Sunday, May 25, 2014

An Indian Revolutionary What is it about the Modi mandate that provokes such fear of fundamental change?

By Swapan Dasgupta

The excruciatingly long election campaign was bonanza time for speculators, brokers and the media. By contrast, counting day on 16 May, which had promised to be the grand finale for the merchants of uncertainty, turned out to be a roaring anti-climax. Exactly 63 minutes after the first Electronic Voting Machine poured out its data to the tellers, TV channels were in competition to declare that Narendra Modi would be the next Prime Minister of India with a clear majority for the National Democratic Alliance. It took just another hour or so for the even more dramatic announcement: that for the first time since the 1984 electoral verdict, the Indian voter had given a single party a clear majority of seats.
The arithmetic of the 2014 poll proved unexpectedly easy to compute. What the assembled ranks of the punditry found more daunting was to figure out the meaning of the historic mandate. What does Modi’s emphatic victory mean?
That the process of making sense of the mandate has proved to be a long-drawn work-in-progress isn’t entirely surprising. Comprehending the scale and magnitude of Modi’s victory first involved the arduous job of clearing the landscape of its intellectual debris. For the past three years or so, ever since the possibility of projecting the Gujarat Chief Minister as the BJP’s national face first began to be seriously discussed, the presiding deities of academia and media were near-unanimous on one count: the idea of Prime Minister Modi was a laughable absurdity.
Nor did Modi’s conclusive victory in the Gujarat Assembly elections in December 2012 prompt a measure of intellectual contrition. On the contrary, the India hands of the West, the social scientists at home and the English-language editorialists feverishly fed each other’s visceral hatred of the Modi Project. Beginning from the non-negotiable contention that centrist politics is imperative for any all-India appeal to the more recondite dissections of Modi’s incompatibility with the ‘idea of India’, the artillery assault on the perceived icon of the ‘Hindu Right’ was relentless.
First, it was presumed that Modi would find no takers outside Gujarat. Second, it was believed that an alliance of the Nagpur Brahmins and LK Advani would ensure that the BJP kept Modi away from Delhi. Third, it was broadcast that Modi wouldn’t secure RSS backing to be projected as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. Fourth, it was felt that the presence of Modi at the helm would repel existing allies and deter future allies. Fifth, the conviction that the newly-formed Aam Aadmi Party would emerge as a roadblock to both the Congress and BJP became conventional wisdom among editorialists and academics. Finally, the estimated number of MPs it would take Modi to form a half-viable coalition kept climbing upwards—from a BJP tally of 180 (‘Surely he can’t better Vajpayee’s record’) to 240 (a target thought impossible). There were self-serving reports of a ‘160 Club’ in the BJP with a clear anyone-but-Modi agenda.
What is particularly remarkable is that the more Modi cleared each successive hurdle, the more the Modi-haters went into denial. In the final stages of the campaign, when it became apparent that neither a disoriented Congress nor an over-stretched AAP was capable of halting a Modi who had occupied the centrestage of popular discourse, the punditry fell back on the Muslim and caste vote. A dissection of the ground analysis in the final stages of the campaign will reveal that the entire focus was on the creation of a Muslim human shield against Modi. Rather than asking how voters would behave, the thrust was on Muslim tactical voting. The staggering crowds Modi was drawing to his public meetings across India were dismissed as ‘manufactured hype’, the creation of corporate money and a slick publicity machine. The tell- tale signs of a spectacular Modi surge were all there. Yet, the punditry chose to look elsewhere.
The 2014 election was a resounding defeat for the Congress, AAP and the caste-based regional parties. Equally, the outcome amounted to a clear rebuff of those who had assumed for themselves the intellectual monopoly of interpreting India. On 16 May, garbage collectors accumulated a rich haul of tattered reputations and stereotypes of political India.
Just as a ‘wave’ is invariably discovered in hindsight, the future course of events will determine whether the 2014 election was a landmark event when old assumptions are discarded and new orthodoxies established. Rather than concede they misread India, Modi’s liberal and Left critics appear to be still in denial. The BJP victory is being attributed to a low 32 per cent popular vote and the vagaries of the country’s first-past-the-post system that exaggerates majorities. The overwhelming majority of India—an expedient combination of those who didn’t vote for the BJP/NDA and those who didn’t vote at all—it is being pompously asserted by some, haven’t endorsed Modi at all.
This attempt to deflate the euphoria surrounding Modi’s victory stems mainly from the churlish outrage at having been proved wrong. However, there is a deeper meaning. The fraternity of the vanquished are essentially suggesting that there is no mandate for change and that India would prefer to remain undisturbed by an individual who is desperate to carve out an alternative. The statistical jugglery is essentially a plea for the status quo to prevail. Modi, they have in effect implied, should settle down to a routine term at 7 Race Course Road, attend the annual UNGA meetings, inaugurate a few good works and then retire to Ahmedabad at the end of five years—in good time for the country’s natural rulers to resume where they left off. The ripples from a Modi victory, the grandees have pronounced, must leave the depths unmoved.
What is it about the mandate that provokes such fear of fundamental change?
The first is the style of Modi. Unlike the top leaders of the past, his approach is blunt and in-your-face. He may choose the august surroundings of the Central Hall of Parliament to deliver a speech that leaves lumps in the throats of party activists who have persevered since the Jan Sangh days when losing deposits was the norm. But when it comes to the hustings, and when the fire from opposition guns is directed at him, Modi is a pugilist who gives as good as he gets, and more often with compound interest.
Throughout the six month-long campaign he undertook from 15 September 2013 to the final rally in Ballia on 10 May 2014, Modi sought to devastate the opposition. Having restored the importance of the mass rally, Modi sought to inspire the hundreds of thousands who turned up to cheer him, a message that was both inspirational and fiercely combative. To him, parliamentary niceties were best kept for Parliament.
Was the ‘crudeness’ of Modi, therefore, the issue? Was the fear he generated among the la-di-da crowd in the metros and among the intelligentsia that flocked to sign petitions warning against his rise, purely a matter of aesthetics?
Alternatively, was there a subliminal class bias to the fears he aroused? Mani Shankar Aiyar may have overstated the case and scored an avoidable self-goal when he invited Modi to be content with selling tea at the AICC premises. But The Doon School, St Stephen’s and Cambridge alumnus was mirroring a prejudice of the metropolitan elite towards a man who spoke English with a pronounced Gujarati accent. A durbar that had been nurtured on the Anglicised pronunciation of ‘Jawaharlal’ and the old-style RP (Received Pronunciation) of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and now Rahul baba, couldn’t countenance the idea of India being governed by a man with an unmistakably desi accent. In their mind, he was, as a fiercely anti- Modi columnist put it uninhibitedly, going to be India’s first ‘uneducated’ Prime Minister.
To Modi’s credit, he took this show of snobbery head on. The aesthetes may well have exercised control over intellectual capital, but this was a battle that was going to be settled by the numbers game. And in this, Modi’s vernacular populism proved unbeatable. In speech after speech, the BJP leader taunted the repugnance of the durbar towards achaiwala, the son of a man whose father was not even the head of a panchayat and who, to top it all, came from a ‘backward caste’.
The effect of Modi turning class disadvantage on its head was absolutely electrifying. At one stroke, he got ‘backward caste’ voters, Dalit voters and those who resented the sense of entitlement of the Gandhi parivar to pay him heed. He broke the back of the three caste-based parties of the Hindi heartland and got people to transcend identity politics, even if only for one national election. They were presented with a moral choice: to vote or reject one of their very own. Modi brought to the political table the moral authority of the self-made individual. It will now be very difficult for his detractors to counter him with snobbery and social disdain.
What compounds the problem for Modi’s elitist detractors is their belated realisation that the sharpness, aggression and phenomenal energy of the Modi campaign had a definite social sanction. Part of it stemmed, quite naturally, from the sheer scale of anger directed at the UPA Government for its relative non-performance and mismanagement of the economy. But anti-incumbency cannot explain the scale of the positive vote for Modi.
Throughout the campaign, Congress stalwarts recoiled in horror at the sheer intensity of Modi’s attacks on the UPA Government. They mistakenly concluded that a traditionally placid country like India would be averse to ‘lowering’ the tone and tenor of an election campaign to that of a T20 encounter. They failed to take into account that the principal appeal of Modi was to the 100-125 million first-time voters and the 35 per cent or so share of the electorate that was below the age of 35. In his post-election speeches, Modi repeatedly emphasised the fact that for the first time India would have a Prime Minister who was born after Independence. What he could have added is that his victory owed primarily to those who were born after the Emergency, voters for whom Jawaharlal Nehru is a distant historical figure.
The complete breakdown of the Nehruvian consensus in the 2014 election is something the pundits never anticipated. The Congress believed that dollops of State- sponsored welfare schemes and a direct cash transfer arrangement would be the magic wand that would transform political disadvantage into triumph. In reposing their entire faith in monetised paternalism, the Gandhis and their National Advisory Council advisors completely misread the mood. In repeating that “Gujarat isn’t India” to the point of exasperation, the Congress presumed that the neo-middle-class impulses that motivated Gujaratis to support Modi for three consecutive Assembly elections would somehow deter the rest of India, particularly the so-called BIMARU states.
Whether Modi’s faith in the politics of aspiration stemmed from political instinct or was a consequence of focus group surveys is best left to the chroniclers. What is important is that he never wavered from his belief that the key to electoral success lay in selling a dream of a better future.
There were different perceptions of Modi among different social and political groups. For some he was a modern- day Chhatrapati Shivaji who would finally make Hindus come into their own; to others he was the poor boy next door who had made it big in the ugly and cruel world of Delhi, and to still yet others he was the great liberator of the economy from sloth and socialist incompetence. What united these divergent strands was the belief that his victory would usher in the proverbial happy days.
Those who needlessly internalised the great conspiracy theory of a corporate-communalist alliance to capture India were taken aback when Modi told the BJP Parliamentary Party meeting on 20 May that his would be a government for the poor. They assumed that commitment to serving the poor was at odds with the professed commitment to deregulation and entrepreneurship.
In the election campaign, Modi proceeded from a different understanding. To him, what motivated youth voters cutting across classes, castes and region were education (particularly skills), opportunity and the removal of glass ceilings. Add to this his complete and unequivocal endorsement of technology. In these respects, Modi differed significantly from traditional RSS thinking, which tends to be neo-Gandhian.
Indeed, comparisons with Margaret Thatcher are appropriate. Thatcher too sought to effect a social revolution through the creation of an opportunity society. And Thatcher too broke new political ground by securing the endorsement of a large section of those who were earlier associated with the gradualist socialism of the Labour Party. Tony Blair, in fact, had to reinvent the Labour Party completely and embrace the newly-forged Thatcherite consensus to regain support for Labour.
In time to come, it is entirely possible that India’s 2014 General Election will be regarded as a political watershed. If Modi is able to complement his electoral success with a government that unleashes India’s full potential, he will have forged a new Modi consensus that is more in tune with the 21st century. The BJP has not reached saturation point: there are large geographical tracts left to conquer. However, this conquest will only be possible if the BJP is itself reinvented to fit the goals of what may well be described by future historians as the Modi Revolution.
For India, the next decade may turn out to be momentous. And all because one leader dared to challenge orthodoxy, conventional wisdom and social assumptions.

OPEN magazine. May 23, 2014

Durbar to raise India's stature

By Swapan Dasgupta

The UPA Government, it is now grudgingly admitted by its best friends and most avid supporters, suffered grievously on account of its failure to communicate. For nearly three days, or at least until a senior BJP leader stepped in to counter a wave of needless speculation and misconceptions, was in serious danger of allowing Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony on May 26 to be hijacked by those who had their own version of what the change of government meant.

Let us be clear on one point. The objective behind the invitation to leaders of the neighbouring SAARC countries (and to Mauritius) was two-fold. First and most important, the invitation to neighbours was primarily to showcase a stupendous democratic achievement. India has reason to be proud that the world’s largest festival of democracy, involving nearly 700 million voters, was successfully conducted. The election may have been bitterly contested but its outcome, leading to a change of government, was accepted with grace. Yes, there were some notables who seek to shift the goalposts with retrospective effect. But their churlishness tells us more about them than the efficacy of a system that has endured since 1952. India’s bi-partisan commitment to democracy warrants broadcasting to the entire world, and especially the troubled neighbourhood. The Americans celebrate the inauguration of their Presidents. India too is well deserving of a more austere celebration.

In India, the custom is for an auspicious event to be celebrated by not merely the family but with the entire neighbourhood. The logic of the swearing-in follows the same custom: neighbours must also join in.

Secondly, there is an overtly political message that Prime Minister-designate Modi has sought to send both internally and externally. It is that India is witnessing more than a mere shift from the Congress-led UPA to the BJP-led NDA. What is being heralded is a completely new style of politics whose contours will become more and more evident in the coming days. For the moment, Modi is merely setting the first of the many new precedents he will set.

There is a third dimension of Modi’s swearing-in ceremony which is being wilfully understated but is at the same time clearly understood: that India is at the very centre of South Asia. Critics may call it imperial assertion and suggest that this is Modi’s recreation of the Imperial Durbar of 1911 but no one deny that, modified to 21st century realities, the suggestion isn’t entirely untrue. Indeed, the more enlightened among India’s neighbours are mindful that an economic resurgence of India will impact their countries positively. India has always been the elder brother of the region and the successor regime of the mighty British Empire. Unfortunately, overcome by its internal incoherence, the Manmohan Singh Government shied away from the karta’s role and conceded valuable political space to a large eastern neighbour. To reclaim our inheritance will naturally involve building domestic capacity and reinforcing India’s civilizational reach—something that won’t and can’t happen overnight. But at least Modi has issued a clear statement of intent.

It is important to bear in mind that the importance of the swearing-in ceremony is potentially rich in symbolism. However, this is not to suggest that Modi will live up to the journalistic cliché of ‘hitting the ground running’ and use the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan to engage Nawaz Sharif in a discussion on the Siachen heights. Many of India’s diplomatic correspondents and, for that matter, diplomat-politicians, have been terribly underworked in the course of an election campaign where neither foreign policy nor the commodity that passes of as ‘strategic vision’ got even a casual mention. Their irrelevance in the cut-throat world of democracy is, perhaps, lamentable. But that is no reason why they should now proclaim their own relevance by discovering hidden ‘nuanced’ meanings in the invite to SAARC leaders.

Narendra Modi wasn’t elected by the people of India to devote the energies of his government in the thankless and perhaps unrealisable task of rediscovering lost brothers on both sides of the Radcliffe Line. That could well be the agenda of some English language TV channels who were dreading their loss of influence but Indians elected Modi to improve their lives and create more opportunities for Young India. In the cloistered world of Delhi it is often easy to live in a bubble and lose the central political plot. The Vajpayee Government devoted disproportionate time and energy in trying to effect an enduring peace with Pakistan, with disastrous consequences in Kargil.

It is definitely a priority to strive for a tension-free neighbourhood. But expectations in that direction have to be tempered by the realisation that Pakistan must first resolve a larger existential dilemma that confronts it. India can merely wait for its resolution and, at best, do nothing to jeopardise the process. For Modi, economic diplomacy aimed at building domestic capacity must remain at the centre of its foreign policy. If India prospers and becomes an economic power centre, the neighbourhood will automatically benefit. That is something the present regimes in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Nepal understand. Pakistan, unfortunately, is confused about its priorities and its future course. That’s a situation India doesn’t have the capacity to alter.

On Monday, the focus will be on the team that Modi has chosen to help him transform India. The foreign leaders will be there to honour India’s democracy. But they are the embellishments. The real substance will be found elsewhere. 

Sunday Pioneer, May 25, 2014

Friday, May 23, 2014

AFTER THE VERDICT - The aesthetes versus the outlanders

By Swapan Dasgupta

In February 1974, the British general election threw up a strange verdict. The Labour Party secured 301 of the 635 seats in the House of Commons; the incumbent Conservative Party won just four seats less; and the Liberals got 14 seats. In percentage terms, Labour won 47.4 and the Conservatives 46.8. However, in terms of popular votes, the Conservatives secured 11.87 million (37.9 per cent) and Labour polled 11.65 million (37.2 per cent).

Edward Heath, the Conservative leader, was a sore loser and created a minor fuss when the Queen invited Labour’s Harold Wilson to form a government. Heath’s disappointment was understandable. Normally, the first-past-the-post system exaggerates majorities and favours the dominant party. The February 1974 election was a rare case when the more popular choice of the voters was deprived of the largest number of seats.

That was certainly one of the rarest of rare cases and, quite expectedly, resulted in another election in October that year when Wilson coasted to a more manageable majority that endured till 1979. There are many critics of the Westminster system. Some argue for proportional representation, others for the preference vote (as in Australia) and still others for a list system (à la Germany). Yet, it is one of the cardinal tenets of democracy that the legitimacy of any government formed under whichever electoral system is prevalent is not questioned. With the solitary exception of President George W. Bush, who was charged by his naturally intemperate critics of “stealing” the election in 2000 on account of the disputed Florida count, both convention and common sense deems that the winner is declared the winner and the loser(s) occupy the Opposition benches till the battle next time. These are the rules of the game.

Last Friday, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance won an impressive parliamentary majority by securing some 335 seats in the 542-member Lok Sabha. The BJP, polling some 32 per cent of the votes, won a simple majority on its own and the total votes for the National Democratic Alliance candidates was a notch below 40 per cent. The election was important in another respect: the voter turnout rose by nearly 9 per cent to touch the 1984 figure.

Undeniably, the results came as a complete shock to those who had assiduously propagated their contention that Modi was a “fascist” who was “unelectable” because his values offended “the idea of India”. The electorate had an opportunity to hear their views and then vote very differently. The reasons that contributed to the “tsuNaMo” may well be a legitimate subject of future discourse but there is no question that when Modi is sworn in on the evening of May 26 it will be on the strength of a clear and, indeed, unequivocal mandate.

That is why it is astonishing, if not downright offensive, to hear the carping noises of a section of the dispirited intelligentsia (including those with lofty political pedigrees) that Modi’s victory is bereft of both a mandate and legitimacy. Their reasoning is worth considering. Modi, it is being argued, secured less than 50 per cent of the popular vote. Add to the 60 per cent who voted differently (or chose Nota) the 35 per cent who didn’t vote at all, and the pro-Modi forces are reduced to a pathetic minority.

Conceding that statistics can often outdo the best tricks of a P.C. Sorcar, by this logic India has never had a legitimate majority government ever. Neither Jawaharlal Nehru — whose “idea of India” drives a section to blind anti-Modi rage — and Indira Gandhi, nor Rajiv Gandhi, who won the highest majority ever, secured more than 50 per cent of the popular vote. Are they all to be retrospectively illegitimate? Secondly, how can it be presumed that every citizen who either didn’t vote or found their names missing from the electoral rolls were part of the save-India-from-fascism brigade?

The dejected Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo member, Sitaram Yechury, has asked for India to consider moving to proportional representation. The suggestion is worth a debate, considering that in the 1980s some BJP leaders were strong advocates of it. But no amount of statistical skulduggery can deem that a system ought to be changed with retrospective effect. The dissenters have a right to form and take membership of an Electoral Reforms Society, but they have no right to question the validity of a democratic verdict.

However, those who cannot countenance the humiliation of the Congress and the outright rejection of dynastic rule are guilty of more than just nit-picking. What is significant about the decisive mandate is that it is accompanied by the burden of soaring expectations. In what was quite definitely a presidential-style campaign, the electorate didn’t merely vote out a government; they also chose a leader who was entrusted with the responsibility of ushering the promised achche din [good times].

In Western parliamentary democracies, people also couple their choice of an MP with their preference for a leader. However, this leadership test is also accompanied by a relatively more rigorous debate on policies proffered by the competing political parties. In India, while the odd constituency may be swayed by purely local considerations, a Lok Sabha election is principally an assessment of leadership capabilities.

The Modi wave didn’t lead to the BJP bagging a rich haul of seats in three states: West Bengal, Odisha and Tamil Nadu. Here, the regional parties successfully converted the battle for Delhi into a quasi-referendum on the three formidable chief ministers. The national made strong headway, but the regional prevailed on the strength of the same advantage that the first-past-the-post system confers on the dominant party. The implications are worth considering. The vote that saw the Trinamul Congress, AIADMK and Biju Janata Dal candidates prevailing wasn’t on the strength of a programme of governance. They were votes for Mamata Banerjee, J. Jayalalithaa and Naveen Patnaik respectively.

Indians tend to vote for a leader and then they leave it to the leader to formulate policies and run an effective government. This is at the heart of the fear that drives Modi’s detractors to statistical absurdities: the fear that Modi may unsettle a cosy consensus and break the mould of politics. Most important, they fear that, unlike other leaders who emerged from the Congress system, Modi could well dismantle an existing Establishment that has exercised uninterrupted dominance since 1947. It is a fear based on the perceived loss of self-importance and a morbid dread of the aesthetes being replaced by the outlanders, particularly those with the wrong accents. Certainly, the raw energy demonstrated by the Modi campaign would suggest that many of the cultural assumptions of an earlier age no longer find favour with Young India.

Modi became the flavour of the season not because he played by the old rules but because he defied them aggressively. His is not a mandate for consensus, but for a very different way of doing things. Today, the Establishment is understandably anxious to co-opt Modi into the beautiful world of Lutyen’s Delhi. This is not because they secretly admire him but because they seek to de-fang him and turn him into just another plodder. They seek to blunt the sharp edges of a mandate that is not merely for rapid economic growth but for a social transformation.

Have no doubts, by questioning the legitimacy of Modi and denying him the mandate he has won, the refined voices of the ancien régime are pressing for the status quo to prevail. From being the Gir lion that many perceive Modi to be, the high priests of loftiness want him to be another pussy cat prime minister. Let’s hope Modi can resist the assaults and blandishments.

The Telegraph, May 23, 2014

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Boss, Not First Among Equals

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is bad form to torment the beleaguered. Last Saturday, however, Narendra Modi’s more committed supporters delighted over the understated fury of India’s secularist guardians at the elaborate welcome accorded to the Prime Minister-designate by the Hindu establishment of Varanasi. What the dejected upholders of the ancien regime found galling was not the puja at the Vishwanath temple and the Ganga aarti but the huge media coverage of the occasion. To them, the symbolism was ominous—an impression reinforced by those who interpreted last week’s unequivocal mandate as the restoration of Hindu pride after centuries of self-effacement.

Both sides appear to be overstating their version of the change they anticipate. While sectarian faultlines were clearly visible in some parts of India, notably in western Uttar Pradesh and Assam, during the campaign, this election was not centred on a Hindu cultural renaissance. While the disaggregated data from the opinion and exit polls do suggest a large measure of ‘Hindu consolidation’, cutting across caste, language and class, it would erroneous to conclude that this was a religious Hindu vote. On the contrary, the slogan that gave the BJP its decisive edge was achcha din aane wale hain which was about the future, not the past. Indeed, by trying to make secularism and the so-called ‘idea of India’ the theme song of the election, it was Modi’s ‘secular’ opponents who tried to inject identity politics into the arena. That they failed miserably tells a story.

It is necessary to emphasis what this mandate was not about in order to dispel fears, particularly among the global fraternity of well-connected liberals, that India 2014 is witnessing a re-run of Germany 1933. Modi may not have secured the support of Muslim voters but that owed to entirely to a received version of what he stood for rather than what he said in his 450 odd speeches and how the campaign was run. In effect, there were two very divergent perceptions of what this election was about but the final choice was only nominally influenced by inter-community tensions on the ground.

This isn’t to suggest that Prime Minister Modi will be a sterner version of Atal Behari Vajpayee. Apart from the differences in temperament and personality, the nature of the mandate secured by Modi and Vajpayee are dramatically different. Under Modi, the BJP has secured a clear majority on its own. This implies that although he will head a NDA Government, he cannot fall back on either ‘coalition dharma’ or ‘coalition compulsions’ to explain either under-performance or retreat into expediency. The electorate has given Modi a stark choice: perform or perish. The ambivalent nature of Vajpayee’s mandate, ironically, allowed him the luxury of a more easy going approach.

The sheer weight of expectation and the enormous hunger for self-betterment makes it virtually impossible for Modi to engage in either consensus-building or get derailed by extraneous agendas. Ironically, this suits Modi admirably. Before the verdict, the concern was expressed that a Chief Minister who led a one-party government and distinguished himself by his no-nonsense decisiveness would find it difficult to manage a multi-party coalition where compromises are the order of the day. Nominally, Modi will head a coalition but it is amply clear that India has reposed its faith in ‘President’ Modi. The Gujarat leader isn’t a first among equals; he is clearly the boss.

Modi’s willingness to follow the mandate would imply that many of the old rules of governance will have to be made fit for purpose. This doesn’t imply that the over-cautious and somewhat obstructionist bureaucracy will be marginalised and replaced by impetuous technocrats who will bring a more purposeful work ethic into government. In Gujarat, Modi worked wonders with the existing bureaucracy, applying the principles of functional autonomy, accountability and motivation. It is likely that he will operate with the same template taking care to appoint the right people in the right job and backing them politically. More than the bureaucrat with integrity it is a political class accustomed to doling out patronage and freebies that is likely to be unsettled by Modi’s style. But since the votes were secured in his name, Modi now has the political authority to redefine the rules of politics.

Where the Modi government could encounter the resistance of babudom is in the implementation of his promise of “minimum government and maximum government.” The Congress has left behind a legacy of over-regulation and discretionary powers that are in urgent need of dilution. Manmohan Singh promised administrative reforms when he took over but forgot about it thereafter. If Modi has to let the entrepreneurial spirit prevail and create opportunities for the Young India that voted for him with such enthusiasm, he has to make government less bothersome to the citizen. This is what his mandate has decreed and from which he cannot afford to renege.

Finally, although Modi is confronted with dizzying expectations, his ability to effect real change on the ground will depend disproportionately on the willingness of state governments to play ball. Replacing Centre-State resentment of each other with federal harmony and partnership will demand discarding the Congress’ one-size-fits-all approach with guaranteed, non-discretionary grants to the states and affirming the right of states to control their own architecture of development. The presence of strong regional parties in Parliament, far from being a hindrance, can actually speed up the greater empowerment of the Finance Commission and the eventual irrelevance of the Planning Commission.

If Modi fails to deliver, the argument of non-cooperation by the state government will not wash with voters. Modi won because he inspired belief in a strong and vibrant India led by a gutsy leader. To realise that goal, he has to become the patron saint of regional development, a leader above politics. Last week, the BJP won on the strength of a national vote. It has to ensure that regardless of which party runs state governments, Modi will become a cross-party consensus. This is impossible without the new Prime Minister taking ownership of a federal makeover.  

Hindustan Times, May 20, 2014  

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Modi Understood Young India Better

By Swapan Dasgupta

Under normal circumstances, the declaration of results at the end of a long and bitterly contested election is followed by an onrush of platitudes affirming the “maturity of the voters”, the reinforcement of “democratic values” and the opening of a “new chapter” of parliamentary politics. It is not that such ritualistic self-praise was completely absent last Friday morning as the Electronic Voting Machines began revealing the preferences of India’s many millions of voters. However, the usual quota of anodyne remarks and self-satisfied we-told-you-so comments were replaced by two developments that happened in rapid succession. First, by 9.30 am—barely 90 minutes after counting began—it was sufficiently clear that Narendra Modi was going to be India’s next Prime Minister. The NDA, it was evident, was coasting to a majority. Secondly, around 11am or thereabouts, another far more dramatic trend became visible: the BJP was on its way to crossing the magic 272 mark on its own.

That Indian voters had got over their infatuation with fractious coalition politics and were ready to repose full faith in one side should have been greeted with whoops of delight. After all, there is nothing like an unambiguous verdict to facilitate decision-making and political accountability. Unfortunately, the quantum of excitement that this development should have produced was felt more in the outside world than among the assembled punditry in the TV studios. Where the cameras and bright lights were positioned, the mood was one of nervous tension. In one channel the mood, it was reported, was distinctly funereal. Democracy, it somehow seemed, was good only if the outcome was along predictable lines. On May 16, Narendra Modi played the role of party pooper. He spoiled what was planned as a long day and possibly long night of speculation and posturing.

That Modi was, well, a politician cut from a very different cloth was always known. That he played by his own set of rules that often appeared incomprehensible or even outlandish was also known. His relationship with the fourth pillar of democracy had also been awkward: he was the man who was hated, feared and yet never out of gaze. For years on end, viewers and readers had grown accustomed to Breaking News scrolls that began with the mandatory “In a big blow to Modi…” When he won the 2002 election and came to Delhi, self-righteous reporters boycotted his lunch and boasted about their walkout for months thereafter. Lofty editors with a sense of social superiority used to routinely dub him “mass murderer” with the same condescending sneer that Mani Shankar Aiyar reserved for his infamous “chaiwala” expression. Yes, Modi was every cub reporter’s punching bag, the man who was not merely the outsider but even an outlander.

The prospect of such a man becoming the presiding political deity of Lutyens’ Delhi and living in the same bungalow that once housed Rajiv Gandhi filled the beautiful people with the same disgust that Indira Gandhi felt on realising that the palatial residence of her iconic father would now be occupied by Lal Bahadur Shastri. In 1964, the Nehru-Gandhi family ensured that Teen Murti House was unilaterally declared a monument to the late Jawaharlal. In the more egalitarian 2014, plotting a backdoor coup was out of the question. So the entire Congress Lok Sabha contingent from Uttar Pradesh—basically the mother-son duo—admitted to their party’s ignominious defeat but refused to utter the dreaded chaiwala’s name in their perfunctory congratulation to the “new government”.

The erstwhile first family set the tone. By the late afternoon, as the enormity of the change effected by the hoi-polloi began to sink in, the derisiveness began in right earnest. From “you will have to speak in Gujarati now” and “let’s write the final uncensored article” to “enjoy the last drink”, snobbish black humour took over. By the evening, huddled groups were shedding copious tears over what they visualised as the lifeless body of secularism.

Ok, I may be exaggerating the state of disorientation at not merely Modi’s victory but the complete decimation of the Congress. But not entirely. Around midnight, I went to the BBC studios for a recording of a programme on India’s elections for Newsnight. Over the long-distance link I heard the lament of artist Sir Anish Kapoor over the results. He despaired over the fact that India was now going to be led by a “mass murderer”. “This is not the India I grew up in”, he said.

He’s damn right. This was not the entitled world of the Doon School alumnus. Somewhere along the way democracy has finally kicked in. The age of deference is well and truly over. And it has been replaced by an India bursting with raw energy, demanding the standards of life Sir Anish takes for granted and proclaiming ‘dil mange more’.

India has been changing with the same intensity as the flag-waving T20 game. Economists have often invoked the potential of India’s demographic dividend but they have always shied away from addressing its socio-political ramifications. Modi is no trained sociologist but he understood what Young India meant far better than the dynasts who dominate the top echelons of the Congress hierarchy. To the entitled world he appeared brash, crude and outlandish and hardly prime ministerial. To the youngsters in the dusty small towns bursting with aimless energy, he was an icon who spoke their language and articulated their anger. On Friday, he did what the punditry thought was unimaginable: he encashed the demographic dividend politically.

Sunday Pioneer, May 18, 2014

Saturday, May 17, 2014

PM Modi Must Remain True To His Instincts: He should not yield to the merchants of caution

By Swapan Dasgupta

On Friday, India didn’t merely elect a government with a resounding mandate, it categorically entrusted the responsibility for running the show to Narendra Modi. The extent to which the credit for the victory belongs to the BJP-led alliance and to the man who campaigned relentlessly for a Congress-free India will be the subject of debate in the coming days. To the average voter, however, this is no subject for hair-splitting. The vote was essentially for Modi, for his combative style of leadership and for the dream of a better future he proffered.

The opinion polls and the exit polls are quite clear on this score. The booster dose that carried the BJP beyond the 272 mark and which gave the NDA more than 330 seats was essentially a result of the massive support its candidates received from India’s youthful voters, those under the age of 35. It was this section that gave the Modi campaign its T-20 energy, allowed it to spread throughout India and break the seemingly impregnable bastions of caste and community. The credit for Modi’s spectacular victory belonged to those who demanded a better future for themselves, their families and their country. It was a vote both for self and nation.

The sheer boldness of the mandate may well be lost on a political class that still thinks in very conventional terms about what is possible and what is not on. Modi doesn’t. Having for long successfully defied the collective wisdom of the commentariat and the entrenched Establishment he would know that this was not a mandate for consensus but for audacity. After a long spell of experimenting with the staid and the conventional (that also included dollops of venality), India has preferred a ‘dil mange more’ impetuosity.

It is imperative to grasp the full meaning of Friday’s momentous mandate because the next few weeks will witness a concerted attempt to blunt the sharp edges of the voter restlessness. There will be a bid to suggest that the excitement of the past three months should be firmly buried and replaced by a business-as-usual spirit. There will be the usual jockeying for posts and ministerships by those who were left out in the past decade. And there will be gratuitous advice showered on the new Prime Minister to shed his combativeness and be socialised into a new role.

Some of these suggestions are no doubt well-meaning but Modi must resist the temptations of yielding to the merchants of caution. The vote is for a radical rupture with the fundamental assumptions of governance that, in today’s India, has come to mean institutionalised inefficiency and lack of transparency. Just as he redefined the rules of campaigning during the course of his 450 plus public meetings since September 2013, Modi must be true to his instincts and his partiality for a national resurgence.

Such a lofty project will no doubt need relentless application but equally it will need a revitalised political culture. Hitherto, governments have proceeded top-down to manage change. Modi will need to harness the wave of adulation for him for a larger mission to revitalise a creaky system and make it fit for purpose. This could offend the status-quoists. But he needn’t fear. If India wanted to merely plod along, it wouldn’t have elected a man like him. 

Times of India, May 17, 2014

Friday, May 9, 2014

MARKETING AND SLOG - Modi is rewriting many of the rules governing politics

By Swapan Dasgupta

After the 2009 general election, I spoke to many politicians (both winners and losers) about the changing nature of campaigning. Most seemed to agree on one point: that the age of mass meetings, drawing lakhs of people, was coming to an end. In normal circumstances, it seemed that a crowd of 3,000 people would be tantamount to a successful meeting, with a star speaker drawing anything approaching 10,000 listeners. No doubt there were exceptions--as in West Bengal and Bihar--but overall it seemed that in 20 years time, election meetings in India would have to be conducted inside halls, as happens in the West. With rising media exposure, electioneering would have to be done primarily through TV. 

In 2013-14, Narendra Modi proved us horribly wrong. Ever since he was anointed the BJP's prime ministerial candidate on September 13, 2013, Modi has spoken at mass rallies at over 450 places in India with average attendance approaching a lakh of people. Moreover, those who physically attended the rallies constitute a small chunk of the audience: live broadcasts have ensured that Modi actually spoke to a far larger audience. It is this use of the media as a force multiplier which has ensured that in just eight months the Gujarat Chief Minister has become a recognisable name all over India, including places where the BJP has no worthwhile presence. In the past, the Gandhi family was the only all-India political brand; in just eight months and after a punishing schedule that should leave most individuals physically drained, Modi has established himself as an alternative icon. The only casualty has been his voice which is getting hoarser by the day. 

Throughout the election campaign that began in April, Modi has been criss-crossing the country and speaking on an average at four rallies each day. What is more significant is that unlike most politicians he has not been delivering the same template speech at each gathering. Each Modi speech has content tailored to the constituency he is addressing. The national message is invariably twinned to local issues--a technique that has ensured that the media cannot ignore him on any given day. Those detractors who insist that the euphoria around him is all a media creation are right: Modi has ensured he cannot be ignored. The media has been confronted with a choice of doing its duty or practicing political untouchability. Despite the misgivings of the editorial classes, it has travelled along the professional route.  If only the Congress and other regional players had devoted as much time to preparing their message, they may not have felt so disadvantaged. Nor would they have had the occasion to spin fanciful conspiracy theories about India Inc manipulating the gullible. 

Regardless of the final outcome, the 2014 general election will be remembered as the NaMo election. Part of this owes to the fact that the BJP used the techniques associated with a presidential election and applied it to a parliamentary election. This doesn't imply that candidates have ceased to be important and voters are only choosing between Modi and anti-Modi. It means that in the basket of issues and perceptions that shape the voting preference of individuals, the question of India's national leadership has acquired greater importance. If the opinion polls are suggesting that a significant chunk of voters are defying the call of caste, the construction of Modi as a towering leader has played a seminal role in making this happen. 

Of course this dilution of traditional allegiances isn't universally true. Thanks to the demonology associated with Modi, this election may well demonstrate a gritty determination of India's Muslims to vote against Modi quite decisively. Although the strategic impact of this anti-Modi may well be seriously diluted owing to the fragmentation of the so-called secular alternative in both constituencies and states, this exceptional deviation has to be noted. But the Muslim aversion to Modi doesn't necessarily mean that the 2014 election is being fought on sectarian lines. It merely suggests that Muslims are looking at this election very differently from others. There is definite evidence of an emotional gulf amid convivial neighbourliness. 

The 2014 election will be remembered as an election where Modi rewrote many of the rules governing politics.  If this has led to consternation in the punditry, it has disoriented the apparatchiks in the BJP no less. Take the final days of the campaign as an example. Conventional wisdom deemed that the star of the campaign should focus his energies in working up the crowds in constituencies where the party candidate was either poised to win or where the contest was extremely close. In geographical terms, the BJP has traditionally concentrated on northern and western India. Modi, however, has devoted as much energy to enhancing BJP prospects in Seemandhra and West Bengal as he has in Uttar Pradesh. 

To many, Modi's spirited intervention in the Gandhi pocket borough of Amethi appeared a case of misplaced enthusiasm. The final results may well confirm that suspicion. However, in getting a crowd of nearly one lakh and out-performing the Congress in terms of sheer visibility, Modi achieved two things. First, he bolstered the self-confidence of BJP workers in an area where the party has no worthwhile network. Having attended the rally, I can say with some certainty that by the end of campaigning on the evening of May 5, the local BJP believed that Rahul Gandhi could be unseated. Secondly, by putting the media attention on the Congress' supposed vulnerability in Amethi, Modi was quite successful in both overshadowing Priyanka Gandhi and, more important, nudging her into a linguistic mishap over the "neech" (low) expression. 

Likewise, there has been bewilderment in some BJP circles at the amount of time Modi has devoted to West Bengal where the party has traditionally been a bit player. In private conversations, Modi has been emphasising the importance of Bengal where the response to him has been far beyond the most optimistic expectations. As in Amethi, in Asansol, Bankura and Krishnanagar, Modi has certainly motivated BJP supporters into believing that Mamata Banerjee can be successfully fought and even vanquished in key areas. If the BJP and its allies manage to win at least 30 seats from non-traditional areas in eastern and southern India, the chances of a Modi-led government will be significantly enhanced. 

By the evening of May 16, the campaign details of the 2014 election will become history. Presuming that Modi wins, the success may well be attribute to a 'wave'--a somewhat all-encompassing shorthand that serves to cover-up the shortcomings of the pundits.  However, a significant shift in public opinion and even a modest breakdown of traditional voting patterns doesn't happen in a vaccuum. The real success of a politician lies in detecting a trend, harnessing it with appropriate messaging and multiplying its potential through intelligent marketing. 

In the selling of Narendra Modi, marketing and brand-building were no doubt very important. But that success owed almost entirely on a groundwork built on olf-fashioned political slog and a willingness to think big. If some of these principles can be applied to the more humdrum business of governance, the popular jingle "achche din aane wala hain" (the good days are beckoning) can truly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

The Telegraph, May 9, 2014

Friday, May 2, 2014

Modi and Muslims: The gulf must narrow

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are not too many certitudes in this election--the 'obvious' is invariably a post-facto discovery. However, amid all the chatter about the youth vote, the aspirational classes and the relative importance or unimportance of caste, there is near-unanimity on one count: the Muslim community, with some exceptions, will not be voting for Narendra Modi to become Prime Minister of India. 

This is unlikely to come as a surprise to anyone but the most obtuse. So strong and sustained has been the political assault on Modi since the post-Godhra riots of 2002 that an average Muslim citizen of India would understandably believe that a Modi-led India would an intolerant, even murderous, majoritarian state. In the 2004 election, for example, gory videos of the Gujarat riots were widely shown in nearly all the Muslim-dominated localities of India and helped reinforce the image of Modi as an ogre. Of course, this imagery was further bolstered by a section of the English-speaking commentariat that were blinded to the other tangible achievements of the Modi government in Gujarat. 

It is, however, a mistake to believe that the visceral antipathy of a large section of the Muslim community was to Modi alone, and didn't extend to the rest of the BJP. In recent times, Atal Behari Vajpayee has been painted as an enlightened BJP leader whose large-heatedness ensured that he was acceptable to all Indians, regardless of faith. This image certainly helped Vajpayee during his term as Prime Minister. What is curious, however, is that Vajpayee's image as an 'inclusive', pan-Indian leader never helped the BJP secure any meaningful share of the Muslim vote. In 2004, when Vajpayee was at the height of his personal popularity, he failed to secure Muslim support in the Lucknow parliamentary seat that he represented. Indeed, disaggregated data of the voting pattern in Muslim-dominated mohullas of Lucknow suggested that he was the choice of not more than 750 Muslim voters. 

The experience of many other BJP chief ministers who are presented in the media as having a 'secular' image is broadly similar. In Madhya Pradesh, the Muslims have no particular issue with Shivraj Singh Chauhan who, unlike Modi, has taken care to get himself photographed in a skull cap. Yet, nowhere has this been reflected in Muslim support for BJP in elections. Indeed, apart from Goa's Manohar Parikkar, no BJP leader has succeeded in securing the support of any non-Sikh minority. 

An understanding of what Jaswant Singh once described to me as the "etymological block" facing the BJP is important in view of the contrived assertion by the pundits that Modi has deprived the BJP of any Muslim and, indeed, has ensured aggressive anti-BJP voting by Muslims. In a sense, this flaunting of the BJP's lack of Muslim support is turning out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The media, in particular, has made a fetish of reducing constituency and regional assessments of the electoral battles to the simple question: which way are the Muslims voting? Predictably, the answers prop up the belief that the BJP is an anti-secular force.   

That the BJP is unlikely to emerge from the 2014 general election with any worthwhile Muslim support is obvious. However, acknowledging the obvious is one thing. To extrapolate from this gap in the BJP's social profile that the 2014 election has been communalised is quite another matter altogether. What is striking about this election is not so much that historical faultlines have been re-exposed but that Muslims are viewing the contest in a very different way from their neighbours, most of whom happen to be Hindus. 

For most Indians, this election is about the future of themselves, their family, their community and India. There is an expasperation with the non-performance of the UPA, its inability to tap India's potential, its scams and its economic mismanagement. The election is also about the quality of leadership needed to bring about the transformation of the country and a yearning for decisiveness, especially when contrasted with the lacklustre style of the incumbent. In this battle, Modi has emerged as the centrepiece of the drama, with politicians taking sides in his favour or in opposition.  

The Muslim perspective of these elections seem a little different. It is not that the community has been insulated from the economic turbulence India has witnessed. But some of these bread and butter concerns have been overshadowed by a parallel concern for security, especially in the wake of the riots in Kokrajhar and Muzaffarnagar. The BJP didn't trigger these riots and nor did they happen in states where the BJP is in power. On the contrary, much of the anger was directed at the governments of Tarun Gogoi and Akhilesh Yadav for their failure to protect lives and property. The irony is that this sense of insecurity was deftly manipulated by secularist community leaders into a fear of a Modi government. This deflection of real anger could well explain why the Muslim perception of this election is different from that of the rest. This despite Modi carefully steering his campaign away from identity issues and even extending his hand of cooperation to the Muslim community.

In electoral terms, this election may demonstrate that Muslim voters don't exercise a final veto. However, for the future, the next Prime Minister has to ensure that this emotional gulf is narrowed, if not totally bridged. Otherwise India could well encounter needless roadblocks when it comes to governance. 

Asian Age, May 2, 2014

Newer Posts Older Posts Home