Lessons in Democracy from India
The recent general elections in India established yet again absolute benchmarks for democracy in the world.
The Electoral Commission of India impeccably organised and smoothly carried out the largest democratic electoral exercise in the world held in nine phases which spanned over more than 5 weeks from 7 April to 12 May. Some 551.3 million Indians or 66.38 % of the 814.5 million eligible electors, representing the highest turnout in the history of general elections in India, voted in 930,000 voting centres using electronic voting machines to elect the 543 Members of the Lok Sabha (the People’s Assembly). The landslide victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi announced on 16 May attests to a scathing backlash of the electorate against the incumbent Indian National Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
Thwarted hopes and backlash of vox populi
In 2004, the Congress-UPA won the general elections after being out of power for a record eight years, on the platform of improving the quality of life of the aam Aadmi (common man) against the BJP incumbent government slogan of ‘India Shining’. Manmohan Singh, who as Finance Minister of the Congress government of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao as from 1991 had been one of the architects of India’s first economic liberalization plan, was made Prime Minister. High hopes and expectations were placed on the Congress-UPA government that their policies would ensure a more inclusive development, improve the quality of life of the common man and the basic services provided to him, provide further impetus to growth by ironing out infrastructural and other bottlenecks to create a business friendly framework respectful of environmental and people’s rights.
Two mandates later, the Congress-led UPA government last week suffered the second worse defeat of a sitting government since the Independence of India. It is an unequivocal censure of vox populi against a government rooted in dynastic rule, mired in indecisiveness, corruption by Ministers, falling growth rates and Foreign Direct Investment, stunted development, contracting industrial output, rising unemployment and the absence of a facilitating framework to do business. The reappearance of the Licence Raj, a hotbed of bribery and delay for investment and development projects, a plummeting Rupee and an inflation rate hovering around 9% causing hardships to the people and in particular the common man, significantly eroded the people’s trust.
The election results are a potent game changer for India on many counts. It is the first time in 30 years since Rajiv Gandhi’s sweeping victory in 1984 that a single Party, the BJP, has with 282 elected Members, won a straight majority over the 272 seats required to control the Lok Sabha. The National Democratic Alliance led by the BJP has won 336 seats i.e. 166 seats more than in the 2009 elections whereas Congress, the Party which won independence for India, won a mere 44 seats out of 59 won by the UPA i.e. 162 seats less than their score in the 2009 general elections. Narendra Modi commands the largest majority to govern India, since 1984.
At the national level, the Modi wave enabled the BJP which was a Party with roots principally in the North and West of India to make important gains in the East and the Centre as well as inroads in the South of India. BJP won all the seats in the States of Gujarat, the home State of Modi, Rajasthan and Delhi and most of the seats in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous State of India, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand or Haryana, half the seats in Assam, Maharashtra and even Jammu and Kashmir.
This changed political landscape coupled with the comfortable majority obtained by the BJP-NDA is a welcome change for India as it provides the conditions for decisive policy-making and bold government decisions. It should be noted that the Indian National Congress which was a national Party at the time of and after independence has gradually lost its national footprint and allowed well rooted regional Parties to emerge to dictate a regional agenda rather than a national one. This has over time led to coalition governments which, as has been the case with the UPA government, are held hostage by vested interests, regional lobbies and the parochial leverage of their coalition partners resulting in indecision in respect of policy making. A strong BJP strengthens democracy and would also assure the perennial option of a viable changeover of government in India.
A cohort of top UPA and Congress Ministers including those associated with various scams and corruption cases as well as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha lost their seats. Only 3 of the 16 Ministers who contested the elections were elected. The rout of Congress was such that it was unable to elect even 10 Members of the Lok Sabha in a single State and did not elect any Member in at least 7 States and 3 Union territories. The Modi electoral ‘tsuna-Mo’ caused serious collateral damage to various regional and caste-driven Parties. Thus, the Dalit based Bahujan Samaj Party led by Mayawati was wiped out and lost all 21 seats they held in the Lok Sabha.
In the best democratic traditions prevailing in India, Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister of Bihar who is credited to have transformed Bihar in terms of development and a tough stand on criminality resigned taking moral responsibility for the crushing defeat of his party in the general elections. Tarun Gogoi, the Chief Minister of Assam is to resign likewise. The new Aam Aadmi Party (AAM) which had fielded 424 candidates across India on an anti corruption platform obtained only 4 seats in Punjab owing to the momentum of the Modi juggernaut and probably owing to its leader Arvind Kejriwal resigning as Chief Minister of Delhi 49 days after being voted in by the electorate.
The electorate and the people’s censure have thus been ruthless and merciless towards the incumbent UPA Government for their numerous shortcomings and towards all those Parties whose actions had provoked their ire. The results have also shown that caste and community without probity and competence are not passports to the Lok Sabha.
The Gujarat template
This is by far the largest anti-Congress vote and the most humiliating defeat of Congress in India’s history. The electorate has rested its hopes and trust in the development agenda of Narendra Modi, confident that he will be able to replicate the successful model of development of Gujarat showcased by him during his 12-year tenure as Chief Minister, at the all India level. Although some States have done better in terms of social indicators in health and education, Gujarat has an impressive record.
When compared to development in the other States, Gujarat has achieved the fastest growth in Agriculture in the last decade, is among the top 3 investment destinations, has the lowest unemployment rate, has electrified 100% of houses, has brought down the BPL (Below Poverty Line) population drastically, is growing at an average annual GDP growth rate of 10% and its per capita income has grown faster under Modi. Gujarat has also brought down its fiscal deficit by more than half, steadily increased access to safe drinking water and increased the building of brick houses by 20% in six years although other States have done better on these indicators. The Modi model provides a template that can be replicated everywhere and tailored accordingly.
In his acceptance speech following his endorsement as the NDA Prime Minister designate on 20 May, Narendra Modi set the tone by stating that it is the people and the poor who have voted the BJP-NDA Members into the Lok Sabha and that the hopes and trust of 1.26 billion Indians are in their hands and that as soldiers of the people they should diligently and selflessly work for the country to honour this important responsibility towards the people of India. His campaign slogan was ‘togetherness and development’ for all. This appealed to what aspirational Indians want.
Modi said that a government governs in the interests of everyone and that his government will take everyone including opponents on board as there cannot be a distinction between those who voted for and against the NDA (No policy of apne aur pariah). He pledged to reach out to every Indian and work with alacrity for the development of the country and the people and report back on his mandate at the end of his term of office in 2019.
Rebooting the India success story
The India success story which was frustratingly stalled during the tenure of the UPA government needs to be redirected and rebooted to achieve its full potential as a leading world player predicted by all experts. There is a new buzz and an excitement among Indians and the Indian Diaspora. In the wake of the landslide victory, the Indian stock market rose to record highs and the Rupee soared to a 10-month high against the US $. Market analysts are predicting a bull run of the Mumbai stock exchange.
Although India is according to the World Bank and IMF ranking, published in April 2014, the third largest economy after the US and China in terms of GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), India has to iron out all the infrastructural, operational and institutional bottlenecks which hamper its take off and create a more conducive framework for investment and business to reach its full development potential as a nation.
Narendra Modi has the proven qualities of leadership, authority and determination to re-ignite and successfully shepherd this process for the benefit of India and its people. India also has to play a premier role in anchoring secular democratic values and moral legitimacy in the world. The culture of discipline and rigour and the organizational acumen inherent to the manner the BJP is structured and run will enable Narendra Modi to choose the team necessary to deliver on the challenging task ahead.
Already there is a new pride and assertiveness among Indians epitomized by the computer whizz-kid who was part of Modi’s tech savvy campaign team, who stated in the wake of David Cameron’s invitation to Modi for a state visit to England that he was looking forward to Narendra Modi addressing the Houses of Parliament in Hindi. The scale of the endorsement of Modi by the people of India has realpolitik oblige prompted the US Administration to change Modi’s status from a pariah who was denied a US visa for years, to a leader who will be issued a US visa following President Obama’s call to congratulate and invite him to Washington.
Narendra Modi will be the first Indian Prime Minister to be born after the independence of India. He pledged to devote all his energy to the sacred task of serving India to the best of his abilities. In a symbolic gesture steeped in Indian traditions he humbly touched, on his first visit this week, his forehead to the steps of the Lok Sabha, he later described as the temple of people’s hopes.
Already, Modi has shown that he has an organized and businesslike approach to his job and wants to imprint his own decisive style. Following his request, the top cadres of the prestigious Indian Administrative Service have this week reported to the Cabinet Secretary on what went wrong and provided their views on the rationalization of ministries as Modi favours a streamlined government apparatus.
In a welcome departure from past practice, he has inter alia invited the Heads of India’s neighbours Bangladesh’s PM Sheikh Hasina, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan’s PM Nawaz Sharif and all SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) leaders to attend his swearing in ceremony on 26 May. This is a bold decision in the light of the LOC (Line of Control) violations by Pakistan this week causing the death of an Indian soldier. This is a reminder to those who are apprehensive of the nationalist tag given to the BJP and its allies that as part of its national ethos, India has since thousands of years established itself as an open, secular and tolerant society provided nobody takes insidious advantage of this openness.
Lessons and wake up calls
There are so many refreshing lessons and absolute benchmarks of democracy provided by the Indian electoral exercise and the smooth transition to the swearing in of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India. Much more efficient and peaceful than any Arab spring, the electorate of India smoothly ousted the incumbent UPA-Congress government who had flouted the public trust, through the ballot box. It is an unequivocal warning to all elected Members and political parties who take actions or vote for contested proposals and legislations without the due process of a legitimising mandate from the people that they expose themselves as in India to the punitive backlash of the electorate at the next general elections. This is so relevant to the nation’s mood in Mauritius in the current context of the proposed fast track presentation of a decried electoral reform bill without due process and the legitimacy of a people’s mandate.
Following the highest code of political ethics, most of the leaders of the main Parties disavowed by the people spontaneously tendered their resignation in recognition of their responsibility in the defeat of their Parties. In spite of obtaining some 11% of the Lok Sabha seats against about 19% of the polls, there has not been any hullaballoo about under representation, balance, ‘wasted votes’ or proportional representation by the UPA-Congress alliance. Sonia Gandhi has even sportingly (and democratically) stated that winning or losing elections is part of the game!
Modi has reaffirmed that in contrast to campaigning for elections, governing must be inclusive and encompass all citizens of India and not only be limited to those who voted for the Party. Governments such as the NDA- BJP who command a comfortable majority engender through decisive decision-making, progress and development. In contrast, weak coalitions with partners having conflicting agendas such as the incumbent UPA-Congress government hobbles decision making and leads to inaction and censure by the people. As a corollary, isn’t any deliberate action to erode the majority voted by the electorate tantamount to planting seeds of instability and scuttling government action and the development of the country?
Both the UPA-Congress and the NDA-BJP have revealed a structured, transparent and democratic process of decision making. Although Modi was the leader of the BJP and its electoral campaign as well as the architect of its decisive victory, his nomination as the leader of the Parliamentary group and Prime Minister designate of the BJP and the NDA had to follow due process of endorsement by the caucus of their elected Members to the Lok Sabha. All these sound lessons loudly ring so many bells and wake up calls for our fledging democracy in Mauritius.
It is equally important that Congress, the Party that has led the destiny of India for most of the period since independence embark on a genuine exercise of analysis of its debacle at the elections to re-incarnate itself as a national Party distanced from the sycophancy of dynastic politics or a culture of caste or community based vote banks and grounded on a programme and policies capable of harnessing the support of the people. A new Congress avatar is a key element of a vibrant democratic India.
Democratic India must be humbly saluted with a Jai Hind.
* Published in print edition on 23 May 2014