An Election of Hope
Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 16 May, 2014
Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar. All Rights Reserved.
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The largest democratic exercise in the world, the Indian general elections of 2014, to elect representatives to the Lower House of Parliament, the Lok Sabha, ended on May 12, 2014, after a long, 5-week process, involving 9 phases, with 66.38% out of a total of 814.5 million voters claiming their right to a free and fair vote.
Today the results of this election have been declared, and the verdict is in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which has unseated the incumbent for the last two elections, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), in what appears to be a massive mandate for the NDA. Counting is still in progress, but it appears that the BJP will have enough seats for a complete majority in parliament on its own, and a comfortable majority along with its allies in the NDA.
A Presidential Election
But, considering the way the election was fought, it would probably be better to say that the verdict was in favour of Mr. Narendra Modi, the PM-designate of the NDA, over Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, the President of the Congress Party and chairperson of the UPA, and Mr. Rahul Gandhi, the Vice-President of the Congress Party and Mrs. Sonia Gandhi’s son. India has a Parliamentary system, but if ever a Parliamentary election could be fought on the lines of a Presidential election, then India’s 2014 election showed how it could be done.
Indians are a tired lot today, but most are happily exhausted after learning of the results. The exhaustion is because of the length of the polling – over 5 weeks – the intensity of the campaign, and people’s anxiety to know the results. The happiness is because the candidate of hope won.
Yes, We Can
This is India’s Obama moment. Just as U.S. President Barack Obama won his historic 2008 election in the USA on the slogan, “Yes, we can,” Narendra Modi sold India a message of hope – hope for a better life, more and better jobs, a greater status in the world, the leap to great power status that Indians have wanted for a long time – these have been the themes that Mr. Modi has run for election on. Mr. Modi even used Obama’s “Yes, we can” slogan in his campaign.
Why Modi Won
There are many reasons why Mr. Modi won this elections – and against strong headwinds, too. First, he sent out the right message that resonated with a young India – 65% of India is younger than 35. Second, he ran a brilliant campaign, tightly scripted to the finest detail. He knew exactly how to pitch his message to each audience he faced. Third, he made the campaign a Presidential campaign, which contrasted him as a credible and proven leader as a three-time Chief Minister of Gujarat with the success and achievements of his home state behind him against the failing and corrupt Congress Party at the centre and its leaders, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi and her son Mr. Rahul Gandhi.
Understanding the Pulse of Aspirational India
Mr. Modi’s success lay in the fact that he understood the pulse of the people of India very well. This was a significant achievement given that just three years ago, the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement awoke Indians from their slumber and brought the widespread corruption present in India to the fore as a major problem. The movement led to a political party, the Aam Aadmi Party, which tried to win votes by making corruption the core issue of India.
But Mr. Modi understood that, deep down, Indians were not as concerned about corruption as they were about prosperity. With such a young demographic, India today is highly aspirational, and wants to know how it can get whatever it wants, do whatever it likes, go wherever it pleases. They want freedom from the chains of poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment, and have no patience for those who preach patience.
The Failure of Big-Government Socialism
This is where Mr. Modi’s chief rivals, the Congress Party, the Aam Aadmi Party, as well as the Congress Party’s various “socialist-secular” allies and rivals, such as the Samajwadi Party, the Janata Dal (United), the Bahujan Samaj Party, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, failed to understand the pulse of the nation. The Congress Party, in the last 5 years, has moved very much to the left of centre, with big-government socialist policies to eliminate poverty, hunger, and illiteracy. What they did not realize is that people had become wise to the failure of big government. It is well-known in India that most of the funds invested in big government schemes are stolen by politicians and bureaucrats, and very little trickles down to the people.
Additionally, in the earlier days of big government in India, such as the days of Mrs. Gandhi’s 1970s, the government was the dominant employer in the country. Since the economic liberalization that began in the early 1990s, that picture has changed very significantly, with private industry being seen as the status symbol of the youth. In particular, the booming software industry in India brought prosperity and disposable income to a lot of young Indians, and showed other Indians that they were not doomed to a life of misery – that they, too, could live well, given the opportunities.
Poor people today are tired of being given handouts for their poverty. They want job opportunities so that they too can have well-paying jobs like the software engineers they see around them; education to ensure they can compete in a global marketplace; and sufficient incomes from real jobs so that they can buy their food themselves rather than rely on a government program to feed them.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in the state assembly elections of 2013. The Congress Party was campaigning on its big socialist programs, such as the Food Security Bill, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, and the Right to Education – and was soundly beaten in all the major state elections held. The people had rejected their message.
The Failure of the Aam Aadmi Party
The AAP also failed by constantly harping on corruption as the only real issue in India. More dangerously, they started ranting against prominent Indian industrialists, accusing them all of corruption, and proposing greater government control of industrial sectors in the country. This threatened to derail the success story of private industry in India which really boomed in the post-1991 years.
The failure of the AAP is that it did not give anyone anything to hope for. Their message was purely cynical – that everyone was a crook; but they didn’t give you a vision of a better life. At best they could promise you an average life – as most socialists do. And people were scared by their anti-industry message that threatened to take India back to the protectionist days of the 1970s. For a young India that latched its aspirations to the presence of big corporations, both home-grown (like Infosys or TCS) and foreign (like Accenture), this was dangerous and scary.
Mr. Modi took the exact opposite tack of both the Congress Party, the AAP, and most other Indian parties, by preaching a message of hope – by telling Indians that they could get the jobs, the homes, the education, the health care, and the luxuries that they craved - that it was not necessary to limit those to just the few at the top.
He told them he could help them get those by developing India to become a superpower, a “Vishwa-guru” (world-teacher) as he put it, by pursuing policies of lean government, good governance, and transparency, they way he had done in Gujarat, where he has presided over 13 years of a booming economy.
Negative Campaigning and 2002
The Congress Party also was mired in corruption scams and a sinking economy. In the last fiscal year, the GDP growth rate was below 5%, as opposed to the glory days when India had a near-10% growth rate.
With nothing positive to sell, the UPA government ran an almost exclusively negative campaign against Mr. Modi, focusing almost entirely on the 2002 riots in Gujarat, Modi’s state, where more than 1000 people were killed in religious riots in 2002. They also vigorously pursued the judicial route to try to prove that Mr. Modi was directly responsible for the killings, but in a legal process spanning 10 years, a Special Investigative Team appointed by the Indian Supreme Court concluded that there was no definite evidence to show that Mr. Modi was guilty of participation in or direction of the riots.
With nothing concrete against Mr. Modi, the people began to tire of the unending investigation against Mr. Modi, and were more interested in what he had to offer them. Young India had tasted prosperity because of liberalization; they had also seen prosperity vanish because of bad economics and a sharp tilt to the left by the UPA government; and so the choice to them was clear.
The Aam Aadmi Party, too, had nothing to sell to young India except to say that if they elected Modi, there would be an epidemic of crony capitalism, and Ambani and Adani and other industrialists would rake in the money. What they didn’t understand was that young Indians were more interested in how they could make money, not how to prevent others from making money.
Underestimating the People of India
One of the sidelights of this election has been the spate of articles by self-styled liberals, both within India and abroad, and both within mainstream media and independent bloggers, in lecturing and talking down to the people of India, exhorting them not to vote for Narendra Modi, cautioning them about the overblown dangers of a Fascist future if they voted for Mr. Modi. These critics and sceptics do not realize they are insulting the intelligence and character of the people of India, by suggesting that they have little ability to discriminate and judge fairly, and will blindly elect a Fascist to office, by suggesting that they will be blind if atrocities are perpetrated on minorities in India, that India – at least the India that votes a Modi into power – is a bunch of fanatics and savages who cannot take mature decisions on fair treatment of minorities without heeding advice from these wiser-than-thou intellectuals. The people of India have rejected thoroughly the gratuitous advice of these critics and self-styled intellectuals by electing Mr. Modi.
What is also clear is that most of these critics have failed to both feel the true pulse of India and failed to understand India’s frustration with corrupt socialists who have ruined India and have severely harmed their future, and are looking for change and a fresh, new way of looking at India’s future. For these critics, life begins and ends with the 2002 Gujarat riots; India, however, has moved beyond 2002, and is eager to move into a bright future as a 21st century superpower, and they hope Modi will be the driver of the train that will take them there.
The Road Ahead
The 2014 elections have decisively changed the political landscape of India. The Congress Party has been routed thoroughly and Mr. Rahul Gandhi’s reputation has taken a beating from which it will likely never recover. From the dynastic point of view, the party might rally around his sister Priyanka, for the Congress party has always been about the Nehru-Gandhi family.
The Left has also been decimated; however, in real terms there still is a Left grouping in Indian politics. The Aam Aadmi Party is the new Left party for this millennium, and the Congress, of course, has moved so far to the left that it, too, will now qualify as a Leftist Party. So the traditional space that has been occupied by the CPI and the CPM will now be occupied by the AAP and the Congress. In addition, although Mamata Banerjee and the TMC are said to have “defeated the Left,” their own policies are not too far away from that of the party they vanquished. So a combination of the Congress, the AAP, and the TMC will serve admirably as a replacement for the rabble-rousing Left parties of the outgoing 15th Lok Sabha.
The BJP is in power and, if it plays its cards right, is likely to be in power for a long time, considerably more than just one term. Mr. Modi will bear the weight of great expectations. People expect him to set the economy right; raise India to world-leader status (“Vishwa-guru” – his own words); transform India into Japan with bullet trains dotting the landscape; make Indian highways look like Singapore’s; improve agriculture by orders of magnitude, as he has claimed to have done in Gujarat; bring 24-hour electricity to every home in every village, town, and city; get a job for every person in the country; provide every home in rural India with a toilet; provide drinking water to every Indian in his or her home; and remove red tape from India’s infamous bureaucracy, to name just a few. Some of these expectations may be a bit too high for even Modi to achieve, but as one businessman was quoted as saying in another article I recently read, the car is currently stuck, and if Modi can at least get it started, put it in first gear, that will be a great start; and if he can put it in second gear, that will be fantastic. But people are quite impatient and will expect to see signs that this is not business as usual within the first six months.
As important as setting the tone of his administration as one of efficiency and prosperity is of setting a tone of what the BJP calls “sarva-dharma-sama-bhava” – an attitude of equality towards all religions – and to which one could add – an equal attitude towards people of any disposition. This, after all, is the main issue on which critics have lambasted Mr. Modi and held him unfit to hold the highest office. It is also no secret that Muslims probably overwhelmingly voted against Mr. Modi in this election.
Narendra Modi convinced a majority of voting Indians that true inclusive growth means a state in which the poorest Muslim will have the same opportunities for growth as the richest Hindu if development is the focus of the state. As he never tired of saying, “whatever I have done in Gujarat is for six crore Gujaratis – not for Hindus or Muslims.”
If Mr. Modi can complete a full 5-year term with no significant measure of discrimination against minorities of any stripe, particularly against the Muslim minority, he will have transformed campaign slogans into reality by proving that the true measure of secularism is not quotas and appeasement, but offering everyone an equal shot at prosperity in a new “idea of India.”
This election has been historic in more ways than one – and one of the most important characteristics that distinguished this election from all those before it in Indian political history is that this election was the first one fought on two competing economic visions: the Congress’ vision, which envisions opportunities in India as a fixed-size cake, and so whose prescriptions involve redistributing the cake more equitably so that everyone can live at the same level of misery; and the Modi vision, which envisions the cake not as a static one, but as an ever-growing cake which will allow more and more people to partake of its benefits as time progresses, so that prosperity is accessible to all.
India has made it clear which vision it favours.