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Lessons from India

Publication Date : 03-06-2014


India is on the cusp of immense change. The election of Narendra Modi – an unthinkable outcome as recently as a year ago – will alter Asian, if not global, politics.

The 63-year-old is now at the helm of a 1.2 billion-strong nation. How he manages them will have an enormous impact.

The National Democratic Alliance led by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 336 seats in India’s 543-seat lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha.

The BJP itself gained an outright majority with 282 seats – the first time this has happened since 1984 and a remarkable achievement for the one-time tea seller turned chief minister of Gujarat.

It has also caused consternation in many quarters.

Secularists and religious minorities are still deeply suspicious of Modi’s role in Gujarat’s bloody 2002 anti-Muslim riots.

Yet Modi was able to clear this hurdle and how he did so presents fascinating lessons for politicians everywhere.

First: it really is the economy, stupid.

Modi ran a campaign largely free of the Hindu nationalist (or Hindutva) rhetoric.

Rather than harp on communalist grievances, his message was creating jobs, fighting corruption and improving infrastructure.

He even spoke about the need for India to create “toilets, not temples”.

Voters – especially the 10 million young Indians entering the work force annually – believed him, given his success in Gujarat – which grew by an average of 10% from 2004 to 2012.

As a result, farmers and labourers joined billionaires like Mukesh Ambani and academics like Jagdish Bhagwati under Modi’s banner.

Second: you have to work hard.

Modi maintained a hectic schedule during the election campaign, addressing rallies in almost 5,800 locations.

He also utilised technology extensively – including “3D rallies”, where holograms of him speaking were played to crowds in 1,350 locations.

Third: discipline, discipline, discipline.

In the previous Congress-led government, it was not certain who was really in charge: was it Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi or her heir-apparent, Rahul?

Nobody can doubt that Modi will be number one in his government. Indeed, he impressed voters by openly telling would-be warlords that jobs in his Cabinet will be given by merit, not political strings.

As Pranjal Sharma, consulting editor for Businessworld India, told me: “The governance structure between the previous prime minister and his party president created institutional dysfunction at the highest level. Cabinet ministers and state governments worked independent of each other without a grand plan or vision. Modi can revive development and growth momentum as long as he doesn’t get distracted by the xenophobic elements of the ruling political coalition.”

The fact that Modi could run a communalist-free campaign suggests that he has room to manoeuvre.

No one – certainly not potential rivals in the BJP – can doubt his Hindu nationalist credentials.

He didn’t need to keep proving this.

Indeed, by bucking such trends, Modi is showing voters that he has the will to put national considerations above politics.

Of course, it helped that his rivals were so weak.

Rahul Gandhi seemed as if he was auditioning for the leadership of the opposition rather than the premiership.

Also, the insurgent “Common Man Party” (Aam Aadmi Party) of Arvind Kejriwal failed to make much of an impact despite being a media favourite.

Voters are more likely to back mainstream parties in crucial, realigning elections like 2014. Furthermore, Arvind’s antics – such as resigning as Chief Minister of Delhi after just over a month in office – damaged Aam Aadami’s reputation with voters.

This combination of a universal message, hard work and discipline made what was once almost unthinkable possible in India.

Modi now has a historic opportunity to remake India as he sees fit, although concerns over the damage he could do to India’s plural polity remain.

As Vinod K. Jose, the executive editor of the acclaimed Caravan magazine, writes:

“The Hindu right politico-cultural movement had the best ever candidate in its 90-year-old history in Narendra Modi ... The verdict is so sound that now Modi can chose to use it whichever way he wants it – he can deliver on the Hindutva front and keep his primary constituency happy, or address governance and investor issues, or chose to do both. I hope Modi doesn’t play around with the secular character of Indian society, and the promise its wonderful Constitution makes to all hues of people.”


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