With results of the world’s largest electoral exercise now declared, it is time for analysis and prognostications. This is an attempt at deconstructing last Friday’s election results from a left of centre perspective. In this analysis, I have tried my best not to err on the side of balance.
I certainly don’t mean to undermine the landslide win of the right (ok, maybe a little) but closer inspection of the results throws up an intriguing counter narrative and accentuates the deficiencies of a first-past-the-post electoral system. Take UP for example. I was under the impression that even Dalits and Muslims had fallen for the Team NaMo “development” propaganda campaign and jumped ship; given that BSP drew a blank in the state and the BJP picked up seats in traditional Muslim bastions. Not quite. Vote share numbers reveal that BSP’s share dipped by a mere 2% from 2009 and yet they were routed. A closer study of the results also debunks the long-held theory that Muslims vote tactically. It’s clear from the figures that their vote got fragmented among parties that were running on a “secular” plank. BJP gained significantly from the consolidation of the Hindu vote (Amit Shah’s last ditch polarization campaign must have worked here) and fragmentation of the opposition vote. But here’s the most startling story of this election, please pay attention. Team Mayawati clinched the third highest share of votes behind BJP (31%) and Congress (19%) across India at 4.1%. But how many seats did those votes translate into? Zero. Zilch. Nada. Shunya. For perspective, Jayalalitha’s AIADMK received 3.3% of the overall votes and Mamata’s TMC could only muster 3.8%. But in terms of seats, that translated into 37 and 34 respectively in the Lok Sabha! In Modi’s own state of Gujarat, 41% of the voting population (which is a large minority by any measure) refused to turn saffron. Yet the BJP swept all 26 seats! Excellent case for electoral reforms right there. I haven’t done the math but if Congress, RJD and JD(U) had entered into a pre-poll alliance in Bihar, the seat-share map could have been vastly different. Long story short, BJP’s nationwide vote share suggests that 69% of India’s voting population were not swayed by Modi’s over-the-top propaganda.
As a AAP supporter, I’m encouraged by the Delhi results. The AAP increased its vote share by 5% from the assembly elections of 2013 and finished second to the BJP candidate in every constituency. In addition, bagged 4 seats in Punjab albeit due to the strong anti-incumbency against the BJP-SAD combo. Their tally bettered the 3 seats Shyama Prasad Mukherjee’s Bharatiya Jan Sangh (the precursor formation to the BJP) had won in 1951 and the 2 seats BJP clinched in 1984. So from this historical frame of reference, it is a strong start for a debutant party. However, the AAP story goes beyond numbers. They have set the discourse for future Indian elections by demonstrating that politics can be done without insane sums of money and muscle power, dynastic lineages, divisive agendas or allying with unscrupulous formations like LNJP (Paswan) or the Shiv Sena. That’s the bigger watershed story for me than the temporary suspension of coalition politics.
Now, let’s come to the man of the hour: Modi. The mandate for the hardliner is a story of two parts. The first part relates to voters who see in him a Thatcher or Reagan-like economic reformer. That translates into increasing privatization, small governments, lowering of direct taxes and subsidies, fiscal conservatism, labour reforms, increasing FDI, financial deregulation, booming capital markets and Wal-Martization of India’s retail space (which the BJP opposed when they sat in opposition). In other words, it is textbook neoliberalism. India shining via supply-side trickle-down. Abracadabra. The second part relates to voters who see in him a Putin-like strongman. A social conservative of the old block and an ultra-nationalist foreign policy hawk who will come down hard on Pakistan and China. Basically, the political equivalent of Sunny Deol (Chhappan inch ki chhati, dhai kilo ka haath). In the eyes of his supporters, Modi is a blend of Thatcher and Putin. Thatchputin, if you will. It should be noted that both Thatcher and Putin rode to power when their respective countries had reached economic tipping points. Maggie was propelled into power by extreme trade unionism that brought Britain to a standstill in the late 70s. Now commonly referred to as the Winter of Discontent. And the rise of Vlad Putin was a consequence of the profligate Yeltsin years that saw Russia come into the grip of the mafia and oligarchs leading to international payment defaults and a major currency crisis. But having oversold himself through propagandist rhetoric, the real challenges for Modi lie ahead.
Let us ruminate on the economics first. Indian economy is driven by three major factors: 1. Fiscal policy 2. Global trends 3. Monsoons. We know from the experiences of Japan and the West that monetary policy has ceased to be a driver of economic growth. Japan has held interest rates close to zero for two decades now without any impact on growth. And low interest rates did not help the GFC-plagued West to pull out of recession either. For more on the subject, look up the Larry Summers speech at the IMF conference that went viral few months ago. I want to ask the people who voted for upward mobility what kind of policy shift do they want the Modi regime to undertake. Remember that Modi does not have the luxury or leverage Thatcher and Putin enjoyed. Thatcher governed a small, rich and largely homogenous nation. And Putin sits on vast reserves of natural resources which he uses as a leverage against the West and his energy clients. India, on the other hand, is big, poor, pluralistic, inflation-sensitive and energy-dependent with little headroom for fiscal manoeuvring. With some election or the other always around the corner in India, administrations risk alienating large sections of the population by reneging on subsidies or lowering public expenditure. But being too extravagant with public spending can send fiscal deficit and headline inflation spiralling out of control. As the Vajpayee regime found out to its peril, lopsided focus on supply-side models and international finance capital (mostly hot money) results in electoral drubbing. Modi will soon discover that managing the Indian economy is a delicate tightrope. Sabka saath, sabka vikas is easier said than done. The odd mix of neoliberalism and welfare cannot be jettisoned in a society still as poor as India.
India is not decoupled from the global economy anymore. Its so-called growth story as billed by CNBC and the corporate media coincided with a period of global expansion. In other words, India grows when the world grows; India falls when the world falls. Important to note here that India recorded its highest ever growth rates during the UPA 1.0 regime that was supported from outside by the left! The high growth rates cannot be attributed to any groundbreaking policies that the UPA 1.0 administration implemented. Rather it was a result of foreign money flowing into emerging markets, speculative investments, aggressive banking and a real estate boom culminating into an asset bubble. But inequality remained extremely high and poverty continued to rankle deep. I was working in the commodities industry back then so believe me when I tell you I know how that period panned out. The best case scenario for India is the global economy bouncing back, good monsoons and Modi providing corruption-free governance (which I believe he can). In a way, he is lucky to have inherited an economy which is near its rock bottom (negative industrial production, double digit food inflation). Like any politician would do, he’ll take credit for the slightest movement upwards. I just hope he does not replicate the poor human development record of his state throughout rest of the country.
Now let’s turn our attention towards the social side of the story. I’ll refrain from invoking Godwin’s Law and use the milder label, crypto-fascist, instead. When a crypto-fascist comes to power in a democracy, it is a cause for both portent and optimism. As unbelievable it may sound to fellow liberals, there actually IS a silver lining here. History of democracies seems to indicate that crypto-fascists, ultra-nationalists and hardliners tend to gravitate towards the centre when they assume greater responsibilities. Realpolitik is not impervious to the wisdom of Spiderman. The lunatic fringe is kept in check when one of their own rises to power. Or so I hope. Modi is too astute not to learn from Indira Gandhi’s post-Emergency debacle of 1977. My only fear is that with 336 seats in the LS, he has carte blanche to revive the insidious project of institutional saffronization and historical revisionism. But with only 60-odd seats in the RS, getting any major legislation passed could be a tedious exercise. Every major bill would require a joint session to be commenced to avoid gridlock. This may or may not be a good thing depending on the nature of the bill. And keeping with the tradition of political hawks, it’s pretty much guaranteed that the new administration will hike defence spending by a few notches in the opening budget. Not necessarily for war but for the purpose of sabre-rattling. I’m not too optimistic about making progress in terms of gender equality or gay rights under a rabidly conservative regime. Then again, I wasn’t optimistic on that front under previous regimes either. I just hope India does not take a decisive and irreversible turn towards regressive conservatism. The next five years could make or break India. But my prediction is nothing remarkable or dramatic will happen. There will be plenty of bluster and rhetoric from Modi’s Pravdaesque PR machinery but all that we would get in the end is sporadic spurts of jobless growth and roads to nowhere. Meanwhile, Indian society will continue to be corrupt, feudal, unequal, cisnormative and patriarchal. But on the upside, it will remain a vibrant and syncretic society where no singular ideology receives cross-sectional support.
PUBLISHED WITH PERMISSION FROM ARNAB MAJUMDAR