Polls herald the rise of aspirational India

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The charismatic Narendra Modi is the new prime minister. The BJP tally of 282 seats makes this the first majority government since 1984 (when the Congress under a very young Rajiv Gandhi, riding the sympathy wave after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, won 415 seats). The Congress lost 162 seats from the 2009 General Election, while the BJP gained 166. The BJP came close to winning almost double the seats just in Uttar Pradesh (71) of the total national tally of the Congress (44). Modi’s journey from the humble origins of a backward-caste chaiwallah to the prime ministership of over a billion people is no less stirring than Barack Obama’s story, but with rather more substantial executive experience already behind him.

The voters repudiated the decade-long Congress record of governmental drift, policy paralysis, maha-scams, stalled economic prospects and worsening human development indicators. Modi won by convincing voters that India deserves and can do better — remember the hope and excitement of “Yes we can”? — with decisive political leadership and firm policy direction.

They rejected the stale, populist and patronising politics of a corrupt Congress coterie around a cocooned first family. No to the ma-beta sarkar and Congress parivar, yes to Abki baar Modi sarkar. The cultural-intellectual elite fears the inner demons of his hidden communalism; Indians hope his victory brings development, growth, jobs, public probity and administrative competence. The outcome could prove transformational for Indian politics, not because there is a majority government for the first time in 30 years, but because it could herald a fundamental realignment of the social bases of political power, the passing of the old politics of patronage and grievance, and the rise of a new aspirational class as the face of new India.

The Election Logistics
The most striking feature about India’s polls is their sheer scale. India’s electoral process and the institutional strengths underpinning it deserve fulsome tribute. Fraudulent practices are not unknown, but do not affect the overall outcomes. India voted in nine phases from 7 April to 12 May to elect 543 members of the 16th Lok Sabha. The results were known on the day that counting began on 16 May. A simple, inexpensive but effective electronic voting machine (EVM) made in, for and by India works wondrously well: no allegations of the polls having been stolen, a la Kenya, Zimbabwe, Iran, Thailand, even the US in 2000.

The statistics are simply staggering. At 814 million (an increase of 100 million since 2009!), the Indian electorate is larger than the entire population of any country in the world save China. It is more than double the total US population, the world’s second-largest democracy. To put this in perspective: Australia’s (and Canada’s) total population is just a rounding error in comparison to India’s. The number of polling stations was 913,000; there were more than a million EVMs staffed by more than 4 million election personnel; and security was overseen by more than 2 million police officers. The government spent an estimated Rs 3,426 crore on the General Election; the total expenditure, including campaign spending by the candidates, was over Rs 30,000 crore. With a 66.4 percent turnout, the highest recorded in Indian history, the number of votes cast was 540 million. The record turnout reflected both the grim determination to “throw the bastards out”, the excitement of the Modi factor that energised the normally lethargic and apathetic electorate, and a more politically engaged cohort of voters.

Once again, the independent Election Commission (EC) performed stupendously in organising and conducting the largest electoral exercise in human history. That said, in future, the EC could do better on three counts. First, the process was far too long and drawn-out. It seemed to go on interminably and etiquette, manners and civility visibly deteriorated as tempers began to fray. Granted, the logistics are daunting in Indian conditions. It still should be compressed into a tighter timeframe. Second, the EC should focus on its core business and be much more relaxed about the hurly-burly of campaign politics and rhetoric. Rahul Gandhi entering and being photographed in a booth was clearly inadvertent and not a big deal; the EC made the right call on that. It should have done the same with the party symbols that were visible when Modi, and his Congress opponent in Varanasi, Ajay Rai, were accosted by mediapersons. On the scale of violations of the code of conduct, these are minor infractions that should be well below the EC’s radar as a body of technocrats. Leave it to the good sense of the voters.

But third, the EC did err in not being seen to be scrupulously fair and evenhanded. Prohibiting Modi from holding a rally in his own constituency, and then compounding this by permitting Rahul to do so in adjacent areas, was attacked for perceptions of partisanship. The ec is a constitutional body. It is the custodian of India’s exercise in democracy. Its authority resides as much in its reputation for integrity and impartiality as in its constitutional powers. Its authority would be diluted and erode over time if its fairness is called into question and aggrieved parties seek court injunctions against its directives. It must be fair and be seen to be fair. For the first time in its illustrious history, it failed that test this year, albeit only in a couple of instances.

The Congress
For the sake of the health, quality and effectiveness of India’s democracy, the Congress party needs to recoup and regenerate. This will be difficult without cutting the umbilical cord with the Gandhi family. The sycophants are already circling the Rahul wagon. The dramatic collapse of vote (by one-third to under 20 percent) and seats (by four-fifths to less than half its previous worst tally of 114) reflected poorly on the collective leadership of the party, insist the flatterers, it cannot possibly be the fault of a mere party vice-president who held no Cabinet post in the defeated government. In this, the party is repeating the errors of its post-2009 victory. In retrospect, the people had liked and respected Manmohan Singh. In voting him back to power with an increased majority, they gave him the mandate to push further on his reformist vision, agenda and programmes.

The Sonia coterie took this amiss. They believed their populist measures were responsible for the improved performance and Manmohan Singh was even more enfettered, being denied the freedom to form his own Cabinet or drive his own policy agenda. Manmohan was serially rebuffed and humiliated. The most notorious instance was when at a press conference, while Manmohan was in the US and about to meet President Barack Obama, Rahul literally tore up an ordinance, to which the party and Cabinet had agreed, to allow convicted MPs to continue in Parliament. Instead of resigning and preserving the last vestige of self-respect, Manmohan elevated loyalty to the Gandhi family above the public insult to his dignity, the damage to the authority of the Prime Minister’s Office, and the national interest in defending the institutional integrity of India’s system of governance. India’s voters retain their affection for Manmohan as a fundamentally decent person but lost respect for him as a political leader and have delivered a comeuppance to those who mistreated him so.

Aam Aadmi Party
Over the past two-three years, India’s urban young in particular have come into the streets in massive numbers, proclaiming they have had enough and are not going to take it any more. Congress ministers confirmed how tone-deaf, disconnected from average citizens, and arrogant inside their own bubbles they really were in ignoring and misreading the political significance of the anti-corruption and good governance mass rallies and protests. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was formed last year to tap into the growing rebellion with a mass base. AAP generated political excitement and turned the Delhi Assembly election last December into a three-cornered contest with the BJP and Congress. Rather unexpectedly, the neophyte party ended up forming the government but proved a one-trick pony with no political or administrative capacity to harness the one-item agenda of fighting corruption into a broader programme of general governance.

Given the opportunity to show what it could do as government, AAP self-destructed on the crossroads of anarchy, vigilantism and racism. Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal seemed more interested in conducting street protests against the Central government and the other parties than in managing the affairs of the government. Law minister Somnath Bharti conducted a vigilante raid against African women that was clearly racist and also an example of vulgar sexism. The police refused his orders, citing the need for proper legal procedures — a notion that proved alien to the minister! AAP defended his actions instead of firing him, confirming it had no idea of the need to limit and not flaunt abuse of power by those in positions of authority.

AAP also went in for populist policies. It had been brought to power by a confluence of two political constituencies: the aspirational class that wanted good governance from the State so they could get on with their work and lives; and the poor who have a sense of entitlement and want State handouts. Water and electricity pricing and distribution policies and the decision to reverse the opening of the retail sector to foreign private enterprise played to the populist gallery. But only at the cost of hard economic logic, including cheaper goods for the consumer, job creation for the poor, foreign investment for economic growth and modernisation of the management of the antiquated retail sector. The combination of vigilante antics, street demonstrations by the Cabinet and anti-market policies thoroughly alienated the aspirational base.

Most importantly, AAP failed the test of political accommodation and negotiation in order to achieve doable deals. Any party and government must be able to prioritise its core interests and values on which there can be no compromise; distinguish these from items on the policy menu that are desirable but not critically essential; and learn to deal on the second set while holding fast to the first. Instead, AAP operated as though all their policies were utterly non-negotiable. When their government collapsed as a result, the public concluded they had behaved in a juvenile fashion unbefitting a party with a serious claim to government; and had indeed run away from the challenge of government. Had AAP shown itself capable of good governance in Delhi, it would have done exceptionally well across the country in the General Election. Instead, its bubble had burst and the voters punished its self-indulgent tantrums. But it has a base and can build on it, provided it eschews histrionics and avoids policy flip-flops.

Beyond these three political forces, while regional parties remain strong and vibrant in most states, other notable features of the election are the sidelining of the purely caste-based parties (Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD in Bihar, Mayawati’s BSP in UP), the decline and irrelevance of the Left Front of communist parties of various shades and hues, and the decline of family inheritor MPs. Unfortunately, however, one-third of the new MPs still come tainted with criminal charges.

The BJP’s Winning Coalition
The 2014 General Election may mark a turning point in the way the fast-growing aspirational class came into its own as a potent political force. This is not the group that has already climbed into middle-class status but the one below: the poor who have ambitions to make it into middle-class ranks. They want and demand the opportunity to improve their lot by dint of their own efforts so they can aspire to a decent job, affordable education and health for their family, and a retired life of basic dignity where pensions and savings hold their real value. The political, economic and social importance of this aspirational class will almost certainly grow in the coming years and decades. If so, 2014 will mark the year when dynastic democracy went into decline and there were even tentative hints of a breach in the handout State. Rather, they want the State to give them the necessary hand up the ladder of success through the provision of public goods like education, health, law and order and infrastructure.

Modi openly mocked two of the family dynasties opposing him. He attacked the ma-beta sarkar in the national capital, New Delhi, and the baap-beta sarkar in the Uttar Pradesh capital, Lucknow. Even Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra came across as an arrogant, petulant, rich and entitled kid, refusing to acknowledge there is a case to be answered about the miracle pace of damaad shri’s assets accumulation. Not to mention the fact that her appearances underlined Rahul’s lacklustre political skills. Modi pointedly emphasised how he had no one before or after him: he had inherited no political dynasty and had no family on whom to bequeath his political fiefdom.

Besides the policy advantages, and the political baggage of criminality and corruption that dogged the Congress party, Modi and the BJP were streets ahead in their organisational and campaign skills and strategy. Modi clocked up more than 300,000 km and addressed almost 450 rallies; the BJP mounted a massive outreach exercise directly to voters; and Modi’s extensive roadshows were buttressed by the intensive use of hologram technology whereby his apparition would appear and disappear like the gods to enthral audiences all over the country.

The Modi Agenda
Modi’s catchy and effective slogan was “MG2”: minimum government, maximum governance. India’s three great institutions of democracy, federalism and secularism have ensured its survival essentially unchanged from the constitutional system established in 1950. An assault on any one of these three would destroy India and imperil its unity and territorial integrity. To that end, Modi must reject efforts by his hardline support base to introduce the Hindutva agenda or otherwise tamper with the basic structure of India’s Constitution, reach out to Muslims, and make the states partners in his development journey. Modi has been voted to power on his promises of development and good governance. If he should pursue a sectarian Hindutva agenda, Modi will rapidly lose the goodwill of the people and run up against mounting institutional points of resistance. His campaign performance suggests that regardless of what his own inner core convictions might be, he knows that the Hindutva agenda is socially divisive and does not enjoy majority Hindu support.

Modi does have space to redefine the social purpose of the State. Political discourse has been corrupted to the point where someone who promises to treat all Indians equally without discrimination and distinction on grounds of caste and religion can be called a vicious bigot, while those who insist on framing public policy based on caste and religious identity are the self-proclaimed standard bearers of progressive secularism. Indians today are more conscious of caste identity than they were at Independence. It would be good if the process could be reversed and public policy be returned to treating all Indians equally, ensuring equality of opportunity and pivoting back from enforcing equality of outcome. In the 2014 General Election, while his opponents tried to divide Indians along caste and religious lines, Modi united people behind his vision of a prosperous, strong and self-confident new India.

India’s weak economic institutions — stifling regulatory norms, barriers to starting and closing businesses, tardy and costly enforcement of property rights, complex and time-consuming dispute resolution procedures — are matched by poor quality of governance in the legal and political institutions and bureaucratic and police structures. The new government’s policy agenda should focus on more market opening reforms (disinvestment of public sector firms, liberalisation of foreign investment rules, financial and banking sector reforms, cutbacks in subsidies); more integration with the international economy (tariff reductions and import liberalisation); and innovations in farming. Reforming the financial sector in particular may be a precondition for other critical reforms. In the process, however, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, India must avoid going from the inherent virtue of socialism as the equal sharing of miseries (the old licence permit raj) to the inherent vice of capitalism as the unequal sharing of blessings (the French economist Thomas Piketty thesis of the returns on capital generally exceeding the productivity gains in the economy to underpin widening inequality: to those who have much already, much more shall be given).

Modi should focus on a five-part agenda in his five-year term: water and sanitation, infrastructure, education (especially for girls), corruption, and administrative reform. The public sector is bloated, parasitical and inefficient. India’s elite civil servants are individually brilliant but the civil services collectively are dysfunctional. The system needs a complete overhaul. India will need at least $500 billion infrastructure investment over five years to fix critically neglected road, rail, air and sea transportation networks, and power grids.

Only a tiny fraction of India’s people is served by safe drinking water and hygienic sanitation facilities. India has the worst health statistics of any country in the world by some margin, with the majority of diseases being water-borne or water-related. Modi’s campaign commitment to build more toilets than temples is strongly backed by internationally compiled statistics. I had earlier written how more than half the world’s population practising open defecation lives in India (almost 600 million). A follow-up report by UNICEF and the WHO, published recently, notes that India has been a laggard in reducing this disease-spreading practice, while Bangladesh and Vietnam have been among the highest reducing countries since 1990. The practice of open defecation correlates very highly with deaths of children under five, under-nutrition, poverty and income inequality. In addition, lack of safe private toilets heightens the vulnerability of girls and women to violence and is an impediment to girls’ education.

Corruption (bribery — paying off an official to do something illegal, and extortion — having to pay an officer to obtain a service that is rightfully due) distorts markets and encourages inefficiency. The biggest cost is political. It would be difficult to exaggerate the revulsion of ordinary people to the ubiquitous and institutionalised venality of public life. Petty corruption is especially endemic at the lower, clerical levels of administration — precisely the point at which the ordinary citizen comes into daily contact with officialdom. It is first and foremost a governance issue — a failure of institutions and stewardship of public life, a lack of capacity to manage social, economic and political affairs by the rules of the game that privilege the public good over private gain, and with the help of effective checks and balances.

Observing the world of higher education from my unique vantage point at the United Nations University for almost a decade, I became increasingly concerned at India’s neglect of what may well be the most precious asset for survival and advancement in a borderless knowledge society. China will pull rapidly ahead on science and technology. There is something rotten in the state of higher education and research when overseas Indians can hold several thousand patents for every one held by an Indian. While China is closing the education gap with the West, India is falling farther behind. China had recognised the crucial importance of creating and retaining a critical mass of high-quality scholars and research institutions, adequately funded and resourced to be able to compete with the world’s best. Indian secondary school students were second from bottom among 73 countries tested in maths, science and English. India’s higher education and research sector is over-regulated, under-funded, and micromanaged by politicians and bureaucrats. Although there are still a few pockets of excellence, the average quality of India’s higher education has been falling steadily behind the world average. In global rankings, India struggles to keep even one university in the world’s top 500, compared to more than 20 of China’s.

Moreover, India lags not just on global but also on Asian benchmarks. In the new 2014 QS University Rankings, no Asian university has managed to break into the global top 20 as yet. The educathree highest-ranked Asian universities this year are the National University of Singapore at 24th, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology at 25th, and the University of Hong Kong at 26th. Only two Indian universities make it into Asia’s top 50: IIT-Delhi at 38th, and IIT-Bombay at 41st. Only one non-IIT — Delhi University — makes it into Asia’s top 100. Even in comparison to the five BRICS, every other country has at least one institution ranked higher than the top-ranked Indian IIT; there is no Indian institution in the top 10, although five IITs make it into the top 20; and Delhi and Calcutta Universities fall just outside the top 50. World champions in all fields at making excuses, Indian institutions hide behind the “explanation” that international ranking metrics and indicators are not suited to India.

Conclusion
The number of serious challenges confronting the country do not diminish: financial crisis, terrorism, Maoist insurgency, an outdated educational system, debilitating poverty, choking infrastructure, climate change, food and water insecurity, and fragile States in the neighbourhood. India will be much better equipped to deal with these challenges with a strong, stable and decisive government pursuing cohesive, market-friendly and socially inclusive policies without any aggressive foreign policy agenda. Surveying the wreckage of nation and democracy-building efforts in countries around it, India still stands out as an oasis of regime stability, democratic legitimacy and economic progress. If Modi can show substantial progress on the above five-point agenda, he will have consolidated and deepened these positive attributes and earned re-election with a solid majority in 2019.

letters@tehelka.com

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