Indian Democracy – which way is it going?

Modi selfie after winning polls

Modi seeks blessings from his mother

Now that the verdict is out, it is time to take stock of the impact of this election on the evolution of politics in this country. Emergence of dominance of a single party is surely the big story. Lots of things have happened since 1990 when the last single party government headed by Rajiv Gandhi finished its term. Politically, it has been downhill since then as the model built by Ambedkar, Nehru et al virtually collapsed and serious questions emerged about Indian democracy. A political culture called “coalition politics” grew out of the debris. This was remarkable because under its garb, any political leader or party could even do things that were against the nation’s interests. Ideology was given a go-bye and the only thing that mattered was some local issue like a caste question or supporting a minority community or its sense of pride. It didn’t matter if the party won a miniscule number of seats as long as that number, however small it may be, was needed by a large party to forge a coalition government. It was personal ambition of a local leader that created these regional parties and ”fake” national parties, of which there are quite a few in this country. The question was “does such an evolution auger well for the country’s future?” Except in Bihar and UP, even in the current elections, the regional parties have done very well indeed. But the bigger story is that the BJP does not need their support. The other important issue is to ponder is about the future of the Grand Old Political Party, the Indian National Congress. Where did it go wrong?

 Indian independence was a major political development of the twentieth century. In a way, it was emblematic of the end of colonial empires across Asia and Africa. Many countries became independent and created their models of governance based on democratic conventions. Even though most of them started with huge moral pretensions of democracy, freedom and all the other nice political niceties, in reality, most of these countries fell into a trap of their own. It was difficult to assess whether they really achieved freedom or came under the thumb of local tyrants. It was pretty obvious that one man, one vote at one time was not the only form of democracy. Military dictatorships became the norm and even in countries that boasted of an educated middle class, military leaders, after grabbing power, floated political parties to create a smoke screen of democratic norms – just to be in power.

 India has been lucky to escape such a fate. Our army has been generally professional, even though most of our politicians have not been so. But Indian democracy has worked, may be not ideally. In recent times, the political leaders have been coming from a new class and breed of people for whom politics is like a profession, a business. In every political party, it is the leader’s own next of kin that can take on the mantle of succession.  It is important to remember that the new  ‘local’ parties that reflect the leaders’ political ambitions do not, by definition, have any ideology .And yet they need a core group of supporters to their cause; so the leaders go to the lowest common denominator and search for issues that people can identify themselves with. So a party for Dalits, another for the Dravida pride, another for the Maratha sense of past glory, and yet another for the Telugu culture and all these amid a feeling that everyone else is out to destroy the clan. Then there are parties who call themselves Congress but differentiate themselves by letting people know that they believe in the ideology of the old party but not its leadership. Until now, these parties have done well and there is nothing to show that their kind of politics may end soon. The current election may just set the tone for such a change.  At least in UP and Bihar, the two very important local parties have lost out to the superior message of better governance of the BJP. The sense of exploitation by the upper castes, which was the basis on which both BSP and SP stood is at a low ebb this time. But there are other more significant changes taking place which may totally change the nature of Indian democracy.

 First, the way Mr. Modi manipulated the entire BJP political platform is something that India had not seen before. The debate is not about the ‘why’ of such a drive to project himself as the Prime Ministerial candidate, it is about the ‘how’ of it. One by one, he cut through the party hierarchies of not only the BJP but the RSS as well. There was and probably still is resentment at the top as some senior leaders of the party have remained grumpy. Modi remained solid like a man possessed and did not blink. He had a plan and he executed it with a precision that left his detractors dazed. Getting Amit Shah out of Gujarat and place him to work on the ground in UP was a master stroke in hindsight, When everyone believed that Mr. Modi’s pro-development plans would catapult him to power, Mr. Modi knew that this election had  to be won in the villages of UP and Bihar. When the BJP’s other stalwarts were meeting the press in Delhi after disrupting the proceedings of the Parliament, Mr. Modi and his back-office were quietly executing a strategic plan that must have been thought through very carefully over a long period. Mr. Modi formed a team of highly qualified technocrats that used both the traditional and the social media to carry forward his message to every nook and corner of the country. .When the campaigning started, the slogan “abki bar BJP sarkar” had to be changed to “abki bar Modi sarkar”. This was Mr. Modi’s election to win and he seems to have done it in style. Others including his own party stalwarts could do nothing but watch in awe. It was a revelation that even in a country as diverse as India where the awareness levels of the people varied widely, an American or French kind of electoral battle was possible, if the leader remained focussed on his message. This has tremendous ramification for the future of Indian democracy. Now that the country has elected a leader, it obviously wants him to select the best team that will deliver on his promises. Over to Mr. Modi. It is he who will decide what BJP will now stand for ; a modern  nation that is an economic dynamo or a nation full of contradictions that talks about inclusiveness and yet does everything to stall economic progress. After a long time, India will have a Prime Minister who alone will call the shots in the government.

 Is it the beginning of the end for the small parties that dominate “coalition politics” as of now? The answer is ‘no’ because except in UP and Bihar they seem to have done well – whether they were a part of a larger coalition or out of it. Considering that BJP has been able to make entries in states like W. Bengal and Tamil Nadu, shall we conclude that people at large have started to believe that a strong national party with clear economic, rather than merely political, agenda focused on national issues is a better bet than the parochial parties? The answer is ‘yes’. And finally, is it the end of the road for the Indian National Congress?  This is complicated. This party single-handedly wasted a legacy and history that had made them the default political choice for almost every Indian for a long time. May be it is because of their conviction that they must be led by a family that has been operating as their front office for four generations. It is interesting that in the last decade the family ran the government as a family business that was outsourced to a bunch of outsiders. They made all the decisions but did not take the accountability, nor responsibility. When the family finally felt that it is time they take the reins in their own hands, disaster stuck. The people lost interest because they felt that all the communication channels had broken down and the family was looking direction-less and has lost touch with the realities on the ground. May be the problem is not that Rahul Gandhi is a dynast — other dynasts will get elected just fine.  People like dynasts, and not just in India – because you think you know what to expect. The problem is that he’s not a capable politician and that is obvious. People don’t want Rahul, not because he’s a Nehru-Gandhi, but because he has nothing else going for him, which makes it too obvious that his name is the only qualification. No one knows in which direction the evolution of India’s political consciousness is moving; but it is important to remember that just as a strong and decisive leadership is a must for a strong and mature democracy, so is a strong opposition party and a group of political institutions that monitor the executive actions.  If these results really lead to the end of INC, that will be a sad day for Indian democracy. One hopes it is not the end of Congress.  An argument can be made that if the party continues to bank on the family, this might be the end of the road.  Losing an election is normal in a democracy. Elections do have consequences. The other people get to make the laws for a while. But that in itself does not spell the end of a political party, and certainly not in an environment with a strong anti-incumbency effect like India. The Congress has lost because of the self-imposed vacuum on top and the fact that they have destroyed their own regional leaderships.


Dr. Mukhopadhyay formerly served as the Additional Chief Secretary of Maharashtra, former Chairman of MEIP and prepared the environment management strategy for the Mumbai metro region with the assistance of the World Bank and the UNIDO. He also served as a Project Director for World Bank.


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