandigram. Say no more). And Mamata, with the seats she won, is now an important part of the UPA.
* Was it a vote against regionalism?
A hesitant thumbs-down. Yes, such regional parties as the Shiv Sena and the AIADMK lost in their heartlands (and what a good thing that is).
But consider then the performance of such other regional strongmen as Chamling in Sikkim, Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Naveen Patnaik in Orissa, and Karunanidhi in TN. Or Mamata herself, in WB. None of them have any presence outside their states.
Who, then, is sounding the bells of doom for regional parties, and why?
* Was it a vote against "communalism" and for "secularism"?
At best, a hesitant thumbs-up. The BJP lost seats for the second election running, the Congress won seats for the second election running. But does BJP vs Congress equate nicely to communalism vs secularism? Not in my book, and in many ways.
One example: One Congress winner in Bombay used to be in the Shiv Sena. Another Congress winner in Bombay is named in the Srikrishna report in connection with a ghastly murder. What's communalism and what's secularism in politics, I'd like to know.
I think the vote can be interpreted -- if the BJP is so inclined -- as a signal that "Hindutva", as the BJP has articulated it, does not appeal to most Indians. Time for some introspection on what that means. If the BJP is so inclined, of course.
* Was it a vote for good governance and stability?
A qualified yes. I don't believe Manmohan Singh's government gave us unstinted good governance over the last five years (though it was a huge improvement over its predecessor). In my state, I believe Vilasrao Deshmukh's Congress/NCP government was, at best, a non-performing nonentity. After last November's attacks, it was excoriated, and rightly so, for its non-governance.
Yet the Congress has won more seats than 2004 both nationally and in Maharashtra. So what governance were voters voting for?
Again, the signs are in the regional results. Naveen Patnaik and Nitish Kumar have, from all accounts, given their respective states a better, cleaner and more responsive administration than they have seen for years. Voters there recognized this and rewarded their parties. One the other hand, Mayawati has given UP not much more than a huge Lucknow memorial to her own ego, complete with rows of stone elephants. Voters there recognized this and punished her party (though even that punishment was a qualified one, see below).
Nationally, I think this was a vote for the minimal prospect of a stable government under a clean man. I also think it was a vote against the much worse prospect of a much worse government by any of the other contenders (BJP, BSP, etc).
* Was this the coming of age of one Rahul Gandhi?
Well, yes and no. Sure, he scripted something of a revival for the Congress in UP. It's been years since the Congress was a player in UP politics, and this may be where that turns around. But let's remember that the party still came in only third in vote-share, well behind the BSP and the SP in that order.
In UP, Rahul Gandhi showed that while there are enough people who try to write him off as a nincompoop newcomer, he has a nose for politics. He will no longer be so easy to write off. This is no baba in the political woods.
But does that qualify him to be PM? Not for me. I want more from a PM: a greater breadth of knowledge about the world, a vision for this country, things like that. Maybe Rahul Gandhi will grow into that kind of leader. For now, he remains what he is: one more Congress MP, that's all.
And on that note, good luck to Manmohan Singh and his government.