The massive verdicts like that of 2014 General Election and the recent one in U.P. are not for incrementalism. People want revolutionary change in the system.
PM’s overwhelming “street cred” gives him enough room to shake up the system and tackle big challenges facing the economy.
Can he do it?
The BJP has emerged as the national consensus in a time of post-identity politics, with the NDA footprint now covering 17 states, collectively accounting for two-thirds of India’s population. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while accused of demagoguery, polarising narratives and reactionary populism, appears to have presented a diametric vision to the electorate: of communities melded into an overarching Indian identity rather than stratified into clamouring interest groups shaped by perceived or real oppression. Therein lies the source of his moral authority.
The Congress and socialists have long subscribed to liberal dogma which holds majority concerns as weightless, equates nationalism with unprincipled majoritarianism and finds the manifestly liberal notion of a Uniform Civil Code somehow illiberal. They may now redraft their playbook to go beyond the rhetoric of religion and caste.
Modi is attempting an alternate liberal narrative based on positives, unimpeded by a manufactured standard of political correctness which lauds diversity but demands conformity. It is this, more than the expansion of the BJP in the states and local bodies in Maharashtra and Odisha, which signals a significant political shift.
The method in the apparent madness of appointing Hindutva poster boy Yogi Adityanath as chief minister of UP may thus be seen in two ways. First, which worked well for Modi in Gujarat, by ensuring caste consolidation behind the BJP. Second, it defuses the firebrand politician by putting him to work. Young, feisty and popular in eastern UP, he is now under pressure to deliver on the Modi agenda of development, law and order and meeting the aspirations of the youth.
Caste diversity shaped India’s politics for almost three decades, faith diversity for even longer. In celebrating the idea of a diverse India by sanctifying the most distinct identity groups, many others were left out in the cold. Identity liberalism at its worst encouraged people to be inward-looking and strait-jacket communities through ever-narrowing distinctions of caste and creed, inevitably leading to crab-like social conflict, with one group trying to get ahead at the cost of another.
Sub-identities are shaped by negatives; be it dalit, OBC, gender or minority, they are defined by what they lack and thus, must be protected through creation of entitlements. Decades of identity-based entitlements, however, have not helped level the field. As a result, the party which pioneered such transformative social legislations such as the Forest Rights Act, the Right to Information, the Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act and the Food Security Act, stands rejected by the electorate.
The NDA now has, or will have in 2018, the numbers to implement Modi’s centre-right vision, which is prima facie both affirmative and universal. As senior journalist Ajay Upadhaye points out, electoral politics has a direct bearing on the pace of change: “Just as a severe reversal in Andhra Pradesh derailed P.V. Narasimha Rao’s economic reforms in 1994, the BJP’s success in the assembly elections should push economic and administrative reform”.
The pain of demonestisation was borne not just with fortitude, but with a sense of participation in a collective, moral, transformative cause. To say that it polarised rich and poor is an oversimplication which does not explain the consolidation behind the BJP in UP. Almost three years through NDA II, the electorate has affirmed its trust in Modi. Call it charisma, or moral authority; he carried the elections. An Uttarakhand Congress nominee was moved to admit, “Modi held four public meetings in the state; it was enough—the tide turned against us”. The PM’s overwhelming “street cred” now allows adequate wiggle room for muscular domestic and foreign policies.
A legal framework for big ticket reforms and the drive against corruption is in place: the Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Act, the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Act, the Aadhaar or Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies Act and the Goods and Services Tax. The devil is in the implementation i.e, the rusty framework of governance which has consistently failed to deliver on aspirational programmes like Digital India, Swachh Bharat, Make in India, Smart Cities, Namami Gange and Skill India—and is responsible for the manifest Unease of Doing Business.
The Economic Survey 2017-18 describes the challenges to the Indian economy and how they can be overcome. It points out the misallocation in spending on welfare, the lack of convergence between economic and human development indicators, the twin problem of over-leveraged companies and an NPA ratio highest among emerging markets (other than Russia). It emphasises the need for tax reforms to bring real estate into the GST, reduce tax rates and stamp duties, rein in rabid tax officials and allay fears of “tax terrorism” and extortion by regulators, a point raised by the Laghu Udyog Bharti, an RSS-affiliated organisation.
The severely skewed food and agriculture economy stands in crying need of reform. Direct subsidy transfers apart, measures like crop insurance and the National Agriculture Market (eNAM) can revolutionise farm incomes, provided the states streamline delivery mechanisms. Enhanced credit flow to this sector is welcome, but will have meaning only with appropriate targeting of beneficiaries. Institutional innovations and investment in farm and post-harvest infrastructure are likely to yield more dividends than lobby-driven measures like genetically engineered crops and farmer-unfriendly land laws, which serve only to annoy the RSS.
Two game changers are on the cards. One is rationalising property taxes to financially empower urban local bodies. The Economic Survey observes: “All efforts must be directed at realising potential of property taxes. There is a need to adopt the latest satellite based techniques to map urban properties.” Barely five to 20 per cent of urban properties are actually taxed; only by realising the potential revenue can the infrastructure deficit in urban settlements be met. Particularly because the Rs 87,000 crore grant to urban level bodies (2015-20) for basic urban services is vulnerable to diversion or misuse by state governments, a point raised by urban development minister N. Venkaiah Naidu last year.
The other is the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) to replace the multiplicity of social welfare schemes, which is possible only through the universalisation of Aadhaar, Jan Dhan Yojana and mobile-based transactions. Judging from his statement that the poor need opportunities, not alms, Modi rejects the idea of a nanny state or mai-baap sarkar which fosters the dependency syndrome. But a bootstraps-over-handouts approach sends chills down the collective spine of politicians and activists, who fear subsidy cutbacks. Many a finance minister has touted job creation over sops, but lacked the courage to re-orient subsidies accordingly. “All of this is possible, but it takes political will and gumption,” says economist Mohan Guruswamy. Populism is bad but safe politics and no politician is willing to act otherwise, he adds.
Take the case of Punjab, where Captain Amarinder Singh’s efforts to roll back the power subsidy to the farm sector in 2002 flopped miserably. Eight years later, state finance minister Manpreet Badal was sacked by the SAD-BJP government when he attempted the same thing. Power theft, disguised as Transmission and Distribution losses, is rampant. The result is accumulated power sector losses of Rs 2.9 lakh crore. State governments have so far not been held accountable for questionable fiscal policies. Modi, with more than half the states under BJP rule, can lay down the law.
On the foreign policy front, establishing a dialogue with US President Donald Trump, who Modi will meet at the G-20 or perhaps even earlier, is the primary challenge. The visit to Israel, at a time when diplomatic relations with that country have never been more cordial, is planned around the same time. Closer home, the Madhesi agitation in Nepal will require delicate handling.
Cautionary tales of the hazards of triumphalism abound in Indian politics; hopefully, the NDA will side-step that particular trap. Yes, it can leverage its strength in Uttar Pradesh—which has the largest chunk of votes among the states in the electoral college—to effect its own choice of President and Vice-President in July-August of this year, as well as to dominate the Rajya Sabha next year.
But the municipal elections in Delhi and the assembly elections in Gujarat later this year present tough challenges. The former because of severe anti-incumbency and the latter, because of unresolved social conflicts. Hardik Patel represents just one among many interest groups (Jats, Gujjars, etc) who feel left out of India’s growth story and lash out at the state (whoever the incumbent may be). Modi’s vision will be tested against their angst.
UP is a done deal for the present, but in the long run, Mandalisation may change the ground rules yet again. In Bihar, the MBCs and EBCs (most and extremely backward castes) who have not benefited from Mandal unlike the upper OBCs, propelled Nitish Kumar to power. In UP, they consolidated behind the BJP, for the first time since 1991, when the party appointed a backward leader as chief minister. Veteran RSS worker Rajesh Katiyar observed, “This is the first election in UP we have fought seriously since Kalyan Singh.” Over time, if denied a level playing field, the MBCs and EBCs will seek their own leaders and platforms.
It is tempting to write off the Congress and social justice parties, particularly the Bahujan Samaj Party. The Congress, presenting itself as inclusive, in practice promoted some interest groups at the cost of others, thereby gradually distancing itself from voters. The social justice parties, too, find quotas and caste hegemonies in administration yielding diminishing political returns in the present.
To his credit, former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav appears to have grasped that a caste-based, sectarian, criminalised party has no place in post-millenial politics. As a product of a Muslim-Yadav coalition, he could hardly distance himself from it, but is seeking to cast the Samajwadi Party in a more inclusive mould and live down its corrupt, nepotist, gender-insensitive and casteist image. But first, the SP must survive what promises to be a tumultous generational transition.
Mayawati’s failed electoral calculus (19 per cent Muslims + 21 per cent Dalits = 40 per cent) will doubtless trigger an outreach to other parties (given that 22.2 per cent BSP + 21.8 per cent SP > 39.7 per cent BJP) and a strategic rethink: less arrogance, greed and all-around divadom; more accessibility, grassroots activism and mentoring of young leaders.
Regardless, the prospect of a united opposition at the national level in 2019 appears dim. Erstwhile allies Congress and SP may talk of a “mahagathbandhan” but are simultaneously engaged in a blame game. The alliance itself made strategic sense but became a haphazard, 11th-hour exercise which hurt more than it helped. Congress leader Salman Khursheed pointed out, “You can’t call in the surgeon when the patient is on his last legs”. When the Congress was reduced to virtual non-existence in UP, with fewer seats than BJP ally Apna Dal, party nominees blamed the SP. “My campaign lost momentum in the uncertainty,” observed Congress candidate and former MLA Vivek Bansal, who had to take on the official SP nominee and the sitting MLA, also from the SP!
The vexed question of opposition unity arises largely because the Congress is no longer the natural centre of gravity, making it difficult for regional leaders of equal stature, like Nitish Kumar, Mamata Bannerjee and Naveen Patnaik, to coalesce. The answer to the question, “Modi vs who?” demands a predominant leader who will be the prime ministerial face. Sadly for the opposition, “Modi vs Rahul” has so far been a no-contest.
Rahul’s job is a sinecure; he does not need to stake his prestige on an election, as Modi did in UP. How then, will he address the decay of his party? The manipulation of identities for electoral gain has proved to be self-limiting and the presumption of moral superiority based on its ideology has no resonance at a time when the centrist space has been hollowed out. Also, the implicit perception of national interest as subservient to those of “deprived” groups is counter-productive. Khursheed despondently observed in the wake of the 2014 blitzkrieg, “The minority vote has been rendered irrelevant.” Mayawati could well say the same of the dalit vote, or Akhilesh of the Yadav vote.
What if the Congress were to pitch strongly for a Uniform Civil Code, thus coopting the BJP agenda and righting a historical wrong? Shah Bano has shaped Congress policy for 30 years, sending it careering between minorityism and soft Hindutva. The liberal intellectuals who subverted justice in 1986 by ramming an unjust law through Parliament (the Muslim Women Protection of Rights in Divorce Act) appear to have run out of big ideas.
The party is also short of leaders. The Congress’ strength in the past was founded on its footprint, ie, grassroots regional leaders: Sharad Pawar, Y.S. Rajashekhar Reddy, Digvijaya Singh, Madhavsinh Solanki, D. Devraja Urs, P.A. Sangma and H.D. Joshi. The Family can keep the party together, but it cannot win elections. State satraps like Captain Amarinder Singh can. He helped stall the Aam Aadmi Party’s all-India campaign in its tracks, muting fears of his party’s displacement by other centrist forces.
AAP spokesperson Ashutosh clarifies that it does not see itself as a “replacement” party: “It came out of a civil society movement, not from power politics...it is not like any other party”. Lacking the resources to target large states, AAP had focussed on Punjab and Goa in the short term and Gujarat in the medium term. The news is not all bad; after all, it was the frontrunner in Punjab until internal dissension and mis-steps scuttled its chances. AAP still remains a party with a difference, a fallback when other players fail the credibility test.
The Congress could learn from the BJP’s investment in regional leaders, notably under the stewardship of L.K. Advani, which paid huge dividends in the form of a strong second-rung cadre—one of whom went on to become Prime Minister. The two parties will go head-to-head in three state elections over the next year, in Gujarat, Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh. The Congress faces anti-incumbency in two.
BJP president Amit Shah’s next major effort will be in the East and South. The party’s three assembly seats in West Bengal, which will hold panchayat elections next year, are the thin end of the BJP wedge. In Kerala, increasing disaffection in the Congress and a strong organisational base present an opportunity for growth. Post-Jayalalitha and the implosion of the AIADMK, Tamil Nadu, too, is fertile ground that can be seeded.
The PM and BJP president have won the unqualified support of the RSS, expressed at the annual Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha on 19-22 March, which does not mean that aggressive frontal organisations like the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, Swadeshi Jagran Manch and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh will roll over and play dead vis-a-vis unpalatable government policies.
Modi has a small window of opportunity for an imperative shake-up and reconfiguration of government to tackle critical challenges in the economy and to achieve his political and social agenda, before the NDA swings into election mode in 2019. The times have thrown up the man - Modi. It remains to be seen whether the man can shape the times.