There are moments in the life of nations that are harbingers of deep changes। The Congress has achieved what even so many of its friends thought was unthinkable: not just a return to power, but a return with such aplomb. No amount of psephological quibbling can take away from this achievement. They put a lie to the proposition that this was not a national election, but a sum of state elections. The swing towards them across large parts of the country is too significant to be dismissed as a conjuncture of lots of local factors. But this is also a moment where the nation is also entitled to some degree of self-congratulation. Small exceptions apart, this election represents a big defeat for the politics of opportunism, obfuscation and obscurantism. Those political forces that thought that mere political bargaining with others was a substitute for an electoral strategy have lost. Instead a message has been sent out, loud and clear, that playing spoiler, switching sides in order to pre-empt the people’s mandate, changing positions at the last minute are simply not on. Elections are fundamentally about comparative credibility, and those who were foolish enough to assume that mere words could hoodwink electorates have been cut to size. A large number of parties have been punished for this reason and rightly so.
This election is also an indicator that the era of votebank politics as we have known it is over. Parties that placed undue confidence in the fact that they had secure vote-bases amongst particular political groups have been given a severe blow. For instance, Mayawati made the same mistake Lalu made in Bihar. She took the Dalit vote so much for granted that she felt even less compelled to deliver. She has not yet recognised that a functioning state, freed from the local political economy of extortion and violence, will be to her benefit in the long run. Lalu’s constituents gave him 15 years; Mayawati’s will give her even less। The Congress did extraordinarily well to step into the breach. The Muslim vote will show a similar trend; here is a group that also feels it now has choices, and this is a healthy sign for Indian politics. It is too soon to say that caste and identity have become irrelevant for politics. They may seem so because the policy agendas that came out of that politics are now deeply entrenched; yet its logic is also involuting, creating new coalitions as in Bihar. It is inevitable that there will be a search for new paradigms. But the post-Mandal age of identity votebanks is over.