India’s 16th General Election has been unique for many reasons. No previous election has been so relentlessly and exhaustively discussed; no previous election — not even the post-Emergency election of 1977 — has aroused so much passion, so much fury; so much hope and so much fear. And in no previous election has the result been so completely a foregone conclusion. But almost no one thought that the BJP would get as many as 282 seats, a comfortable majority on its own, and the Congress would be reduced to a pathetic rump party with only 45 seats.
These results have left the opponents of the BJP and the secular liberal intelligentsia in shock. But for the country, this is not by any means an unmitigated disaster. Its most obvious blessing is that it will ensure a smooth and swift transition of power to the new government. Had the results been indeterminate; had the BJP found it difficult to form a government, there would have been a collapse of confidence in the Indian economy abroad and a run of dollars out of the country, which would have destroyed whatever chance remained for a quick economic recovery.
That hurdle is decisively behind us. Investors, both domestic and foreign, have been quick to perceive this. That accounts for the 1,500-point rise in the Sensex since the beginning of the current week, and the additional 800-point rise on 16 May. A billion dollars of foreign institutional investment had propelled the pre-election rise. Today, Indian investors, too, who had long shunned the equity markets, have begun to come back to it.
But it would be self-deluding to believe that with the election over, and a stable new government in place, we can go back to business as usual. India has entered a new and uncharted phase in the development of its democracy. The first phase of development — single-party dominance by the Congress — was replaced by coalition rule in 1989. Most political pundits had predicted that this would fatally weaken the Centre and make India exceedingly difficult to govern. They were proved wrong. As a book being released in the US in the coming weeks, Why India Matters, points out, coalition governments took more hard decisions and propelled India much further up the radar screen of foreign governments than the Congress had been able to do in the past two decades of single-party dominance.
But coalition democracy was built around two central poles — the Congress and the BJP — and the Congress pole has now collapsed. Whether we like it or not, therefore, we are returning to another phase of near-single-party dominance with no conceivable combination of parties to form a viable Opposition and put a brake upon its actions. And this single party — the BJP — is not the benign Congress of yesteryear. Not only does it espouse a radically different ideology from the Congress but it has little in common even with the BJP of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani.
The leaders of today’s BJP are not from the Metropolis but the Mofussil. They are products of an internal convulsion within the BJP after its defeat in the 2004 General Election, which saw the exodus of Vajpayee, Advani and virtually all the urbane and seasoned leaders whom the public recognised and respected a decade ago. Today, most of Narendra Modi’s core team are state leaders who have no idea how different, and how difficult, governing a nation of 1.27 billion people can be. They will have to come to grips with its bewildering diversity. They will have to learn, as Emperor Ashoka learned when he created a religious police to enforce his edicts and fatally weakened the Mauryan empire; as the Mughals understood from the very start, and as the British learned in 1857 after they tried to ride roughshod over Hindu and Muslim customs and beliefs that India can only stay united if its rulers accept and respect its cultural diversity and religious plurality.
Vajpayee had tried to hammer this into his party and the RSS through a succession of four annual new years’ day ‘musings’. Had the NDA won the 2004 General Election, he would have completed his task. But the NDA’s defeat became the springboard for a wholesale rejection not only of his closest colleagues in the BJP, but also of the philosophy of tolerance and respect for diversity that he had tried to instil into the Sangh Parivar.
There is reassuring evidence that Modi, like Vajpayee before him, has devoted a good deal of thought to this challenge, and has come to similar conclusions. As long ago as at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in 2007, he had insisted that Hindutva does not mean cultural, let alone religious monolithism but its opposite — a respect for India’s religious pluralism and cultural diversity. He has not made a single anti-Muslim statement throughout his campaign, and has rebuked those who have. But like Vajpayee, when the NDA first came to power in 1998, he too will have to find a way of making the Sangh Parivar accept this definition.
Modi’s task, however, will be far harder than the one that Vajpayee faced a decade ago. For India is now in the dangerous middle stage of capitalist development that Europe passed through in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is the stage at which a relatively new, and financially insecure, propertied class tries to tame the growing class conflict by diverting the attention of the have-nots towards convenient scapegoats on whom they can pin the blame for their misfortunes. Europe chose Jews to be the scapegoats. The result was a rising, increasingly virulent, anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust.
In India, extremists in the Sangh Parivar have elected Muslims to be the scapegoats. If Modi does not rein them in, India will, literally, have no future. For India is a world of minorities, in which the Muslims are only the largest. An attempt to impose cultural homogeneity upon them will lead to its disintegration.
The BJP’s absolute majority and the decimation of not only the Congress but all the caste-based regional parties of north India, has removed most of the natural checks to cultural authoritarianism within our democracy. However, absolute majority has created one silver lining: Absolute power brings with it absolute responsibility. For the past five years, the BJP has played the role of a spoiler in India politics, constantly stoking religious and cultural animosities, disrupting the functioning of Parliament and ensuring that an already weak Congress is able to do nothing. Absolute majority has put an unambiguous price upon that kind of irresponsibility. That road is now, therefore, a costly one for the party to travel. One can only hope that its leaders will realise this before they have had the time to do further damage to India’s social fabric.
The Congress has only itself to blame for its rout, for in the past six years, it has given the country the worst government it has ever had. The list of its mistakes, and of the opportunities it has missed, is too long to accommodate in this essay, but one stands out above all others, for it became the launch pad of Modi’s rise and the BJP’s victory. This was the complete dog’s dinner it made of the economy.
In the past four years, GDP growth has halved from 8.4 percent (2009-10). Industrial growth has collapsed spectacularly — a 16.4 percent drop from 14.5 percent in October 2009 and March 2010, to minus 1.9 percent in January to March 2014.
This has devastated the economy. The construction industry is moribund: the skyline of Gurgaon and Noida in the National Capital Region is pockmarked by the silhouettes of half-completed skyscrapers. The growth of real fixed investment has fallen by 80 percent from the level reached in 2010-11. There has not been a single large initial public offering (IPO) of shares by a private company for an industrial or infrastructure project since January 2011, and more than 200 blue-chip companies that had borrowed heavily, or issued convertible debentures abroad, are staring at debt default, and consequently financial ruin, in the face because of the collapse of their share prices and the 40 percent devaluation of the rupee in the past five years.
Within the country, tens of thousands of small companies have gone quietly bankrupt, with no one even bothering to keep score. Data on employment collected by the National Sample Survey and the Ministry of Industry suggest that at least 40 million job-seekers have lost, or failed to find, jobs and have been deprived of a future.
Had the collapse been caused by forces beyond the government’s control, there would have been misery but not the level of anger that they have shown at the polls in the past five months. This anger has been fed by the suspicion, which has hardened into conviction, that the government’s faulty policies were responsible.
While they may not have understood precisely what the UPA did wrong, they have not believed its repeated assertion that the economic collapse had been caused solely by the global recession. If this was true, they have wondered, how did industrial growth bounce back in July 2009 within less than a year of the start of the recession when the global recession was at its peak?
To industrialists, shopkeepers and workers in the unorganised sector, if not to Manmohan Singh’s legion of economists, the mistake has been obvious for three years. His government became obsessed with fighting inflation in order to retain its popularity, and did not realise that unlike the inflation of 1993-95 and all previous bouts of inflation in India, the inflation that began in the summer of 2006 was not driven by an excess demand but by global and local shortages of supply. From January 2007, therefore, it began applying the wrong remedy. It kept raising interest rates and cutting down money supply to lower demand when the cause of the price rise lay in a relentless rise in global commodity prices fuelled by China’s voracious demand, by freakish weather conditions and limitless exports of vegetables and fruits regardless of what that did to domestic prices.
Not only did the government start raising interest rates as far back as January 2007, but it persisted in doing so for seven years in the face of unequivocal evidence that these had absolutely no effect on the cost of living. Instead of giving price stability and economic growth, all that the Manmohan Singh government gave the people was stagflation and despair. Untramelled power was therefore the Congress’ gift to the BJP, perhaps the last gift that it will ever be in a position to give.
Indian politics has entered uncharted waters, but these are not as unfriendly as many secular and liberal intellectuals believe. As of 7 pm on 16 May, with the counting almost over, the Congress’ share of the vote had fallen by almost 10 percent to 19.8 percent. This is huge and probably spells the end of the Congress as an all-India party. But 19.8 percent is 1.4 percent more than the BJP got in 2009. So, the Congress is down but not necessarily out. Whether it will continue to decline will depend on its capacity to stay together in defeat and to realise that the slavish sycophancy that it fostered within itself by clinging to the so-called Gandhi-Nehru charisma has outlived its purpose and become a millstone around its neck.
Second and more important, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) may have got only 2.2 percent of the national vote but for the poor and underprivileged, it has opened the gates to an empowered future. Not only has it won four seats in Punjab, but starting with nothing in a totally alien town, Arvind Kejriwal won 36 percent of the vote in Varanasi. And although it didn’t win in Delhi, it retained 33 percent of the vote.
Indeed, had the regional and caste-based parties known any history, and realised the danger that the combination of prolonged economic distress and a powerful orator promising immediate economic relief could pose to them, and had AAP got out of its nihilistic mood, understood the reasons for its sudden rise in Delhi, and planned its electoral campaign around a national platform of reforms that would empower the have-nots, the result of this election would have been far more balanced.
The Mayawatis, Mamatas and Mulayams of the world may not have got the message before, but it is difficult to believe that they have not got it now. This is that the days of fighting national elections on the basis of caste, creed and community are rapidly coming to a close. A Yadav or Kurmi or Dalit vote is not a party’s entitlement. It has to be earned.
Throughout the electoral campaign, Arvind Kejriwal and Narendra Modi had one thing in common — neither of them once appealed to the voter to ‘caste’ his or her ballot for anything other than performance and justice. Therein lies our hope for the future.