Modi, An Indian Caesar? Or, How Not to Interpret the Indian Election Results

May 19, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Narendra Damodardas Modi’s spectacular victory in the 16th Lok Sabha elections—the first time in 30 years that a single political party has gained a majority of seats—has been hailed as a “democratic asteroid” by Sunil Khilnani, presumably in reference to the asteroid that is said to have exterminated the dinosaurs. The venerable dinosaur of Indian politics, the Congress Party, has indeed been reduced to a cipher, gaining less seats all-India than Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won in Uttar Pradesh alone. And Pratap Bhanu Mehta crowed “Modi is a political phenomenon without precedent”:

he presented himself as something new: to walk into Bihar and talk about transcending caste politics, to utter the sentence no secularist in India has had the courage to utter, that poverty has no religion, to dream of reviving India’s growth prospects, to talk about jobs, to tap into the restlessness for doing things. He became an embodiment for a desire for change.

Even critics of Modi for his failure to protect Muslims from a massacre in 2002 when he was chief minister of Gujarat, like Tunku Varadarajan, argue that “it is time to wipe his slate clean” as we must honor the choice of the electorate and stop harping on 2002  because:

the size of Modi’s majority, … would allow him to govern magnanimously, and with no vindictiveness toward those who did not vote for him. His parliamentary numbers allow him to enact economic reforms that Indians crave, with no need to buy off, or kowtow to, difficult coalition partners. They allow him, also, to extend a hand of reconciliation to India’s Muslims, who, at 11 percent of the population number just over 170 million people. Early analyses indicate that only 10 percent of Muslim voters cast their ballots for the BJP, although the party did win just over 40 percent of all seats with a significant Muslim population.

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Even a cursory glance at the electoral map of India will reveal the magnitude of BJP’s victory and the virtual annihilation of the Congress Party. Indeed, borrowing a page from Indira Gandhi’s victorious 1971 Garibi Hatao (“Eliminate Poverty”) campaign that projected her as a presidential-style candidate, Modi bested the Congress led by her daughter-in-law and grandson, by jettisoning the BJP’s Hindutva rhetoric and projecting himself as a no-nonsense champion of free enterprise and corporate capital.

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In the first instance, the BJP’s stunning victory was a complete repudiation of the Congress—just as the 1977 Janata Party triumph was a repudiation of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency Rule. After having delivered high rates of economic growth during the Congress-led First United Progressive Alliance (UPA) term (2004-09), the country’s growth rate was halved during its second term (2009-14), even though at an annual average of 5.4%, it was still respectable in world terms when other economies are limping along at 0.1% to 2% annual growth rates. Rejection of the Congress stemmed from the Manmohan Singh government’s seeming inability to promote any bold initiatives when the economy was sluggish and inflation had risen to a three-month high in April, just as the massive nine-stage election got underway.

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As pessimism about the economy mounted, Modi projected his ‘vibrant Gujarat’ as the model for India—a model with 24-hour electricity, a thriving agricultural sector, and the world’s largest oil refinery. Modi’s no-nonsense approach to industrialization was manifested by his invitation to Tata to produce his Nano car in Gujarat in 2006 after a two-year long farmers’ protest in Singrur, West Bengal led the company to abandon the project there. Modi immediately welcomed him to Gujarat, cut through the red-tape, and signed an agreement in a record 10 days with Tata Motors. This was, as Vinod K. Jose underlined, Modi’s decisive shift from brutal Hindutva to a corporate friendly strategy. When industrialists had once castigated him for his role in the Godhra massacre of Muslims in 2002, now they began courting him. As did intellectuals—Jagdish Bhagwati who had earlier castigated him for the Godhra massacres, told the Financial Times in an interview in April that he would be “optimistic” about India’s economic prospects only if Modi was elected prime minister. Colliding with corporate campaigns to promote Modi, the largest English-language newspaper in the country, the Times of India, “innovated a revenue-stream called ‘paid news’.”

Large corporate donations, and a slick media campaign allowed Modi to campaign all over the country—often holding five mass meetings a day—appearing in regional costumes and spending an unprecedented amount of money as India has no limits to campaign spending. Campaigning in presidential style, Modi offered as Pankaj Mishra pointed out

top-down modernisation, but without modernity: bullet trains without the culture of criticism, managerial efficiency without the guarantee of equal rights. And this streamlined design for a new India immediately entices those well-off Indians who have long regarded democracy as a nuisance, recoiled from the destitute masses, and idolised technocratic, if despotic, “doers” like the first prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew.

And his messages were cloaked appropriately for a vast country with different electorates and he reaped a national harvest of votes except in the southern states where his economic message did not carry as these states were doing better than his ‘vibrant Gujarat’ or the East—where association with the Congress did not taint the regional parties in power.

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The Congress, in turn, has been reduced to a shell of its former self—its members in the Lok Sabha plummeting from 206 in 2009 to a mere 44 in 2014, not enough for the leader of its parliamentary party to be recognized as the Leader of the Opposition. As the journalist T N Ninan pithily summarizes the plight of what was once the natural party of government:

The Congress… is now without a strong base anywhere, having been wiped out in its earlier stronghold of Andhra Pradesh, bested in Karnataka, routed in Maharashtra, sidelined in West Bengal, marginalised in Uttar Pradesh, and drawn a virtual blank in more than half a dozen key states across the heartland – a repeat of its rout in the state elections five months ago.

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That this was not an anti-incumbency vote is indicated by the spectacular success of the AIADMK in Tamilnadu which captured 37 of the 39 seats and denied even a single seat to its regional rival, the DMK which was itself enmeshed in the corruption scandals of the Congress party and mired in a feud within its first family; the Trinamul Congress in West Bengal; and the Biju Janata Party in Odisha.The Left had nothing to offer the electorate. After their hopes of a Third Front were cynically dashed by Jayalalithaa who refused to allocate them a single seat in Tamil Nadu, they were left making rote noises about the evils of communalism, privatization, and globalization. The CPM’s long rule in West Bengal had increasingly isolated it from the masses as shown by its brutality towards villagers in Nandigram and Singrur. With its lack of political imagination and creativity, as Shiv Vishvanathan says

The Left leadership of Mr. Bardhan and Mr. Karat belong to a Tussauds of Marxism and one hopes the Left generates new leaders open to a new language of politics and justice. Numbers must generate rethinking in these parties.

Just as much as the sluggish-ness of the economy, it was the corruption scandals that plagued the Manmohan Singh government. Instead of holding open auctions, the government allocated coal-blocks worth some ₹1.86 lakh crore (almost $30 billion) to private firms without any transparent criteria. So too were the 2G and 3G cellular spectrums allocated to private mobile networks. And since 2004, in the run-up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, as Vishvanathan noted,

nearly 400,000 people from three large areas of Delhi were displaced, in a series of indiscriminate evictions reminiscent of the last days of the Emergency, to make way for new construction connected to the games. The tournament infrastructure was built with rampant violations of protections like the Minimum Wages Act, and with the widespread use of child labour. The litany of moral failings could go on.

Even when pressed in the only interview he gave in 10 years, Rahul Gandhi, the Congress vice president and dynastic heir apparent, could not explain why the party failed to take action against those found guilty of corruption or continue to nominate them as candidates. His stumbling, inept performance in the election campaign, rarely answering the charges that Modi hurled at him, his mother, and the ‘dynastic’ politics of the Congress only solidified Modi’s image as a dynamic leader. As the journalist, Rahul Pandita, wrote:

All these years Mr. Gandhi spoke about the social schemes the Congress party had introduced in a manner similar to how quacks at roadside Himalayan dawakhanas speak of their “herbs” to cure venereal diseases. In the last few months, his laying down his vision for a better India became a comic spectacle. He referred to poverty as a “state of mind” and commented that “the poor can’t eat roads.

And yet, if Modi jettisoned the rabid Hindutva rhetoric of the BJP, and indeed had marginalized its affiliated organizations like the RSS and the VHP in Gujarat, in the three elections he led in his home state, the BJP did not offer a single seat to a Muslim despite the community accounting for 10 percent of the state’s population. And of the 282 members of the BJP elected to the 16th Lok Sabha, not a single one is a Muslim—its lone Muslim candidate, Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, having lost the election. In his native Gujarat, Muslims are condemned to live in ghettos akin to the Jewish ones in pre-Second World War Europe as they are prevented from renting or buying houses in “Hindu” areas.

Unlike Modi, his key lieutenants, especially Amit Shah, the BJP General Secretary, said that the election was to seek “revenge” against the Muslims in Uttar Pradesh. And in neighboring Bihar, another senior BJP leader, Giriraj Singh, invited all those opposed to Modi to “go to Pakistan.”  As a consequence, surveys suggest that the Congress increased its vote share of Muslims substantially—from 33 percent to 44 percent in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk constituency, and to over 90 percent in Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh. Conversely, the Hindu vote consolidated for the BJP. This does not bode well for communal relations. Already there are reports of jubilant BJP supporters throwing stones and breaking windows of mastoids, of Muslims being beaten up for not participating in BJP victory processions.

Nor does it bode well that a third of the new MPs face criminal charges—and these are spread across the political spectrum.

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The scale of Modi’s victory and his record of cutting his rivals down in Gujarat casts him as an Indian strong man, an Indian Caesar. With the 330-odd seats that his National Democratic Alliance commands in the Lok Sabha, it is believed that he would not have to cater to the demands of his coalition partners as his BJP has enough seats to govern on its own. Though much of the implementation of economic programs depends on state legislatures, the magnitude of his victory his supporters believe will compel the states to comply with the diktats from Delhi. Once Modi gets the government out of the way and stop pampering the poor and the lazy, the narrative purveyed by the business-friendly press suggests, nothing will stop bold, innovative, enterprising entrepreneurs from making the twenty-first century, the “Indian century.” As the scale of Modi’s victory became apparent, stock prices in Indian bourses rose exponentially, and Mukesh Ambani, the country’s wealthiest man and ardent Modi supporter saw his net worth increase by $1 billion in a single day!

 

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Gita Gopinath and Iqbal Dhaliwal, respectively professors of economics at Harvard and MIT, articulate the new wisdom that Modi will de-regulate the economy and India will rapidly rise in the “Ease of Doing Buisiness” rankings; that the flood of investments will lead to greater employment and as labor costs in manufacturing rise in China, India will become the natural harbor for companies seeking a cheaper workforce and there will be prosperity for all. What is crucially missing from this fairy tale is that this has been the predictions of every neoliberal experiment since the coup in Chile in 1972 and none of it has borne fruit. By neglecting primary and secondary education since independence, India has a very poorly trained labor force in comparison to China; by neglecting health expenditures, India even trails Bangladesh in many key indicators. The country’s infrastructure—roads, ports, electricity, water supply—are in shambles. And in manufacturing the world over, labor’s share in profits and plummeting as increasingly production is driven by numerically-controlled machines and robots, so greater industrialization does not necessarily lead to greater employment. In fact, by eschewing the social democratic redistributive measures, pursued albeit half-heartedly and ham-handedly by the Congress, Modi will further decrease India’s competitiveness.


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