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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄĒ remember the hope and excitement of ‚ÄúYes we can‚ÄĚ? ‚ÄĒ 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‚Äôs polls is their sheer scale. India‚Äôs 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‚Äôs second-largest democracy. To put this in perspective: Australia‚Äôs (and Canada‚Äôs) total population is just a rounding error in comparison to India‚Äôs. 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 ‚Äúthrow the bastards out‚ÄĚ, 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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.
For the sake of the health, quality and effectiveness of India‚Äôs 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‚Äôs Office, and the national interest in defending the institutional integrity of India‚Äôs system of governance. India‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄĒ 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.