India’s Electoral Paradigm Shift

The first “exit polls” have been made public as soon as voting came to a close on Monday last, in an election which witnessed the participation of the greatest number of people to ever express their votes in a democratic consultation in human history.

True to its reputation of a leading nation in matters relating to Information Technology the electronic voting system will deliver the definite results of this mammoth exercise within four days.

Meanwhile the provisional indications are that Mr Narendra Modi’s BJP-led NDA is likely to obtain an absolute majority in the next parliament while Congress might face its worse defeat ever. Should this be confirmed, these elections could mark a definite break in Indian electoral practice since independence. Exit polls have proved to be way off the mark on a number of occasions in the past in India as well as in other countries, and it may well happen that the final results are different from what is being predicted on the basis of these polls.

Be that as it may, we shall take the risk of trying to sum up some of the most interesting comments being made and the lessons that can be drawn on the basis of those published figures.

Policy Paralysis

The first observation that any neutral observer of the Indian political landscape would make is that the country badly needs a stable government. That is, one made up of a party controlling enough number of seats to form at least an anchor party with enough leverage to take decisive action. India under recent governments has been a case study in “policy paralysis” as each and every faction in government weighed in on the decision making process with its own brand of “ideology” when not simply its strand of “vested interests”.

The lengthy electoral campaign, which lasted more than five weeks, has led to some criticism of the Electoral Commission’s decisions. It did seem that by the end of the campaign trail all parties having said what they had to say in terms of substantive arguments, could then only engage in the kind of vitriolic personal and sometimes base attacks which marked the final days of campaigning. In this deleterious atmosphere every single incident was played up by the media and opponents as if their lives depended on it. All things said and done, however, one can only have a sense of admiration for the people of India who in their diversity and in spite of their divergences of interests have made India proud.

As regards the electoral campaigns led by the different parties and especially the two main contenders – the Congress and the BJP – there are indeed many lessons to be learnt. Only months ago, observers were commenting on the utter inability of the BJP as the main Opposition party to capitalize on the blatant weaknesses of the governing party in spite of all the scams and impropriety of its governance which had been uncovered. It was all epitomized in the fate of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh; he had initially been chosen as PM for his reputation as the great economist who saved India from total economic disaster at the beginning of the 1990s. He was gradually turned into a hapless leader who had no influence on what was happening in his government. It is quite sad that he risks going down in history as the “accidental” Prime Minister, which is the title of a book recently published by a Congress insider.

The existing ruling coalition under Congress, which consisted of a large number of parties that were despairingly at loggerheads in their views of how India ought to be governed, had led to a situation of total paralysis of the decision making process. Very often the few decisions which were taken were then reversed as a result of pressure from different lobbies. As we mentioned earlier, in spite of all this, the BJP lot was unanimously considered as “failing to take off” as a credible alternative government.

Paradoxically one may sensibly argue that it is that precarious situation which may have been the principal cause of the eventual success of the BJP. And this for two reasons. First, this view that the BJP was not going to prove a real threat to them must have nourished a real sense of complacency among the leaders of Congress. Many commentators were quite shocked by the apparent unpreparedness of the Congress as the elections were announced albeit at the fag end of the permissible calendar. Second, even the BJP leadership seemed well aware of the fact that business as usual was leading nowhere, there was therefore a need for something drastic to be undertaken.

Indisputably that game changing decision was the appointment of Narendra Modi as the party leader and prime ministerial candidate. Although it was a “risky” decision given the apparent “controversies” surrounding the Chief Minister of Gujarat, it immediately seemed to have changed the dynamics of the campaign. Against a background of perceived corruption and governance gridlock in the country, what mattered more to the electorate was the image of Narendra Modi as a DOER and a man of unquestionable integrity. Even more critical, however, was the fact that with this nomination the BJP started dictating the agenda of the whole campaign.

Congress was forced to react and was thereafter constantly on the defensive. True to his image and experience, the Modi campaign was shaped to respond to the needs of the day in form as well as in substance. The use of social media and a highly effective advertising campaign coupled with intensive groundwork by his allies left very little space for his opponents to manoeuvre.

Crisis of expectations

Coming to the post-election situation in the likely event of confirmation of exit polls indications, it would be a fair assessment of the situation to state that the greatest immediate hurdle for an eventual BJP government will be how they deal with a real crisis of expectations in the country at large. It has often been said that the factors which influence the performance of stock exchanges all over the world are sentiment, liquidity and fundamentals, in that order. So if the recent performance of the Stock Exchange in Mumbai, which has shot up sharply in response to the expected results of the elections, is any measure to go by, then the expectations of the common people will presumably only fall short of hoping for a miracle.

It is true that sometimes a feeling of confidence in the future is very helpful especially when the country is engaged in major transformations. It may however have exactly the opposite effects when people expect change to happen overnight. The problems which India faces today are structural and complex in nature. The new government certainly will have their task cut out for them – grappling with the most pressing issues, picking the low lying fruits, while sending the right signals concerning their determination to deal with the larger issues.

Finally comes the most pressing issue for Mauritius. How will the coming of a new BJP/Modi-led government in India affect Indo-Mauritius relations and how will it impact the Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement (DTAA)? The way one can see it is that the foundations of the Indo-Mauritius relations are grounded in the history of common heritage and culture. The unwritten convention between the two states is that India will always have at heart the interests of the population of Mauritius in all circumstances.

Mauritius, on the other hand, will not undertake any action which may create a situation where any government in India will feel embarrassed in affirming the above position. Within that broad framework however there is room for each nation to promote its own interests on specific issues and to ascertain its sovereignty at all times as long as the fundamental parameters are observed. Governments in the two countries have come and gone over the past 50 odd years and none have challenged these premises. There is not the slightest indication that matters will be any different this time.

Window of opportunity

As for the question of the DTAA, our sense from whatever information is available is that this could go one way or the other depending on how the parties involved react over the coming months if not weeks. The DTAA is a delicate issue for any government in India to deal with because there is a populist argument to the effect that India somehow is the “loser” on this issue. The lobbyists of our main competitors have had a field day in fanning this argument while Mauritius has always been shy for some reason or the other of making its own case known.

There is a definite window of opportunity now for two reasons. First, as is well known, the business community generally in India is supportive of the BJP/Modi government for the obvious reason that they expect it to deliver on a similar business friendly agenda as he has done in Gujarat. There is an urgent need to undertake a series of actions aiming at the large business powerhouses immediately to ensure that we enlist them as our allies. Second, the issue being, as we said earlier, a political hot potato is better dealt with at the very beginning of a government especially when there is a clear mandate for the party in power. New governments are biased to reject whatever their predecessors have undertaken especially when the measures purport to bind the incoming party at some future date.

A bifocal strategy where the government clearly reaffirms its attachment to its part of the bargain in the Indo-Mauritius pact and a timely private sector initiative to register support from its counterparts in India would go a long way towards ensuring a favourable outcome to the present predicaments.

 


* Published in print edition on 16 May 2014

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