Most of the major political parties in India, other than the Communist parties, do not align their electoral rhetoric within a broad, directional, policy agenda. Why should they when the outcomes from ideological monogamy have been so very poor?
The demise of ideology
During the 2014 general election, the share of valid votes of both the Communist parties was less than two per cent in 31 of the 35 states and Union territories. In the four remaining states, they did better – Manipur (14 per cent), West Bengal (25 per cent), Kerala (29 per cent) and Tripura (65 per cent). But an ideologically trapped Left Front now rules only in Kerala.
Citizens, consequently, vote in an ideological vacuum. They are often blindsided when parties, once elected, depart from their core electoral agendas. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (1984-1989) resorted to transactional communalism, trying to please both orthodox Muslims (an ordinance denied Shah Bano divorce compensation) and staunch Hindus (the opening of the locked gates of the Babri Masjid).
Prime Minister Narendra Modi swore in 2014 to bring in “less government” but he has modelled his “New India” as a simulation of “Imperial China” under President Xi Jinping. The BJP came to power in 2014 on the financial and political clout of the business community — its traditional supporters. But once in power, it disrupted the business environment via the twin shocks of demonetisation and a hasty rollout of the Goods and Services Tax regime, to capitalise on a populist slogan of “rooting out corruption”.
Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party was the first, in recent times, to ride to power in 2013 on an “anti-corruption” wagon, during the waning days of Dr Manmohan Singh’s UPA-2 government, when scams and corruption dominated the narrative. The BJP, cannily, scaled this crusade to an entirely different level, just before the February 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, which it won by a landslide.
The dull, sameness across the political spectrum
All parties swear by the poor, the struggling farmers, small industry and workers – this group conveniently covers nearly 90 per cent of voters. None posit a vision of private business led development. None proposes privatising our public sector behemoths. None proposes to reform government HR structures.
With less than 10 days to go for the first phase of voting, only the CPI(M) has released its 2019 election manifesto. It is cast in stone from a previous era when the public sector was the core of the economy; the “exploitative” private sector needed to be controlled in the public interest and people still believed in state-led development.
No best-fit international models for job creation except, contextually remote, China
High-capacity nations like Russia, the social democratic countries of Northern Europe and the oil-rich sheikhdoms of West Asia, all funded by natural resources, have been successful in public sector-led development. But it is China which has really shown an alternative path for poorer countries through a unique model of public-private collaboration (closely resembling crony capitalism), tightly overseen by a vertically integrated, pan-national, single party apparatus. Russia follows a similar model. Compared to their colleagues abroad, our Communists are antiquated, impractical and bogged down by dogma, which presents no viable development templates for India.
Face-off between the BJP and others, with Congress as a proxy
The BJP’s agenda has evolved considerably since 2014. The resolve to fashion core support around the issue of Hindutva has hardened. This appears to have wide support as a desirable pushback to the earlier politically correct but hypocritical strategy, of “seeming” to be even-handed across religions.
Babasaheb Ambedkar’s apprehension that democracy would seduce dalits into perpetual subjection to the upper castes through a “Stockholm syndrome” — where the oppressed feel compelled to align with the oppressors — type of supplicatory upward mobility, rings true. Democracy assists in Hindu consolidation.
Engine two of the BJP electoral machine is hyper-nationalism, which works well, so long as the average person is not asked to sacrifice anything more personal than their television viewing time. The nation is flying high on the backs of our gutsy armed forces, who will surely be asked to do even more in the days to come, as will the Isro/DRDO team to showcase Indian space monitoring, communication and missile technology. These electoral tricks were first used by Indira Gandhi.
To be fair to the BJP, and most particularly the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah team, the sheer energy and doggedness of their effort to improve government performance has worked wonders. The promise for 2019, thus far only implicitly available from the BJP, is “more of the same”. More roads, bridges, tunnels, fast trains, toilets, affordable houses, clean drinking water points, airports, air connections, smarter cities, hospitals, schools and colleges and higher farm gate prices for agricultural produce — all on the back of continued “high” growth.
Faced with this blitzkrieg of Chinese-style public investment-fed development, the Congress is distinguishing itself from the BJP by locking itself into the pro-poor corner of the canvas. Two Congress initiatives stand out. First, the mega welfare income support programme benefiting 50 million of the poorest families, out of a total of around 250 million families, with an unconditional direct transfer of Rs 72,000 per year. Equalling 1.8 per cent of the GDP, this is a bold — many say reckless — move. But then elections are not won by the pusillanimous.
A second major initiative might be to extend the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme to urban areas for 100 days of guaranteed work to any willing adult on demand or an unemployment allowance. This could attract the educated and skilled urban, aspirational neo-middle class at a loss for jobs. The fiscal implications would be hugely disruptive, especially if the income support scheme (attractively branded as Nyay — Justice) and the Urban NREGA are not synchronised. Both schemes perpetuate the UPA’s pessimistic assumption that the State’s capacity cannot be revitalised for effective public service delivery.
The good news is that the Indian voter still has two real electoral choices. The Congress and allied regional parties cater to a program of broader social inclusion and the “soft state” approach of massive income redistribution through direct income transfers, with the downside of either fiscal instability or potentially higher taxation.
In contrast, the BJP flaunts its record of fiscal stability; its ability to aim high, an impressive history of project implementation and a matching robust foreign policy stance with branded global outreach on the back of India’s growing economy and its military assets.
Which strategy prevails will depend upon whether votes are cast from the heart or the head. You, dear reader, decide which is which.
Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in The Asian Age, April 2, 2019 https://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/020419/will-india-vote-with-its-heart-or-with-its-head.html