Many people think that the electoral victory of Narendra Modi was an unusual event that could not be expected in Indian politics. An extreme version of this view may see his victory as an outcome of a conspiracy of the right-wing forces. On the other hand, his supporters believe that he has some unusual capabilities to set right the governance in India.
In my view, there are issues with all these perceptions. The emergence of somebody like him as the prime minister is nothing unusual if we understand the political trajectory of India. Similarly his government is likely to fail on a number of issues, and a part of these could be due to the structural features of the Indian economy and society.
Political evolution of India
Needless to mention that the Indian National Congress was the main political formation in the country after its independence. There was nothing surprising that it came under the control of elites of different kind then. Though there were left-liberal elements within the congress, the social context of India then was such that the local or micro politics of congress was controlled by different sections of elites. They controlled governments in most states for a number of decades.
Two important elements were missing then. First, there was no viable opposition in many states. The students of democracy should not underestimate the role of opposition parties and competitive politics. The dominance of one party may not enhance the welfare of a society, and that may require a strong opposition.
Secondly, non-elites were not mobilised politically for a number of decades after India’s independence. Politics was by and large the business of elites and others were serving as vote banks. If we look around the world, one can see that non-elites get mobilised usually on the basis of either class (economic status) or identity (race, religion, caste, ethnicity, and so on). Such a mobilisation may help the deepening of democracy. For some reasons, this process was delayed in most states of India.
There were only a few examples of mobilising non-elites in India, and that leading to the deepening of democracy and competitive politics, before 1980s. The mobilisations in Kerala and West Bengal were based on class but that in Tamilnadu was on a language or regional/ethnic character. Indira Gandhi used strategies to get the support of the poorer sections of Indian society in her fight against the conservatives within her party. The highhandedness during the emergency period had encouraged even the poor to vote against the congress.
The mobilisation of non-elites in the central and northern parts of India started only after 1980s. One route was through the caste-politics. That has led to the emergence of new political formations and their capture of governments in states like UP and Bihar. Though such a politics is important in India, it cannot bring together substantial sections of non-elites in the country as a whole, since a party of that kind draws support from one or other caste group. This limitation and the fact that such a caste politics has not taken root, have worked against the deepening of democracy in a number of states like Gujarat, MP and Rajasthan.
There was a felt need for a viable opposition party or an alternative to the Congress in many parts of India. This is there even among the elites of the country. This is somewhat inevitable and desirable even if the congress party is `perfect’. What would have been the ways to channelize these feelings for the need for a viable opposition?
Given the support base of congress among elites and also its economic policies (after 1980s), it would have been ideal to have a left-of-centre political party mobilising the poor and lower middle class in India and becoming a strong competitor to the Congress. However that has not happened. This is partly due to the utter failure of left-of-centre political parties in India. It can also be due to the possible disconnect of the `liberal’ left with the caste-ridden social context of the country. (This is an issue that may require a detailed discussion and we may keep it for another essay).
Given this failure, and the need for an oppositional political formation, BJP came to occupy that space. We cannot call it a mobilisation of non-elites but it has substantial support among elites and the middle class who are looking for a competitor to the congress. The party has used religious sentiments to get the support of sections of non-elites. The use of religious sentiments for political mobilisation is nothing new and this has played out in both developed and developing countries. It has helped ushering in democracy in countries like Iran. The BJP has used a version of (or a perceived threat to) Hinduism as an axis of mobilization.
Through this, India has a viable party to compete with Congress. In such mobilisations, those leaders who coalesce people on the basis of real and imaginary fears and realistic and unrealistic promises may do well in elections. This could be a reasonable reading of the emergence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The causes of his probable failure
Any leader who comes to power through such a process is likely to overestimate or over-project his/her capabilities. However, the issues of ill governance and underdevelopment[i] that India face cannot be sorted out by one `strong’ leader or through a few quick-fix solutions or reforms that his economic and other advisors advocate.
Despite the opening up of Indian economy in 1980s, it has not undergone a structural change that facilitates inclusive growth and the generation of large-scale employment. The dependence on small-scale and less productive agriculture continues to be very high. The manufacturing sector is not making any notable progress, especially in terms of creating employment. It is this sector that should give employment to those workers who have some level of schooling, and in the absence of such opportunities, they fall back on less productive agriculture or do unskilled work in non-agricultural sectors.
The above 5 percent economic growth that India has experienced during the last three decades was driven primarily by the service sector (and a few sub-sectors of manufacturing where educated labour is used). These have limited scope for expanding employment for the majority of workers who have only limited achievements in education.
Building up a manufacturing base in India is difficult currently given the strong competition from China and south-east Asian countries. It may not be easy to fix this problem by making the hire and fire of workers easier – a solution that a few economists propose. The historical failure of India in not providing schooling to the masses and not facilitating massive industrial employment may continue to haunt India’s development for a number of decades.
In the absence of a realistic understanding of the nature of economy and society, there will be a tendency to look for quick fixes. Demonetisation is an example. In my view, those positive steps taken by the Prime Minister Modi include a greater focus on the education of girls, sanitation and probably the distribution of LPG cylinders to poorer households.
Ensuring the completion of quality schooling by all boys and girls and enhancing the work participation of females are important to address the persisting problems of underdevelopment in India. The persistence of caste plays an important role in the under-achievements in education and sustaining gender relations that discourage women from taking up employment in industrial environment. I am not sure whether the ideological super-structure of Narendra Modi would enable an explicit attack on the caste system. That could be the difference between Hinduism and any other religion when it serves as the axis of political mobilisation.
The positive benefit of the victory of Narendra Modi could be that it may help India to move towards a viable competitive politics at the national level. Given the nature of economic policies pursued by the BJP, the Congress may have to toe a left of centre politics, and has to align with political mobilisations of the lower-caste and under-class. Hence what it is attempting currently in Gujarat is in the right direction, and we may note that it is forced to do so because of the electoral success of the BJP. That is the importance of opposition/competitive politics. If the Congress and other non-NDA parties can come together, it may be seen as a viable front by the majority when they see the BJP government failing to meet their expectations. The latter is somewhat inevitable. BJP may serve as an alternative to the Congress when the latter is in power for one or two terms.
In this happens, India can move towards a two-party or two-front competitive politics as in the case of the USA and many other countries. Needless to mention that the BJP may become similar to the Republican Party, and using religious sentiment to mobilise sections of voters is not unusual in its politics.
[i] For a detailed treatment, see Santhakumar, V. (2014) The Roots of Ill Governance and Corruption, New Delhi: Sage Publishers