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The tasks at hand for the new BJP government

LiveMint logoLiveMint 16-05-2014 Manoj Pant

In one sense, everyone can now breathe a sigh of relief: the six-week-long election carnival in the largest democracy in the world has finally ended. But there are many firsts here. One, opinion polls and exit polls have been broadly correct about the outcome. In my column three days ago, I also had stuck out my neck in arguing that this will probably be the worst defeat ever for the Congress; and this, too, has turned out to be true. Second, this is the first time since 1989 that any party has obtained a majority on its own. As I will argue later, this has some very important lessons. Third, the extent of the loss for the ruling coalition (and not merely the Congress) is clear from the fact that nearly all the ministers have lost the election. Finally, and here I must admit I was wrong, this is a vote for Modi. As I argued in my column a few days ago, the BJP has excelled in election management; but that alone could not have ensured the extent of this victory. I cannot remember a time when barely two hours after counting started, it was clear who would be the next PM of the country. In this case, Modi. One must bow before the electorate, accept the verdict and look at two issues. Is this a turning point in India’s electoral history (the last was 1989) and what are the tasks before Modi and the next government?

In one sense, the 2014 elections are a landmark in that they have completely rejected the belief that coalition governments are here to stay. It is remarkable, the BJP could even form a government on its own without its allies. This is unprecedented. What is even more remarkable is that the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA’s) footprint extends even to hitherto uncharted areas: the South and the North-East. In fact, barring West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Odisha and the new state of Telangana, the NDA has swept or has obtained the largest number of seats in most other states. What explains this? To me, three factors are important.

One, the BJP has run an extremely positive campaign. Right from the word go, Modi has harped on the need to create new jobs for the youth. Remember, the 18-25 age group makes up about 25% of the electorate, is extremely aspirational and either does not care about, or cannot remember, the negatives of the past. At the national level, a major vote share of this segment is enough to create the sweep conditions seen in these elections.

Second, the non-BJP parties ran an extremely negative campaign, with the Congress seeking a vote against a “communal” Modi. This was true also of the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Janata Dal(U) in Bihar. That this negative agenda did not succeed is clear from the fact that the largest chunk of seats for the BJP has come precisely from these two states. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, for example, the BJP won nearly all the seats. If voting were along communal lines alone, the BJP could not have won these states with the margins they did. Apparently, a large chunk of the Muslim voters also did not accept this negative campaign.

Third, purely caste-based parties have virtually disappeared. The most striking example is the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which has been wiped out from its stronghold Uttar Pradesh and also from states where it had some footprint: Delhi, Punjab, Maharashtra and Punjab. In the past, the BSP has taken its Dalit base for granted, assuming that the caste identity would override all the other considerations at the hustings. Mayawati, in fact, has been known to famously argue that all her Dalit votes are transferable, reflecting an extreme arrogance and disregard for the economic aspirations of the Dalit sections. For her prime ministerial ambitions, Mayawati has even made a 360-degrees turnaround this time in giving a large number of seats to non-Dalit candidates. She has now been roundly rejected by all sections. The lesson? You cannot fool all of the people all the time.

The message is clear. Elections 2014 represent a vote for the party which promised a positive economic agenda and a rejection of both caste- and religious-based polarization. In many ways, a positive takeaway from these elections is that reservation on caste or religious basis does not get you votes unless it also translates into positive economic outcomes. Clearly, people cutting across gender, caste and religious groups have given economic development a thumbs up.

The task ahead

A detailed micro-analysis of votes and voting patterns in the days ahead will reveal to parties the importance of splitting the opposition vote, where the margins of victory or losses have been low and where better election management could have given better dividends, where choice of candidates has been poor, etc. Yet, in a tsunami of the dimension seen in these elections, many of these analyses will be of only academic interest and, for the BJP in particular, it is necessary to turn to the issues of governance.

The first task for Modi is to put his cabinet together. It is here that he can use the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) to bring about some semblance of order in the choice of cabinet colleagues. One advantage of this huge mandate is to be able to ignore what the former PM called “coalition compulsions”. Clearly, Modi has none. But that is also a problem. Non–performance in the years ahead cannot be blamed on allies and the opposition. The most serious task is to address the issue of economic governance. Modi himself stressed this from Day One when he talked of jobs for the educated youth. Crucial to this task of economic management is the choice of ministers with economic portfolios. Here, he would be well advised to choose those with some technical understanding even if this might imply inducting people from outside the political arena.

Second, it is also important to realize that this vote has also been a vote for regionalism. I would like to stress that this is for the first time in the history of Indian elections that a PM has come from a region without any experience of administration at the centre. Today, competing economic aspirations among the regions are stronger than ever before. This will call for extremely deft economic management of individual state idiosyncracies. Handling land acquisition under the new Bill will throw up new challenges. As will issues like the Goods and Services Tax and the Direct Taxes Code. It may be noted that bringing the regions into a partnership in decision-making is part of the BJP’s manifesto.

Third, the economic news is not good. Industrial performance is hitting new lows and the manufacturing sector is at a standstill. While inflation is currently down, it is likely to hit highs in a few months as the effects of the expected below normal monsoon impact the agricultural sector. Some standing crop has already been affected by the untimely rains in the last few months. Foodgrain management will have to be on top of the agenda, as will be the issue of a positive investment climate for industry.

Fourth, and for me certainly not the least, the fringe elements of the BJP are likely to take this as a vote for their agenda. Nothing could be further from truth. This applies to the religious right who burnt some churches in Karnataka some years ago and the moral police who have decided to impose their code of conduct in many parts of the country. Actions of these parties will quickly dissipate all the goodwill that the voter has now bestowed on the BJP.

In the final analysis, governance is all about restoring the primacy of institutions and reducing that of individuals. Modi himself said this in his election speeches when he argued for reduced government and increased governance. Over the last few decades, there has been a systematic demolition of most institutions of governance so that the executive has been reduced to a submissive handmaiden of the politician. This has happened all over in the government, in universities and educational institutions and in all state governments. This was the major cause of failure of the Manmohan Singh government and led to its downfall.

Communal and caste divides are symptoms, not a cause of poor governance. If Modi can restore the primacy of the institutional set-up created by Jawaharlal Nehru, he will have vindicated the faith of the electorate. Otherwise, 2019 is already looming on the horizon. As Elections 2014 showed, the electorate can punish without any exceptions, respecting neither lineage or background.

Manoj Pant is a professor of economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

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