India Votes

Election results have a knack for surprising the most attentive observers. Given the complexity of the socio-economic structures and the size of the country, the risks are certainly even greater for a place like India

“The extent of India’s rise as an economy and as an international actor will be determined primarily by factors internal to India. Two factors emerged as central drivers in our scenario analysis. The first is economic change, which will profoundly affect the political climate, the leadership contests, and India’s international behaviour… The second driver… is the quality of political leadership…”

Terisita Schaffer – ‘Rising India and US Policy Options in Asia’

On Monday 7th of April as 815 M Indian electors set out on a long trek of five weeks to accomplish the largest democratic exercise in the world, close observers of the Indian polity and economy sensed that this contained all the drama of a “second tryst with destiny” which may ironically enough see a fading of the role of the Nehru dynasty in the running of the affairs of the country.

(Incidentally in view of the present debates here on electoral reform it might be useful to mention that for a nation of more than 1.2 Billion people voters are called to choose 585 representatives.)

Every election is an important exercise in any democratic society. Yet every now and then there are some which are more important than others. The difference lies in the prevalence of some particularly critical internal or external set of factors at the time of the electoral consultations. The outcome of the elections can then contribute to mitigate the negative effects of such factors or amplify their positive effects. In the worst case scenario, the incoming government can actually fail to do either.

The electorate is particularly keen to vote for a party which they perceive can deal the most appropriately with such pending issues. Under such special circumstances one can expect that one or two overarching themes will dominate the electoral campaign. The example of the Aam Admi Party in the recent Delhi elections, harping on the single theme of corruption in government, with the success that we know in routing out the incumbent government, is a perfect illustration of such a situation.

To come back to the ongoing general elections in India, it would seem that former US President Bill Clinton’s famous remark – ‘it’s the economy, stupid!’ – will be a principal axiom of the manifestoes of the contending parties. Although one would expect voters in the country to support the party/ies which they believe can deliver on such concerns as employment, control of inflation and infrastructure delivery, both the Congress and BJP would certainly remember the misfortunes of the ‘Shining India’ campaign which was widely anticipated to deliver an overwhelming victory to the BJP for its “economic miracle”. The whole world was stunned by the comeback of the Congress and its allies in 2004. The rest, as we say, is history and lessons to be learnt.

Balancing the need to respond to the aspirations of the “rising middle classes” of Urban India with the credible promise to deliver improvements in the basic living standards of the rural poor is a huge challenge to all parties. The rural poor in India feel increasingly excluded from the kind of benefits of which they are passive witnesses through the spread of TV networks and Bollywood films. Economic growth, per se, is not enough. It needs to be translated into actual improvements in the day-to-day living conditions of the people. One must be extremely careful not to assume that what works for the urban metropolis such as Mumbai or Bangalore is equally valid for rural India. The sheer vastness of the territory, not to say anything about what seems like a maddening diversity to any foreign observer, makes it very difficult for even the most sophisticated pollsters to predict the outcome of an election in the country.

Having said that however, it would seem that some of the worst predictions which were being made less than a year ago have now given way to a more optimistic view. The near catastrophic scenario of the emergence of what is commonly described by Indian commentators as a “kichree” government (“kichree” refers to a food preparation containing a mix of many ingredients), formed by a agglomeration of small parties, characterized by a total lack of policy coherence, seems to be losing ground. Instead it is looking increasingly likely that one large dominant party will emerge from the polls, although it may not achieve an absolute majority.

The Congress and its allies – the UPA – have been in power since 2004 and will have a heavy incumbency weight to carry into this election. Writing in ‘Re-Imagining India’ (McKinsey & Company), Edward Luce identifies three disabling problems which will undermine its future electoral prospects. The first is about the “separation of political from executive power within the Congress Party” – essentially referring to the power exercised by the Nehru dynasty through the so-called “diarchy” formed by Sonia Gandhi’s effective centre of power on the one hand and the formal power structure led by Manmohan Singh on the other. The second is the ever-increasing pressure leveraged on the UPA by its many allies consisting of “narrow caste, language and regional parties”, and finally the “continued degradation in India’s government machinery.”

The BJP stands as a challenger to the UPA and seems to have its tasks cut out for itself as it has promised to “liberate” the country a second time – this time by ousting the Congress from power. The appointment of Narendra Modi as its leader earlier seemed to be a rather risky decision. As the electoral campaign has progressed, it looks like his adversaries have failed in their efforts to “tag” him as a “man with blood on his hands”.

In fact one can sense that the Congress and its allies might have overestimated the chances for success and eventual impact of such a “demonization” campaign against Modi. The controversies surrounding the leader of the BJP are well known. As often happens with such leaders, people either hate or near venerate him. A liberal in economic policies, he advocates opening up of the economy to foreign direct investments and a greater role for the private sector in the economic development of the country.

In Gujarat Modi has had ample time to test his approach and has proven rather successful in achieving a more or less rapid industrialization of the state and a satisfactory rate of economic growth. Many of his critics suggest though that he should moderate his enthusiasm for “business facilitation” aiming at attracting investments in the state with more concern for the local farming community and other less privileged sections of society. While in his social philosophy he is definitely conservative, Modi and the BJP have very intelligently downplayed such issues in their campaign.

Election results have a knack for surprising the most attentive observers. Given the complexity of the socio-economic structures and the size of the country, the risks are certainly even greater for a place like India. We would be well advised to wait for the ballot box to give its final verdict on the 16th of May next.


* Published in print edition on 11 April 2014

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