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Modi happened in Election 2014

Author: Surjit S Bhalla
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: May 20, 2014
URL: http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/modi-happened-in-election-2014/99/

This Lok Sabha election was a structural break for India as its voters comprehensively rejected their Nehru-Gandhi past.

Just what happened on May 16? In a word, Modi. Of course, there are several other factors that determined the contours of Election 2014, but the defining characteristic was the PM-designate, Narendra Modi. Can one individual define an election? Possible, if that individual rightly senses the mood of the country, and its changing sense of direction. Recall what happened in that other defining election, albeit of a lower seismic magnitude — Barack Obama in 2008. The parallels are close — a black man winning the presidency in a country where the blacks obtained civil rights just 50 years ago; a lower caste OBC winning in a country where caste matters a lot. Post the 2008 election in the US, one found out that maybe white Americans are not that racist after all; post-May 16, India has found out that caste has ceased to occupy an important place in the minds of voters.

So what did happen in India? Several myths abound as to what explains Modi’s record-breaking win — 336 seats for the NDA, and the highest ever seat per vote recorded for any alliance or party in India, that is, nine seats for every 1 per cent of the vote. In the record-setting 1984 election, the Congress obtained 8.5 seats for each per cent vote. A partial listing of the myths:

Myth 1: The Congress lost because it operated a corruption and scam infested regime: Commonwealth Games, Coalgate, 2G, etc. As if UPA 1, and all governments before, have not been corrupt. Corruption is one of the factors affecting voters’ choice, but not a very important factor. Else, why would all opinion and exit polls suggest that corruption was one of the least important determinants of voters’ choice? And just look at the results for the Aam Aadmi Party, which ran exclusively against crony capitalism and corruption — and managed to win only four of the 432 seats it contested, and lost its deposit in 413, another record.

Myth 2: The Congress lost because of a weak economy — high inflation and low growth. I am a card-carrying member of the club that believes that economic performance determines voting behaviour. But this election was not an average election, to which average explanations are applicable. By itself, the weak economy and corruption would mean that the Congress and UPA would lose seats. But to lose 200 seats is a black swan event. In 2009, with the best economy ever, the UPA gained “only” 54 seats, and the NDA lost “only” 26 seats. So, with the worst economy ever, one might have expected the NDA and UPA to go back to approximately their 2004 levels, that is, around 200 for both the UPA and NDA. Indeed, according to the CNN-IBN tracker poll, both alliances were in a near neck-to-neck battle as late as August 2013.

Myth 3: Anti-incumbency, voter fatigue after 10 years of UPA rule resulted in the Modi win. When all else fails, indulge in an anti-incumbency explanation. Too many counter examples exist. Remember 2009, when the incumbent UPA got elected. Or Madhya Pradesh 2003, when Digvijaya Singh, and the Congress, got unceremoniously voted out after 10 years in power. Or Modi’s Gujarat, or Chouhan’s MP, returned for a third and second consecutive term, respectively.

Myth 4: The weak leadership of Rahul Gandhi affected the Congress’s performance. Imagine that any individual but Modi was the leader of the BJP — say, L.K. Advani, Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj or Shivraj Chouhan. No one was betting that any of these individuals would offer a large difference with respect to the UPA leadership. The common refrain of many, including myself, has been that there isn’t a naya paisa’s worth of difference between the UPA and NDA. And there hasn’t been — till Modi came along.

So what explains the Modi win? The UPA campaign offered two all important “reasons” to vote for the UPA. Vote for us because we do so much for you, and don’t vote for Modi because he is evil.

Look what the Congress guaranteed to the Indian citizen, especially the poor. A jobs guarantee programme, so that the poor had jobs. A food security bill, so that two-thirds of the population was guaranteed food at throwaway prices. A land acquisition bill, so that the poor got a fair price. A right to information act, and a Lokpal bill, so that corrupt government officials could be caught red-handed. And yet, the Congress managed to win only 44 out of 543 seats, about half of what the BJP got in only its second election in 1989.

Modi is evil, we are not: An important fact about the recent election, and possibly related to the overwhelming beyond-expectations majority that Narendra Modi obtained, is that, to the best of my knowledge, no individual in Indian or world history has been unjustly vilified as much as Modi has been. This vilification continues even to this day, especially by the “sickular” parties and their left-intellectual storm troopers. I am choosing my words wisely, because the condemnation campaign has almost universally invoked images of the Nazi and Fascist European regimes of the 1930s.

What is most informative, and disturbing, about these storm troopers (among whom are many domestic and foreign journalists), is that they invariably belong to the Congress party and/or have been its sympathisers until recently. Let me make my position clear, possibly for the umpteenth time. Narendra Modi was chief minister at the time the Gujarat riots happened just as Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister of India at the time the Delhi pogrom against Sikhs occurred. Both have to assume responsibility for what happened under their watch. All I am asking is whether the Congress storm-troopers, or Modi-baiters, have ever condemned Rajiv Gandhi and/ or the Congress party with the same language and allusions to Hitler as they have done, and continue to do, about Modi?

Morality and philosophy aside, an election is not an absolute choice but rather a choice between individuals. So, especially in the case of the Congress versus Modi, the issue of 2002 versus 1984 is irrelevant, that is, individuals who are upset by Modi should be equally (if not more) upset by the Congress.

Strategic Voting by Muslims — backfired: In the Muslim and Yadav states of UP and Bihar, the turnout was higher by about 12 percentage points. Did the UPA whizkids consider that their strategy of concentrated Muslim and Yadav voting against Modi might engineer a counter-strategy — for every one Muslim and Yadav (MY) that indulged in strategic voting, there were probably four non-MY voters ensuring that the negative strategy (sic) did not succeed.

Essentially, the Indian polity has called the Congress’s bluff, seen it for the calculating set of politicians they have been. Their governance demanded not only change, but wholesale rejection. The Indian polity has elected a leader. The “historical low” losers contend that all Modi has done is package a dream, a dream that will not last, a dream that will soon become a nightmare. The losers, and Congress apologists, believe that Modi will soon crash to earth. I have no doubt that the expectations of the Modi government are sky high, and that it is impossible for the transformed reality to be an equal match to the expectations. Equally, I have no doubt that the Modi-led government will make a strong effort to match a large fraction of these expectations — and that they will largely succeed.

The writer is chairman of Oxus Investments, an emerging market advisory firm, and a senior advisor to Zyfin, a leading financial information company.
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