India’s election: A debacle for Congress, and challenges for Modi
By Krishna K. Tummala. India, the most populous working democracy in the world, completed elections to its 16th Parliament. Spreading over a six week period in nine phases, the election costs surpassed the last US Presidential election expense estimates of over $7billion. Of the over 814 million electors, 66 percent exercised their right to vote.
The election process was largely peaceful and fair. Among the 1,687 political parties registered with the Election Commission, candidates from 1650 parties were wiped out. Some established parties such as the Bahujan Swajwadi Party, the Communist Party of India, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and National Conference could not gain even a single seat. About six million voters used a rather unique option by voting NOTA— none of the above. What this means to Indian democracy other than an expression of distaste towards political aspirants in general is an imponderable. But among those elected were 61 women—a five percent gain from the previous Parliament. There was also a very peaceful transition, with a Prime Minister who served in that office for decade replaced on May 26th by Narendra Modi of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The Indian National Congress, which had governed the country ever since independence with a very few exceptions, either alone initially or with coalitions partners of late as the United Democratic Alliance (UPA) experienced the greatest debacle claiming only 44 seats of the 543 Parliament seats. But the BJP, beginning with only two seats in the Parliament and later recognized as the Opposition party, came out triumphant led by Modi. He comes into office as Prime Minister with the largest single party majority of 282 seats—a feat that was surpassed only now since 1984. Including its former allies, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the BJP has a majority of 339 seats.
While one can exult in sustaining the parliamentary and other political institutions, one cannot ignore the oft repeated slogan of criminalized politics, and politicized criminals. Of the 541 elected to Parliament over a third, a total of 186, reported on their election affidavits pending criminal cases against them. Of them 112 have serious criminal charges such as murder, attempted murder, crimes against women, to name a few. The BJP which always claimed the “holier than thou” attitude claimed 98 of their elected members in this criminal category. This also reflects the reach of corruption in the country.
Prime Minister Modi, starting his life as a helper in his father’s tea stall in a railway station, ruled the State of Guajarat for a decade showcasing it as the model of development. Yet he also garnered the reputation of exercising power in an individual capacity. Nary a member of his Cabinet was heard, nor given any credit; it was largely a one-man show. Sometimes he was also accused of being ruthless in pursuit of his developmental policies. But worse, he gained the notoriety of being a Hindu fundamentalist, backed by a militant Hindu nationalist outfit, the Rashtirya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Although he was absolved of charges that he abetted the riots in 2002 in Gujarat which claimed over a thousand Muslim lives, he never apologized for the atrocity in his state, nor did take any personal responsibility during his term of office.
While the Congress Party, which now sits as the Opposition in Parliament, its two leaders, Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul must be licking their wounds trying to analyze their political debacle. The claim that this is the end of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, however, might be premature. Both Sonia and Rahul offered their resignations as President and Vice President of the party, respectively, taking responsibility for the election disaster. But the party did the expected by turning down their request. Instead, some of the Congress leaders continue to harp on their leadership, and are even pining for the leadership of the younger and more charismatic daughter Prinyanka, given the lackluster performance of her brother Rahul who was projected as the next leader and Prime Ministerial candidate.
There are some factors that challenge explanation of Modi’s election. While he was castigated as anti-Muslim and a fundamentalist Hindu, there is evidence that a good number of Muslims voted for his party. Of the 87 constituencies with a large Muslim population, the BJP won 45 seats. In Delhi itself that party won all the seven seats. This also showed that the Aam Aadmi Party of Arvind Kejriwal which made a sensation not a few months ago when it captured the government in Delhi has little to show now. That party leaders who crusaded against corruption, largely behaved like juveniles with little political experience and barely lasted for 49 days. When many looked to it as a fresh wind in Indian politics, both Kejriwal and his party proved to be of no consequence.
Modi is the 15th Prime Minister of independent India– the very first born after India gained independence. Thus, he does not have to wear, or hide behind, the laurels of being in the national movement. This also means that he has to prove himself otherwise.
How did it all happen, and what now? Modi’s election is not only an affirmation of his political savvy but also a serious indictment of the ineptness, and the terrible corruption and inflation that flourished during the Congress regime. Past Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, a man of personal integrity, suffered many a handicap. For one, he is a technocrat with a Professorial demeanor with little political finesse. Second, he had to operate in the shadow of Sonia Gandhi to whom all roads led. Contrary to the tradition of designating the Prime Minister as the party leader in Parliament, Sonia was elected to serve as the parliamentary party leader (PPP). That very idea of a dual loci of power was a disaster. Third, he also had to preside over the UPA coalition government constituted with the help of a bunch of crooks who needed protection and pampering in return for their support, who also tried to blackmail the government with the threat of leaving the coalition, and thus bringing the government down. Such coalitions have been dubbed as “unholy alliances,” purely political and utilitarian to be in office, despite a common platform which was agreed upon by the coalition partners which is often respected in breach.
Then Modi showed that he is somehow pure, and to boot, a master of the social network. Moreover, the young voters– more than half of the Indian electors are less than 35 years of age– seem to have gravitated to him, leaving behind Rahul Gandhi who was supposed to have led the young brigade. These young, hungry and unemployed seem to have found a ray of hope in Modi. After all, they are not aware of the national movement and the role the Congress played therein which meant that they have no nostalgia, much less of a loyalty to either the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty or the Congress Party.
But now the great burden is on Modi and his BJP. For a starter, Modi, as opposed to the BJP’s slogan of not recognizing any “minorities” in a very diverse India, has to somehow shed his image of a fundamentalist Hindu, and show that he does care for minorities, in particular the Muslims who have been shown as among the least developed of the Indian population, including the so called Other Backward Classes (among the Hindus). He and his party will have to deal with their claim to repeal Article 370 of the Indian Constitution which accorded special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir– the former predominantly Muslim while trying to rehabilitate the several Hindu priests who fled from the latter. In this effort, the militant and newly empowered “Namo Brigade” of rabid Hindu nationalists need to be contained who are already known to be harassing those, writers in particular, who are critical of Modi. The RSS who gave full support to Modi are adamant in building the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, in the state of Uttar Pradesh on the ruins of a mosque demolished in 1992 by a Hindu mob under the pretext it was built on a site where there was supposed to be a temple to Lord Ram, a mythological Hindu deity who is believed by some as real person and a great ruler at one time. While some expected that the Hindu religious fervor would be muted as Modi takes the reigns of power, as the very first act after his election success, he went to the Hindu holy city of Varanasi (from where he was elected) and prayed to Lord Shiva at the Kasiviswanath temple.
Despite his national exposure, Modi’s success so far was confined to his state of Gujarat. As Prime Minister, he has the uneasy task of working in a federal form of government where most of the central government policies need serious cooperation of the various state governments. Modi’s experience so far was at his state level. Now he has to contend with several regional leaders, some of whom have harbored Prime Ministerial ambitions, forming the so-called Third Front as an alternative to the Congress led UPA or the BJP led NDA. Jayalaithaa of AIADMK party in the state of Tamil Nadu, Chandrababu Naidu of Telugu Desam Party in one part of the newly bifurcated former Andhra Pradesh, Mamata Benarjee of Trinamul Congress in West Bengal, and Naveen Patnaik in Odisha stand out. They all are in powerful positions, each with a substantial majority of their members elected to Parliament. Naidu has already got a good number of Cabinet positions to his own party members of Parliament. Jayalalithaa expressed her disenchantment as Modi extended the unusual invitations for his inauguration to the President of Sri Lanka, someone who had serious issues with the Tamils in Sri Lanka whose protagonist Jayalalithaa is. She stayed away from Modi’s inauguration ceremony. Benarjee, a former Cabinet Minister in Singh’s government who made a habit of pouting most of the time, herself is not attending the inauguration but deputing someone.
This also means that Modi would have to shed his one-man image that was the hall-mark in Gujarat as Chief Minister. But he has the overall, log-rolling majority in the Parliament. And he takes as his economic models of Singapore whose credentials as democratic government are suspect but economically developed under the one-man rule of its former Prime Minister, and China which cannot even be mentioned as a democracy. Could that mean Prime Minister Modi would behave high-handedly?
Since his election Modi, however, had shown a great humility and is making more than conciliatory gestures, reaching out for the regional parties who surely know that they need the assistance of the central government under Modi for all development programs in their individual states. Thus, mutual support and cooperation is not only an imperative but quite likely. After all it would be good being with a winner, that too with a great majority!
Above all, Prime Minister Modi has a lot to think about in the sense that he made several promises to improve the economy, and the innumerable expectations from the young, so far disenfranchised, who voted for him. On top of all this, he will have to contend with curbing the heightened corruption during the previous regime which also means he will make more enemies going after the “rascals”—a lesson taught to Kejriwal whose government lasted just 49 days after he announced that he was going after the big guns in the Congress party on corruption charges. After all, Sonia Gandhi took a week to send a congratulatory note to Modi on his elevation.
As to foreign policy, nationalist Modi is a novice. His first test would come in terms of how he would deal with Pakistan. Its Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, took his time to accept the invitation for the inauguration of Modi, unlike all other SAARC leaders who expressed their desire to attend with glee. Could it be that there is more friction between the Pakistani army and the civilian government with the former less inclined to be any friendlier with Modi and not enthusiastic with Prime Minister Sahrif’s visit to India? Then there is the ambivalent relationship with the United States which refused a visa to Modi since 2005, following the riots in Gujarat. Many fences need to be mended, more so from the poor handling by both governments of the case of an Indian Consular official in New York who was arrested and strip searched on charges of poor treatment of her maid. Since the signing of the nuclear deal, for which former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was credited, American businesses have been bitterly complaining of how hard it is doing business in India due to the myriad bureaucratic obstructions. How Modi handles China, a country whose government keeps insisting parts of India as their own and protested the visits of former Prime Minister to the Indian states in north east. But both nations knew of economic advantages in being trade friendly. In fact, China has dispatched its foreign Minister to meet his counterpart in India, post-haste. The two Asian economic giants could cooperate and progress together. There appears to be a good deal of enthusiasm among other foreign leaders as well who wish to enter into business deals with India. Rather interestingly it was announced that Modi would make his foreign trip to Bhutan, a relatively small and economically and financially inconsequential nation!
Internally, how Modi would tame the bureaucracy who for long are considered to be the “stumbling blocks” in governance is an imponderable.
Surely Prime Minister Modi has his plate full. He himself stated openly that it would take over ten years to contain the rot in the country—a luxury that he could ill afford given the high expectations for quick fixes and great hopes.
Krishna K. Tummala is Professor Emeritus (Kansas State University), specializing in public administration, comparative administration in particular. His latest book, Politics of Preference: India, United States and South Africa is due in July 2014.