Sunday, May 25, 2014
An Indian Revolutionary What is it about the Modi mandate that provokes such fear of fundamental change?
Friday, May 23, 2014
Edward Heath, the Conservative leader, was a sore loser and created a minor fuss when the Queen invited Labour’s Harold Wilson to form a government. Heath’s disappointment was understandable. Normally, the first-past-the-post system exaggerates majorities and favours the dominant party. The February 1974 election was a rare case when the more popular choice of the voters was deprived of the largest number of seats.
That was certainly one of the rarest of rare cases and, quite expectedly, resulted in another election in October that year when Wilson coasted to a more manageable majority that endured till 1979. There are many critics of the Westminster system. Some argue for proportional representation, others for the preference vote (as in Australia) and still others for a list system (à la Germany). Yet, it is one of the cardinal tenets of democracy that the legitimacy of any government formed under whichever electoral system is prevalent is not questioned. With the solitary exception of President George W. Bush, who was charged by his naturally intemperate critics of “stealing” the election in 2000 on account of the disputed Florida count, both convention and common sense deems that the winner is declared the winner and the loser(s) occupy the Opposition benches till the battle next time. These are the rules of the game.
Last Friday, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance won an impressive parliamentary majority by securing some 335 seats in the 542-member Lok Sabha. The BJP, polling some 32 per cent of the votes, won a simple majority on its own and the total votes for the National Democratic Alliance candidates was a notch below 40 per cent. The election was important in another respect: the voter turnout rose by nearly 9 per cent to touch the 1984 figure.
Undeniably, the results came as a complete shock to those who had assiduously propagated their contention that Modi was a “fascist” who was “unelectable” because his values offended “the idea of India”. The electorate had an opportunity to hear their views and then vote very differently. The reasons that contributed to the “tsuNaMo” may well be a legitimate subject of future discourse but there is no question that when Modi is sworn in on the evening of May 26 it will be on the strength of a clear and, indeed, unequivocal mandate.
That is why it is astonishing, if not downright offensive, to hear the carping noises of a section of the dispirited intelligentsia (including those with lofty political pedigrees) that Modi’s victory is bereft of both a mandate and legitimacy. Their reasoning is worth considering. Modi, it is being argued, secured less than 50 per cent of the popular vote. Add to the 60 per cent who voted differently (or chose Nota) the 35 per cent who didn’t vote at all, and the pro-Modi forces are reduced to a pathetic minority.
Conceding that statistics can often outdo the best tricks of a P.C. Sorcar, by this logic India has never had a legitimate majority government ever. Neither Jawaharlal Nehru — whose “idea of India” drives a section to blind anti-Modi rage — and Indira Gandhi, nor Rajiv Gandhi, who won the highest majority ever, secured more than 50 per cent of the popular vote. Are they all to be retrospectively illegitimate? Secondly, how can it be presumed that every citizen who either didn’t vote or found their names missing from the electoral rolls were part of the save-India-from-fascism brigade?
The dejected Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo member, Sitaram Yechury, has asked for India to consider moving to proportional representation. The suggestion is worth a debate, considering that in the 1980s some BJP leaders were strong advocates of it. But no amount of statistical skulduggery can deem that a system ought to be changed with retrospective effect. The dissenters have a right to form and take membership of an Electoral Reforms Society, but they have no right to question the validity of a democratic verdict.
However, those who cannot countenance the humiliation of the Congress and the outright rejection of dynastic rule are guilty of more than just nit-picking. What is significant about the decisive mandate is that it is accompanied by the burden of soaring expectations. In what was quite definitely a presidential-style campaign, the electorate didn’t merely vote out a government; they also chose a leader who was entrusted with the responsibility of ushering the promised achche din [good times].
In Western parliamentary democracies, people also couple their choice of an MP with their preference for a leader. However, this leadership test is also accompanied by a relatively more rigorous debate on policies proffered by the competing political parties. In India, while the odd constituency may be swayed by purely local considerations, a Lok Sabha election is principally an assessment of leadership capabilities.
The Modi wave didn’t lead to the BJP bagging a rich haul of seats in three states: West Bengal, Odisha and Tamil Nadu. Here, the regional parties successfully converted the battle for Delhi into a quasi-referendum on the three formidable chief ministers. The national made strong headway, but the regional prevailed on the strength of the same advantage that the first-past-the-post system confers on the dominant party. The implications are worth considering. The vote that saw the Trinamul Congress, AIADMK and Biju Janata Dal candidates prevailing wasn’t on the strength of a programme of governance. They were votes for Mamata Banerjee, J. Jayalalithaa and Naveen Patnaik respectively.
Indians tend to vote for a leader and then they leave it to the leader to formulate policies and run an effective government. This is at the heart of the fear that drives Modi’s detractors to statistical absurdities: the fear that Modi may unsettle a cosy consensus and break the mould of politics. Most important, they fear that, unlike other leaders who emerged from the Congress system, Modi could well dismantle an existing Establishment that has exercised uninterrupted dominance since 1947. It is a fear based on the perceived loss of self-importance and a morbid dread of the aesthetes being replaced by the outlanders, particularly those with the wrong accents. Certainly, the raw energy demonstrated by the Modi campaign would suggest that many of the cultural assumptions of an earlier age no longer find favour with Young India.
Modi became the flavour of the season not because he played by the old rules but because he defied them aggressively. His is not a mandate for consensus, but for a very different way of doing things. Today, the Establishment is understandably anxious to co-opt Modi into the beautiful world of Lutyen’s Delhi. This is not because they secretly admire him but because they seek to de-fang him and turn him into just another plodder. They seek to blunt the sharp edges of a mandate that is not merely for rapid economic growth but for a social transformation.
Have no doubts, by questioning the legitimacy of Modi and denying him the mandate he has won, the refined voices of the ancien régime are pressing for the status quo to prevail. From being the Gir lion that many perceive Modi to be, the high priests of loftiness want him to be another pussy cat prime minister. Let’s hope Modi can resist the assaults and blandishments.
The Telegraph, May 23, 2014
Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Sunday, May 18, 2014
Saturday, May 17, 2014
Friday, May 9, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
After the 2009 general election, I spoke to many politicians (both winners and losers) about the changing nature of campaigning. Most seemed to agree on one point: that the age of mass meetings, drawing lakhs of people, was coming to an end. In normal circumstances, it seemed that a crowd of 3,000 people would be tantamount to a successful meeting, with a star speaker drawing anything approaching 10,000 listeners. No doubt there were exceptions--as in West Bengal and Bihar--but overall it seemed that in 20 years time, election meetings in India would have to be conducted inside halls, as happens in the West. With rising media exposure, electioneering would have to be done primarily through TV.
In 2013-14, Narendra Modi proved us horribly wrong. Ever since he was anointed the BJP's prime ministerial candidate on September 13, 2013, Modi has spoken at mass rallies at over 450 places in India with average attendance approaching a lakh of people. Moreover, those who physically attended the rallies constitute a small chunk of the audience: live broadcasts have ensured that Modi actually spoke to a far larger audience. It is this use of the media as a force multiplier which has ensured that in just eight months the Gujarat Chief Minister has become a recognisable name all over India, including places where the BJP has no worthwhile presence. In the past, the Gandhi family was the only all-India political brand; in just eight months and after a punishing schedule that should leave most individuals physically drained, Modi has established himself as an alternative icon. The only casualty has been his voice which is getting hoarser by the day.
Throughout the election campaign that began in April, Modi has been criss-crossing the country and speaking on an average at four rallies each day. What is more significant is that unlike most politicians he has not been delivering the same template speech at each gathering. Each Modi speech has content tailored to the constituency he is addressing. The national message is invariably twinned to local issues--a technique that has ensured that the media cannot ignore him on any given day. Those detractors who insist that the euphoria around him is all a media creation are right: Modi has ensured he cannot be ignored. The media has been confronted with a choice of doing its duty or practicing political untouchability. Despite the misgivings of the editorial classes, it has travelled along the professional route. If only the Congress and other regional players had devoted as much time to preparing their message, they may not have felt so disadvantaged. Nor would they have had the occasion to spin fanciful conspiracy theories about India Inc manipulating the gullible.
Regardless of the final outcome, the 2014 general election will be remembered as the NaMo election. Part of this owes to the fact that the BJP used the techniques associated with a presidential election and applied it to a parliamentary election. This doesn't imply that candidates have ceased to be important and voters are only choosing between Modi and anti-Modi. It means that in the basket of issues and perceptions that shape the voting preference of individuals, the question of India's national leadership has acquired greater importance. If the opinion polls are suggesting that a significant chunk of voters are defying the call of caste, the construction of Modi as a towering leader has played a seminal role in making this happen.
Of course this dilution of traditional allegiances isn't universally true. Thanks to the demonology associated with Modi, this election may well demonstrate a gritty determination of India's Muslims to vote against Modi quite decisively. Although the strategic impact of this anti-Modi may well be seriously diluted owing to the fragmentation of the so-called secular alternative in both constituencies and states, this exceptional deviation has to be noted. But the Muslim aversion to Modi doesn't necessarily mean that the 2014 election is being fought on sectarian lines. It merely suggests that Muslims are looking at this election very differently from others. There is definite evidence of an emotional gulf amid convivial neighbourliness.
The 2014 election will be remembered as an election where Modi rewrote many of the rules governing politics. If this has led to consternation in the punditry, it has disoriented the apparatchiks in the BJP no less. Take the final days of the campaign as an example. Conventional wisdom deemed that the star of the campaign should focus his energies in working up the crowds in constituencies where the party candidate was either poised to win or where the contest was extremely close. In geographical terms, the BJP has traditionally concentrated on northern and western India. Modi, however, has devoted as much energy to enhancing BJP prospects in Seemandhra and West Bengal as he has in Uttar Pradesh.
To many, Modi's spirited intervention in the Gandhi pocket borough of Amethi appeared a case of misplaced enthusiasm. The final results may well confirm that suspicion. However, in getting a crowd of nearly one lakh and out-performing the Congress in terms of sheer visibility, Modi achieved two things. First, he bolstered the self-confidence of BJP workers in an area where the party has no worthwhile network. Having attended the rally, I can say with some certainty that by the end of campaigning on the evening of May 5, the local BJP believed that Rahul Gandhi could be unseated. Secondly, by putting the media attention on the Congress' supposed vulnerability in Amethi, Modi was quite successful in both overshadowing Priyanka Gandhi and, more important, nudging her into a linguistic mishap over the "neech" (low) expression.
Likewise, there has been bewilderment in some BJP circles at the amount of time Modi has devoted to West Bengal where the party has traditionally been a bit player. In private conversations, Modi has been emphasising the importance of Bengal where the response to him has been far beyond the most optimistic expectations. As in Amethi, in Asansol, Bankura and Krishnanagar, Modi has certainly motivated BJP supporters into believing that Mamata Banerjee can be successfully fought and even vanquished in key areas. If the BJP and its allies manage to win at least 30 seats from non-traditional areas in eastern and southern India, the chances of a Modi-led government will be significantly enhanced.
By the evening of May 16, the campaign details of the 2014 election will become history. Presuming that Modi wins, the success may well be attribute to a 'wave'--a somewhat all-encompassing shorthand that serves to cover-up the shortcomings of the pundits. However, a significant shift in public opinion and even a modest breakdown of traditional voting patterns doesn't happen in a vaccuum. The real success of a politician lies in detecting a trend, harnessing it with appropriate messaging and multiplying its potential through intelligent marketing.
In the selling of Narendra Modi, marketing and brand-building were no doubt very important. But that success owed almost entirely on a groundwork built on olf-fashioned political slog and a willingness to think big. If some of these principles can be applied to the more humdrum business of governance, the popular jingle "achche din aane wala hain" (the good days are beckoning) can truly become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Telegraph, May 9, 2014
Friday, May 2, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
There are not too many certitudes in this election--the 'obvious' is invariably a post-facto discovery. However, amid all the chatter about the youth vote, the aspirational classes and the relative importance or unimportance of caste, there is near-unanimity on one count: the Muslim community, with some exceptions, will not be voting for Narendra Modi to become Prime Minister of India.
This is unlikely to come as a surprise to anyone but the most obtuse. So strong and sustained has been the political assault on Modi since the post-Godhra riots of 2002 that an average Muslim citizen of India would understandably believe that a Modi-led India would an intolerant, even murderous, majoritarian state. In the 2004 election, for example, gory videos of the Gujarat riots were widely shown in nearly all the Muslim-dominated localities of India and helped reinforce the image of Modi as an ogre. Of course, this imagery was further bolstered by a section of the English-speaking commentariat that were blinded to the other tangible achievements of the Modi government in Gujarat.
It is, however, a mistake to believe that the visceral antipathy of a large section of the Muslim community was to Modi alone, and didn't extend to the rest of the BJP. In recent times, Atal Behari Vajpayee has been painted as an enlightened BJP leader whose large-heatedness ensured that he was acceptable to all Indians, regardless of faith. This image certainly helped Vajpayee during his term as Prime Minister. What is curious, however, is that Vajpayee's image as an 'inclusive', pan-Indian leader never helped the BJP secure any meaningful share of the Muslim vote. In 2004, when Vajpayee was at the height of his personal popularity, he failed to secure Muslim support in the Lucknow parliamentary seat that he represented. Indeed, disaggregated data of the voting pattern in Muslim-dominated mohullas of Lucknow suggested that he was the choice of not more than 750 Muslim voters.
The experience of many other BJP chief ministers who are presented in the media as having a 'secular' image is broadly similar. In Madhya Pradesh, the Muslims have no particular issue with Shivraj Singh Chauhan who, unlike Modi, has taken care to get himself photographed in a skull cap. Yet, nowhere has this been reflected in Muslim support for BJP in elections. Indeed, apart from Goa's Manohar Parikkar, no BJP leader has succeeded in securing the support of any non-Sikh minority.
An understanding of what Jaswant Singh once described to me as the "etymological block" facing the BJP is important in view of the contrived assertion by the pundits that Modi has deprived the BJP of any Muslim and, indeed, has ensured aggressive anti-BJP voting by Muslims. In a sense, this flaunting of the BJP's lack of Muslim support is turning out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The media, in particular, has made a fetish of reducing constituency and regional assessments of the electoral battles to the simple question: which way are the Muslims voting? Predictably, the answers prop up the belief that the BJP is an anti-secular force.
That the BJP is unlikely to emerge from the 2014 general election with any worthwhile Muslim support is obvious. However, acknowledging the obvious is one thing. To extrapolate from this gap in the BJP's social profile that the 2014 election has been communalised is quite another matter altogether. What is striking about this election is not so much that historical faultlines have been re-exposed but that Muslims are viewing the contest in a very different way from their neighbours, most of whom happen to be Hindus.
For most Indians, this election is about the future of themselves, their family, their community and India. There is an expasperation with the non-performance of the UPA, its inability to tap India's potential, its scams and its economic mismanagement. The election is also about the quality of leadership needed to bring about the transformation of the country and a yearning for decisiveness, especially when contrasted with the lacklustre style of the incumbent. In this battle, Modi has emerged as the centrepiece of the drama, with politicians taking sides in his favour or in opposition.
The Muslim perspective of these elections seem a little different. It is not that the community has been insulated from the economic turbulence India has witnessed. But some of these bread and butter concerns have been overshadowed by a parallel concern for security, especially in the wake of the riots in Kokrajhar and Muzaffarnagar. The BJP didn't trigger these riots and nor did they happen in states where the BJP is in power. On the contrary, much of the anger was directed at the governments of Tarun Gogoi and Akhilesh Yadav for their failure to protect lives and property. The irony is that this sense of insecurity was deftly manipulated by secularist community leaders into a fear of a Modi government. This deflection of real anger could well explain why the Muslim perception of this election is different from that of the rest. This despite Modi carefully steering his campaign away from identity issues and even extending his hand of cooperation to the Muslim community.
In electoral terms, this election may demonstrate that Muslim voters don't exercise a final veto. However, for the future, the next Prime Minister has to ensure that this emotional gulf is narrowed, if not totally bridged. Otherwise India could well encounter needless roadblocks when it comes to governance.
Asian Age, May 2, 2014