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A landmark mandate for change

LiveMint logoLiveMint 20-05-2014 Rishabh Bhandari

The general election to the 16th Lok Sabha has delivered a landmark mandate for change. The scale of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) victory has dramatically reoriented the political landscape. A political party has been able to secure a majority in the Lok Sabha on its own after three decades. Even the most passionate of BJP supporters could be forgiven for being surprised at the telling nature of this verdict. As a Narendra Modi-led administration prepares to assume office, it will know that a decisive mandate such as this has elevated public expectations. The electorate will expect that the promise of a transformative government shall readily crystallize into reality.

To a large extent, the result has been as much about voters reposing faith in the swashbuckling Modi campaign as it was about them rejecting the desultory nature of the Congress offering. The worst performance in the Congress party’s post-independence history should give it pause for genuine introspection. The result has spoken to a lack of confidence in the Congress party’s economic prospectus and voter frustration at the litany of scandals during its tenure. Ironically, a party that promoted a fiscally dubious expansion of public spending during its office to court ordinary voters was shunned at the ballot box. The larger truth remains that while the party chose to pivot its campaign around Rahul Gandhi, its hereditary approach to leadership ultimately failed to resonate with voters.

On the other hand, the BJP’s campaign focused on Modi as a determined man of action who understood the growing aspirations of an electorate resonated resoundingly with the public. It revitalized the party’s grassroots base with spectacular consequences. Crucially, that message seemed to reverberate across urban and rural India. The party’s returns in Delhi and its sweep across the hinterland of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and crucially, Uttar Pradesh, attest to this point.

As the next administration prepares to take charge, it will need to identity its priorities quickly. There is no shortage of tasks either. A listless manufacturing sector needs to be incentivized while infrastructure investment should be fast-tracked. Structural changes on a range of subjects such as banking and insurance reforms, public-sector disinvestment, labour laws and taxation are long overdue. Reducing bureaucracy and improving the delivery of public services ought to be a priority too. Curbing India’s fiscal deficit also needs to be kept at the forefront. None of these challenges will be easy. Difficult choices will need to be to be made. A delicate balance between being decisive and consensual will have to be navigated.

In terms of other ingredients for the government’s success, three other crucial aspects also warrant attention. First, the reforming appetite of an incoming administration tends to be best deployed by taking bold decisions early in office. Over time, the law of political capital often tends to yield diminishing returns to a long-serving government. Given the public goodwill that the Modi administration will initially enjoy, it should seize the initiative without delay.

Second, it is critical that the administration maintains a climate where India’s religious minorities can continue to feel empowered. Not only would this be a necessary prescription for economic stability but its underlying inclusivity embodies the core idea of India itself. Modern Indian jurisprudence does entrench the principle that the basic structure of the Constitution, which includes minority protection and secularism, can never be amended or destroyed. Yet it remains fundamentally important for any serving administration to adhere to this principle too.

Third, it needs to promote economic freedom to spur growth and reduce inequality. Contrary to a perception held by many on the Left, economic liberalism and social justice are not mutually exclusive. More to the point, economic liberalism tends to benefit ordinary people in the long run. That is an ideal the Modi administration ought to assiduously champion for the greater common good.

Ultimately, after a decade of stupor under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government which presided over an economic slowdown and inflationary volatility, the electorate has delivered an unequivocal mandate for change. It has found favour with the BJP’s vision of a mercantile party with a commitment to enterprise and reforms. The real challenge for the incoming administration will lie in matching public expectations.

For now though, this historic electoral mandate sends out a clear message that India is on the upswing again.

Rishabh Bhandari is a lawyer and commentator based in London. He writes on subjects that include British and Indian social, political and economic affairs. Twitter: @RBhandari234

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