- Posted May 21, 2014 by
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The written word: Your personal essays
Indian Elections 2014: Need to Bust Myths & Reveal Facts
The recent Lok Sabha election was a structural break for India as its voters comprehensively rejected their Nehru-Gandhi past. Essentially, the Indian polity has called off the Congress’s bluff, having seen it for the calculating set of politicians they have been. The pleas being dished out to explain this win are mostly specious and miss the reality.
Just what happened on May 16? In a word, Modi. Of course, there are several other factors that determined the contours of Election 2014, but the defining characteristic was the PM-designate, Narendra Modi. Can one individual define an election? Possible, if that individual rightly senses the mood of the country, and its changing sense of direction. Recall what happened in that other defining election, albeit of a lower seismic magnitude — Barack Obama in 2008. The parallels are close — a black man winning the presidency in a country where the blacks obtained civil rights just 50 years ago; a lower caste OBC winning in a country where caste matters a lot. Post the 2008 election in the US, one found out that maybe white Americans are not that racist after all; post-May 16, India has found out that caste has ceased to occupy an important place in the minds of voters.
So what did happen in India? Several myths abound as to what explains Modi’s record-breaking win — 336 seats for the NDA, and the highest ever seat per vote recorded for any alliance or party in India, that is, nine seats for every 1 per cent of the vote. In the record-setting 1984 election, the Congress obtained 8.5 seats for each per cent vote. A partial listing of the myths:
Myth 1: The Congress lost because it operated a corruption and scam infested regime: Commonwealth Games, Coalgate, 2G, etc. As if UPA 1, and all governments before, have not been corrupt. Corruption is one of the factors affecting voters’ choice, but not a very important factor. Else, why would all opinion and exit polls suggest that corruption was one of the least important determinants of voters’ choice? And just look at the results for the Aam Aadmi Party, which ran exclusively against crony capitalism and corruption — and managed to win only four of the 432 seats it contested, and lost its deposit in 413, another record.
Myth 2: The Congress lost because of a weak economy — high inflation and low growth. I am a card-carrying member of the club that believes that economic performance determines voting behaviour. But this election was not an average election, to which average explanations are applicable. By itself, the weak economy and corruption would mean that the Congress and UPA would lose seats. But to lose 200 seats is a black swan event. In 2009, with the best economy ever, the UPA gained “only” 54 seats, and the NDA lost “only” 26 seats. So, with the worst economy ever, one might have expected the NDA and UPA to go back to approximately their 2004 levels, that is, around 200 for both the UPA and NDA. Indeed, according to the CNN-IBN tracker poll, both alliances were in a near neck-to-neck battle as late as August 2013.
Myth 3: Anti-incumbency, voter fatigue after 10 years of UPA rule resulted in the Modi win. When all else fails, indulge in an anti-incumbency explanation. Too many counter examples exist. Remember 2009, when the incumbent UPA got elected. Or Madhya Pradesh 2003, when Digvijaya Singh, and the Congress, got unceremoniously voted out after 10 years in power. Or Modi’s Gujarat, or Chouhan’s MP, returned for a third and second consecutive term, respectively.
Myth 4: The weak leadership of Rahul Gandhi affected the Congress’s performance. Imagine that any individual but Modi was the leader of the BJP — say, L.K. Advani, Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj or Shivraj Chouhan. No one was betting that any of these individuals would offer a large difference with respect to the UPA leadership. The common refrain of many has been that there isn't a tad difference between the UPA and NDA. And there hasn't been — till Modi came along.
So what explains the Modi win? The UPA campaign offered two all important “reasons” to vote for the UPA. Vote for us because we do so much for you, and don’t vote for Modi because he is evil.
Look what the Congress guaranteed to the Indian citizen, especially the poor. A jobs guarantee programme, so that the poor had jobs. A food security bill, so that two-thirds of the population was guaranteed food at throwaway prices. A land acquisition bill, so that the poor got a fair price. A right to information act, and a Lokpal bill, so that corrupt government officials could be caught red-handed. And yet, the Congress managed to win only 44 out of 543 seats, about half of what the BJP got in only its second election in 1989.
Why Congress fell to such absurd depths?
If Narendra Modi has vaulted to unexpected heights, the Congress party has plummeted to unimaginable depths. Its decimation calls for an explanation beyond the ineptitude of a Rahul Gandhi and his rootless mentors. The Congress’ vote share has fallen a steep 10 percentage points to an all-time low of 19%, and for the first time, it has got fewer votes than the BJP. Even in 1998 and 1999, when its tally was significantly lower than the BJP’s number of seats, the Congress had polled a higher share of the popular vote. Now it stands reduced to 44 seats, not making it to double digits even in a single state. How did this absurdity happen?
Revulsion against corruption is a ready explanation, and it has merit. Unrelenting price rise had alienated all town dwellers, undoubtedly. Rahul Gandhi’s failure to impress as a leader, leave alone measure up to an articulate, artful and forceful Narendra Modi, is another valid explanation.The enormous corporate backing Modi got and the far more expensive and sustained media campaign he ran certainly made a difference.
Forgot the Feats: Congress leaders’ failure to articulate the government’s not-inconsiderable achievements has now become a favourite whipping boy. The boy certainly deserves to be whipped. But the depth of Congress’ fall cannot be explained by these alone. There are deeper structural issues, to ignore which is to forgo any corrective. Let us look at some facts. The UPA government’s social policy was derived from a National Advisory Council.
Why does a political party need to outsource policy making creativity? The UPA government put in place a rights-based development model. Education, employment and food are now guaranteed. The right to information allows people to prise information out of the bureaucracy, sniff out misgovernance and corruption.
Enforcing New Laws: The Forest Rights Act undid the enormous injustice done to India’s tribal people by colonial rule, which nationalised forests and made trespassers and criminals out of the tribes that lived in and off forests. Rahul Gandhi and other Congress leaders never tire of listing these benign gifts of the Congress.
But rights make sense only when they are enforced. As a contract between the state and the people, a right can be enforced either through the courts or through democratic mobilisation of empowered citizenry. The courts are burdened with cases that keep accumulating, instead of getting resolved. So, any prospect of rights helping people via court-mediated enforcement is remote.
That leaves popular mobilisation to enforce rights. Have you heard of any party, leave alone the Congress, mobilising a single soul to enforce any rights? The Right to Information Act has produced several martyrs, not one is from the Congress.
It is indeed true that the record of the UPA government in terms of social development and poverty removal has been nothing short of remarkable.
Now, the sharp fall in infant mortality rate (IMR) and maternal mortality rate (MMR) since 2004 — from 58 to 42 for IMR and from 280 to 178 for MMR — might be explained more by the rise in incomes and availability of good roads in rural areas that allow a patient to be moved fast to a nearby healthcare facility than by specific schemes meant for women’s and children’s welfare.
But such schemes were well-funded under the UPA, and rural prosperity, sustained rise in real rural wages and large-scale rural road-building too were part of the UPA’s redistributive programmes. Yet, no Congress candidate has taken credit for any of these achievements. But the question is, why not?
The share of the workforce trapped in low-productivity farm work, a sink for underemployment, has dropped below 50% for the first time, thanks to the demand for labour from construction and related activities such as brickmaking. This is part of the reason for a rise in real wages across rural India, for which the employment guarantee scheme set a floor. Yet, not a chirp on the subject out of a single Congress candidate touring rural areas, even as they coo over little urchins and woo castes and communities.
In 2011, seminars were held in Delhi to celebrate the 20th anniversary of India’s economic reforms. The Congress party did not join the celebrations, it did not claim ownership of this transformative paradigm shift in the nation’s development strategy.
No Congressman explained why the party was indifferent, if not looked askance at the reforms. There is one and only one explanation. Complete political bankruptcy. For the average Congressman, politics has come to mean power, patronage and pelf. Mediating the people’s concerns to the state and empowering and leading people to get the state to deliver on their entitlements just do not figure in their scheme of things.
Such understanding of politics as power-broking for self-enrichment is the root failing of Indian politics. And no party exemplifies this failure as well as the Congress does. This failure explains all the previously listed failures. Thus, reductio ad absurdum.
Modi is evil, we are not: An important fact about the recent election, and possibly related to the overwhelming beyond-expectations majority that Narendra Modi obtained, is that, to the best of my knowledge, no individual in Indian or world history has been unjustly vilified as much as Modi has been. This vilification continues even to this day, especially by the “sickular” parties and their left-intellectual storm troopers. I am choosing my words wisely, because the condemnation campaign has almost universally invoked images of the Nazi and Fascist European regimes of the 1930s.
What is most informative, and disturbing, about these storm troopers (among whom are many domestic and foreign journalists), is that they invariably belong to the Congress party and/or have been its sympathisers until recently. Let me make my position clear, possibly for the umpteenth time. Narendra Modi was chief minister at the time the Gujarat riots happened just as Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister of India at the time the Delhi pogrom against Sikhs occurred. Both have to assume responsibility for what happened under their watch. All I am asking is whether the Congress storm-troopers, or Modi-baiters, have ever condemned Rajiv Gandhi and/ or the Congress party with the same language and allusions to Hitler as they have done, and continue to do, about Modi?
Morality and philosophy aside, an election is not an absolute choice but rather a choice between individuals. So, especially in the case of the Congress versus Modi, the issue of 2002 versus 1984 is irrelevant, that is, individuals who are upset by Modi should be equally (if not more) upset by the Congress.
Strategic Voting by Muslims — backfired: In the Muslim and Yadav states of UP and Bihar, the turnout was higher by about 12 percentage points. Did the UPA whiz kids consider that their strategy of concentrated Muslim and Yadav voting against Modi might engineer a counter-strategy — for every one Muslim and Yadav (MY) that indulged in strategic voting, there were probably four non-MY voters ensuring that the negative strategy (sic) did not succeed.
Essentially, the Indian polity has called the Congress’s bluff, seen it for the calculating set of politicians they have been. Their governance demanded not only change, but wholesale rejection. The Indian polity has elected a leader. The “historical low” losers contend that all Modi has done is package a dream, a dream that will not last, a dream that will soon become a nightmare. The losers, and Congress apologists, believe that Modi will soon crash to earth. I have no doubt that the expectations of the Modi government are sky high, and that it is impossible for the transformed reality to be an equal match to the expectations. Equally, I have no doubt that the Modi-led government will make a strong effort to match a large fraction of these expectations — and that they will largely succeed.