By Paramjit S. Sahai, Former Ambassador, Faculty Member, Diplo Foundation and Principal Advisor, CRRID.
India went through a mammoth exercise of General Elections, its 16th since independence, which elected 543 members of Parliament. It could be called the ‘Mother of Elections’, as there were 814.5 million registered voters, which was the largest election that was ever held in the world. A member of Indian Parliament represents, on an average, more than 1 million voters. Another distinguishing feature was the presence of 100 million first time voters, shifting the focus on the youth. Indian elections also have to stand the test of secularism, as seeking votes on raising the plank of communalism, is prohibited, given that 15% electors comprise Muslims.
The holding of elections was, therefore, a mammoth exercise, as can be seem from the mind boggling data. There were 9,30,000 polling booths across the country and 1.4 million electronic voting machines (EVMs) were used. 1.1. million civil servants and 5.5 million civilian employees were on duty to conduct the elections. There were 989 counting centres. 23.1 million voters were in the 18-19 age group. 66.38% cast their votes , based on average while in many places voting percentage was over 80%. The elections were held in 9 phases, spread over 36 days from April 7 to May 12.
The election results were announced on May 16, with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its coalition partners in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) declared winners, getting 334 seats out of 543, with BJP alone getting 282 seats. BJP had set a target of 272 seats for NDA. It, thus, succeeded in reaching beyond its stated goal. On the other hand, the ruling Congress Party was practically decimated, getting only 44 seats; the figure of 59 with its allies in its coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was equally dismal. The election victory signified the end of coalition politics, as no single Party had got majority seats since 1984. This hopefully would usher in a period of stability in governance.
What was equally astounding was that no other single party managed to get 10% of the seats and hence would be denied the right of being designated official Opposition Party, whose leader is accorded the rank of a Cabinet Minister? The loss in number of opposition members, hopefully would be compensated through quality of debate in Parliament. 61 women were elected which was marginally higher than the previous years but, they still formed 11.2% of the parliamentarians, much below the European average of 20 per cent. There was a decline among Muslim elected representatives, whose number went down to 24, representing 4.4% of the strength of the Lower House of Parliament. Strangely, this percentage equals to 4.3% for the first Lok Sabha.
The election victory of the leader of the BJP, Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of the State of Gujarat, was greeted in the print media with headlines, like ‘Prime Minister Modi’, ‘BJP Andhi (hurricane) flattens clan Gandhi’, ‘Modi Raj (Rule) over Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament)’. ‘Modi’, ‘India places faith in Moditava’, ‘TsuNaMo, gives BJP decisive mandate to govern’ and ‘280 Lotuses bloom in Modi wave’. TsuNaMo stands for Tsunami and ‘Na’ stands for Narendra and ‘Mo’ for Modi, as he was nicknamed NaMo.
The above headlines, in a way, capture the outcome of the election results. Prime Ministerial candidate Modi is declared the winner and emerges as the undisputed leader for the office of the Prime Minister. He, therefore, does not even need allies but it would be naiveté, in case he does not carry them along. He needs allies in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament) where BJP holds 64 seats in a 240-member House. In fact, he would have to reach out to other Parties and therefore, the strategists have kept BJP’s doors open to post-poll alliances.
Furthermore, it is the Modi wave which mattered, as the leader carried party’s other candidates to victory also. It was total annihilation of the ‘Gandhi clan’, even though the dynasty’s leaders, Sonia Gandhi, its President and Rahul Gandhi, its Vice President managed to win, with a reduced majority. The same was not for other scions of political families, who lost. This in a way signified a move away from dynastic rule. Modi also set up a personal record for himself, as he won with a margin of 5,70,000 votes, which was the highest record for electoral victory in this election.
What is the impact of the general elections in the global context? The first and foremost is that it strengthens India’s credentials as a vibrant democracy. The elections were smoothly conducted by the Election Commission of India, which has acquired an impartiality tag for itself, as its advice is sought by many other countries. The results were also accepted with equanimity, both by the winners and the losers and the country prepares for another smooth transition of government. Modi takes over as Prime Minister on May 26.
The elections were, however, fought on a Presidential-style system in this Parliamentary democracy, as Modi was declared Prime Ministerial candidate of the BJP, while Rahul Gandhi was the undeclared candidate of the Congress Party. The campaign was, therefore, personality-driven, where Modi had the advantage, as he could relate better with people through his eye contact, as he also comfortably connected with their local issues and concerns. This personality-driven campaign had its low side also, as the leaders indulged in personal criticism. At times, they went too far, hitting below the belt. Even though this is a universal trend, yet it is not a matter for consolation.
An important development was the role of social media, which was fully utilized by the leaders. The tweets, like ‘Aab ki baar, Modi Sarkar’ (This time, we will have a Modi government), went viral. So was the case with others, such as ‘Aab Acche din ayenege’ (Good days will come now). It was akin to President Obama’s election victory message, ‘Yes. We can’.After the results, Modi tweeted, ‘India has won’. He also thanked world leaders on Twitter, as he sent a message for development of strong ties. The social media is also becoming a virtual battle ground between Modi’s well wishers and his critics.
Modi started his campaign, focusing on the issues of ‘Development’ and ‘Good Governance’, but this was interspersed with ‘identity politics’, when he invoked ‘religion’ and ‘caste’ elements to his advantage. He also focused on fulfilling the rising aspirations of people and youth in particular. The Congress, on the other hand, projected Modi as a divisive leader, who would destroy the secular fabric of the society. The issues that agitated the voters were inflation, corruption, non-governance and ineffective leadership.
Modi’s electoral victory and that of his political party, BJP, which dons Nationalist Agenda, has brought different groups in open debate, with advisories pouring in from all the sides. Modi admirers see BJP’s seat tally as a conclusive sign of victory and faith by people, as Modi himself described it as ‘India has won’. It certainly would usher in an era of stability, as it gives go bye to the coalition politics, which had strangled the functioning of the government. He talks of ‘Good days will Come’ and promises ‘less government, more governance’.
Modi critics, on the other hand, take the plea that he represents 31%, who voted for him, while 69% were not with him. This is the bane of the election system as seats are not translated in terms of percentage of votes polled. This should not detract from his success. Concerns, however, continue to be expressed whether he would be able to ‘walk the talk’. Therefore, a wiser course would be to give him time, to live upto our expectations. He is not unrealistic to promise accomplishing his agenda in 100 days, but is looking for ten years or so. His credo for governance is, ‘Everyone’s support, Everyone’s development’, as he injects a message of inclusiveness by seeking the support of all in the development proces.
Catchy headlines in the media and advisory from political pundits are freely available as these capture public attention through the media. Some view it as a new opening, like ‘new New Delhi’, or ‘Modi to be only Sarkar in New Delhi’, showing apprehension over his likely authoritative (decisive) style turning into authoritarian rule. A cartoon captures this beautifully, when it shows the Cabinet, with all donning Modi face.
The political commentators also hold diverse views, as some see this as ushering in of the ‘Second Revolution’. Others view it as a choice between ‘Sensex’ and ‘Sensibility’; between booming share markets and saner policies. Some others would like Modi to shun ‘Pride’, while urging critics to shun ‘Prejudice’ against him. Modi, therefore, has a task cut out for himself.
New terms like ‘Modi Rule’, ‘Modified,’ ‘Moditava’ and ‘Modinomics’ have started appearing. So has the Modi Brand in the fashion world. We still have to grapple with the meaning of these terms. It is not going to be an easy task, given our difficulty to understand even ‘Hindutava’. To the credit of Modi, it may, however, be stated that he has come out with right sound bytes, when he projects his victory as that of people and his desire to represent all, even those who voted against him. He would like to rule all with one eye, like the legendary Maharaja Ranjit Singh did so, who was blind in one eye.
Modi also sent the right victory message, when he called himself ‘Worker No. 1’, signifying that he would be devoting himself fully to the well being of all through hard work. Modi is known for this trait, which has catapulted him from poverty; from a ‘Chaiwala’ (Tea Seller) to that of the highest office of the Prime Minister. It is a celebration of equal opportunity for all, a feat comparable to that of Obama’s electoral victory in 2008. At 63, Modi is sheer energy as he covered 3,00,000 kms, addressing 437 meetings in 25 states. He became the first Prime Minister, born in independent India.
On May 20, Modi was elected the leader of the BJP party in the Parliament. While making his entry to Parliament, he struck a note of humanity and devotion, by bowing down, paying his homage to this ‘temple of democracy’. He exuded confidence and optimism, as he vowed to serve India. He said that his government would be one that ‘thinks, works and lives for the poor and is dedicated to the villages, youth and women of India’. He acknowledged the power of the Constitution and democratic elections that a poor person like him was now standing in the high portals. He dedicated himself to the service of India.
How does Modi tick abroad? He was not the favourite boy in the West, because of their human rights agenda, as he fell on their wrong side. Human Rights Group and a divided Indian Diaspora lobbied against his visits to UK and USA. He had not only been refused diplomatic visa to USA as Chief Minister but even his ordinary visa was withdrawn in 2005. There has been a melt down since 2012 and a change of heart among the western countries, with UK and EU accepting him in 2012. USA gave in 2013, when it saw the writing on the wall that Modi may emerge as Prime Minister of India.
The western media, therefore, has cautiously welcomed Modi’s victory and still have their apprehension on how ‘Hindutava’, Secularism and Development would play out, with one another. The Pakistani media has been equivocal, as at one end it expects Modi to go back to the Vajpayee days, when it developed positive equation, despite hickups on Kargil and nuclear issues. The Chinese media is also hopeful of building better relationship, yet it has its concerns over how nationalism would dictate boundary and other security-related issues. They would like to see him not in the mould of Shinzo Abe but Nixon, for writing a new chapter in India-China relations. He has been compared to Reagan and Thatcher, as his rule is expected to be a watershed.
Nonetheless, Modi is now the toast of foreign leadership, be it President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif or President Rajapaksa. They would all like to do business with him and have extended an invitation to him to visit their respective countries. In diplomacy, this is business as usual, as there are no sudden sharp turns and twists in foreign policy. Everyone learns to deal with the new leader. It is, therefore, not surprising to see advisory from former foreign secretaries and other foreign policy analysts. Their message is for continuity, hope for ‘blossoming of foreign ties’ and ‘reestablishing India’s global clout’.
The new leadership would have to heed the above message, as it moves along. Modi has a limited foreign exposure, except dealing with Japan, China and Israel. The nationalist agenda in the Party’s manifesto would have to stand the pragmatic test of national interests, as Modi imprints his own Brand. Hopefully, Modi would be in a better position in finding an appropriate role for the States and would not allow them to browbeat the Central Government. Its foreign policy agenda would have to reflect a balance between pragmatism and values, as Modi will do in the domestic sphere, between development and spiritualism as he invokes the spirit of Ganga.
The ultimate goal for Modi and India has to be ‘Peace, Cooperative Development and Friendship’, upholding Indian ethos of ‘Vasudheva Kutumbhkum’ (The whole world is a family). In a masterly diplomatic stroke, the Prime Minister-elect has extended an invitation to all the leaders, including Pakistan, from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), for his swearing-in ceremony on May 26. Well begun is half done. Modi has begun in right earnest to show results, sending a positive signal that he accords highest priority for cooperation in the region. The clock has already started ticking for this ‘Man of Destiny’, as this Karma Yogi’ (Doer) begins his journey to uphold the ‘Idea of India’, fulfilling peoples’ ‘hopes and aspirations’ and their ‘faith’ reposed in him.