Modi’s Conundrum

In an earlier post, I had cited the analysis of mathematician John Allen Paolos to argue we should not naïvely swallow the popular myth that democracies hinge on popular consensus and electoral campaigns focus on messages that will garner a majority of the votes. Majorities are diffuse and complex, and it is difficult to target a campaign towards them. On the contrary, fanatical minorities pursue a cause that is likely to dominate their voting choice, making it far easier to target a message that mobilises their votes in one’s favour. Therefore, the common campaign strategy in democratic politics is to develop a base of votes through generic promises, and then swing the elections in a desired direction by courting dogmatic single-cause constituencies. If the opposition is splintered in a multi-party democracy (as is the case in India), or if the basis on which votes are counted is not direct (as in the electoral college system in the United States), it is possible to win an election on this basis without necessarily winning a majority in the popular vote.

This is the strategy that was used by the BJP, led by Narendra Modi, in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in India where it won an absolute majority while winning only 31% of the popular vote. The generic promise to establish the base vote was framed as a promised coming of achhe din (good times) free of corruption, made plausible by positioning Modi as the self-made, decisive and corruption-free leader India needed, freeing us from the bind of policy paralysis, dynastic succession, and plethora of scams that tainted the incumbent Congress-led UPA regime.

From this point, two single-cause minority constituencies were courted as swing votes. The first was the expected one of the Sangh Parivar ideological base: the Hindu right, enticed through a communal Hindutva ideology that seeks to abandon the principle of secularism to ‘put minorities in their place’ and transform India into a Hindu nation predicated on Hindu culture. The logical contradiction between the achhe din and Hindutva messages was resolved by making Modi the articulate figurehead for the former while largely maintaining a behind-the-scenes silence on the latter; whereas playing of the Hindutva card was delegated to the BJP president Amit Shah and a host of second-rung BJP leaders. Silence from Modi and major BJP leaders on these communal arguments acted as a form of tacit approval, especially given that Modi had already won wide recognition as a torchbearer for the cause during his earlier tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat.

The second single-cause constituency was a more recent entity: one that emerged in the 1990’s after liberalisation of the Indian economy and its integration into a globalised economy. The resultant increase in the economic growth rate, and the concomitant global success of many segments of the Indian economy, led to an increase in prosperity of large segments of the middle and upper classes, especially in the larger cities. With the new opportunity of spending the fruits of this prosperity on a vastly increased choice of global consumer products and real estate, this constituency saw in globalisation a modernity that India had long sought which had now arrived. In its equating of globalisation and modernity, its aspiration was the global city: one that was clean, ordered, efficient and well-managed, as opposed to the messy chaos of current urbanism. The promise of a global city became a new message in political campaigns in India. This was not the first effort to woo this constituency: it happened during the earlier BJP government of Vajpayee in their ‘India Shining’ campaign of 2004, was attempted by the UPA, and was also pursued at the state level by chief ministers like Chandrababu Naidu. But the earlier attempts, where this constituency was not properly understood in those early days of its existence, were largely unsuccessful. The strategies of the Vajpayee and Naidu regimes boomeranged because they overestimated the size and homogeneity of this constituency, and made claims on progress that could not be adequately substantiated. And the UPA lost the trust of this constituency with its weak leadership, policy paralysis, and the accusations of corruption against it. Modi shrewdly courted this constituency with a new twist: he framed it with hope, connected it to his achhe din promise, and promised to scale what he called the ‘Gujarat model of development’ to the national level to usher in a new era of vikas (development). A global city narrative was implied in this rhetoric, for the ‘Gujarat model’ was founded on the claim of boosting business and industrialisation in the state and his promotion of mega-projects such as GIFT (Gujarat International Finance Tec-City), the Sardar Sarovar Dam, and the waterfront development along the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad. This claim, paired with his reputation for decisive administration, won him credibility as the candidate most likely to deliver on the new aspiration for the global city, and won him support from people who had not voted for the BJP in earlier elections. In addition, this was a campaign that gleaned him considerable endorsement from many big-wigs of corporate India, adding further weight to the message.

The efficacy of this strategy seems to have run its course. The promise of achhe din is belied by facts on the ground: a declining economic growth rate, increasing unemployment, stresses on the viability of agriculture (particularly to small farmers), failure to deliver on promises to reign in black money, and the deleterious impact on the economy due to the poor implementation of reform measures such as demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax. The resultant economic woes have begun to provoke hitherto faithful vote banks, such as small traders, into questioning the party’s wisdom and efficacy on economic governance. More significantly, the courting of the two special constituencies, which initially yielded rich returns, has begun to come up against inherent structural limits that had not been adequately recognised earlier.

While there have been recent attempts to reinvigorate the Hindutva card, particularly in Uttar Pradesh as a test ground, it fails to account for two major characteristics of Hindu society: its inherently nuanced and complex diversity and the fractures of caste and class that divide it.

And the claim of ushering in vikas has also hit roadblocks. Firstly, the constituency pursuing the global city dream is quite small as a percentage of the overall population. Failure to recognise this is breeding resentment from those neglected groups to whom this dream was always beyond reach: for example, protests by farmers, fuelled by high levels of agrarian distress, are beginning to rise. Second, the institutional capacity to deliver on this dream, even to the constituency at which the campaign was aimed, has not been put in place on a sufficiently widespread basis.

The failure to recognise these limits is instigating a backlash, and the resultant cracks within Modi’s bastion of Gujarat may be a portent of things to come. The promise of vikas has been shaken by the meme vikas gando thayo chhe (development has gone beserk), as a caption to satirical pictures on the state’s developmental mishaps, going viral on social media. The caste ruptures, that put paid to Hindutva claims of national Hindu unity, have opened the space for a gain in traction by a new wave of young leaders who do not fall into conventional political camps: such as Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mewani and Alpesh Thakor. This has led to communities like the Patels (who had been a major supporter of Modi) deserting the BJP, and a newfound confidence of resistance from Dalit and OBC constituencies. This realignment of political equations is causing worry within the BJP camp in the run-up to elections in the state in December 2017, and Alpesh Thakor’s recent decision to join the Congress has added a new twist to the tale. There has been some attempt to recover ground by shifting the discourse through an appeal to Gujarati asmita (pride) combined with negative characterisations of the Congress. Even if this strategy yields benefits in Gujarat, it is not one that will scale to the national level; and the fact that it is articulated at all speaks on the discomposure that is creeping into the BJP.

The Modi-led BJP is still the unquestioned front runner for Gujarat and other state elections occurring soon, as well as for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, especially given that other alternatives trail substantively in recognised credibility. But its rise in popularity is no longer achieving the rate of ascent that characterised it since 2014, has begun to plateau, and this is a disconcerting and vulnerable situation to be in when the general election is still about eighteen months away.

And they also have further cause for worry in the beginnings of some hitherto unseen change within the Congress. Rahul Gandhi is showing a newfound confidence, and may shortly take over command of the party. For the first time, the Congress is seriously competing with the BJP for mindshare in social media. And we are seeing a new aplomb in the way Rahul Gandhi is engaging with something that Modi has always feared and shied away from: unscripted interactions with journalists and other audiences, including the willingness to publicly receive difficult questions. It is most likely a case of too little and too late, and the Congress is unlikely to win in 2019. But it could lead to a significant shift of perceptions that places the crest in the Modi-BJP wave firmly in the past: this is the matter that is of current concern to the BJP.

What does Modi need to do to shift the momentum? Firstly, he must realise that a strategy of mobilising constituencies that works at the state level is unlikely to work at the national level. At the state level one is dealing with a far greater degree of homogeneity, and one is also proximate enough to be in regular touch with the constituencies you are courting to participate in the routine negotiations that placate those constituencies. When scaling from state to nation, factor in the exponential increase in diversity and the break of the umbilical cord of proximity, and he comes to the impasse he currently confronts where the Hindutva and global city narratives that brought him to where he is begin to yield diminishing returns.

What are the alternative strategies? One would be to follow the Donald Trump model of increasing the range of constituencies you can appeal to by being fuzzy on the development agenda and riding on a rhetoric of fear: the fear of your dreams being wiped out by the combination of a self-serving political elite and an invading other. But this would be difficult to achieve in India, for the United States (for all its claimed diversity) has one of the highest levels of national homogeneity, and has the prior history of unifying slogans such as “the American dream”; and these were key factors in allowing Trump to do what he did. Moreover, it is difficult to claim that you will be the breath of fresh air needed to wipe the slate clean when you have been in politics for decades, and in power at the national level for three years (and it will be interesting to see what strategy Trump will adopt if he seeks re-election in 2020). Finally, the fuzziness on the development agenda will eventually rebound against you.

The other option would be to follow the strategy that the Congress has followed till date: do not simply scale the state level to the national, but develop a set of regional leaders who use caste loyalties to build swing constituencies at the local level, and network these leaders by holding them together through a dynastic leadership at the central level. But the Congress has already served as a living laboratory that demonstrates the limitations of this strategy. Over time, the distancing of the central leadership from the mobilised constituencies characterises it with an ideological blandness that leads to an erosion of faith. And this eventually upsets the delicate balance that must be maintained for stability: the regional leaders start pulling in different direction, and the policy paralysis that characterised the Congress begins to prevail.

The only effective long-term strategy is one that succeeds in delivering action on the ground, and this requires a combination of hope and capacity building. Leadership must be able to articulate a clear development agenda that offers a message of hope to a broad segment of the population, and combine this with the political acumen to build institutional capacities needed to implement this agenda. This cannot be done through centralised control: it requires a poetic articulation of messages of hope that the people believe belong to them, sustained democratic partnerships with multiple scales of state and local government, together with building popular capacities through well-targeted and effective programmes for education, health and other support networks.

This requires an orientation toward empowering systems you do not directly control: an orientation that is far from the way Modi has governed so far. His style of leadership rides on a personality cult of strong centralised control, and if you were to look only at his campaigning and management style, you would be forgiven for the mistake of thinking that India has a presidential rather than parliamentary model of governance. The degree of control that the Prime Minister’s Office exerts in almost all ministries of the current government is far higher than that seen in any previous government. You could say that this style of a strong leader exerting direct hands-on control of all governance is so much a part of Modi that it constitutes his DNA.

If there is any hope for change, it lies in Modi’s ambition. There may be some political leaders who are not interested in long-term success, as they enter politics for personal financial benefit, and only seek terms of power long enough to yield such benefit. There is no evidence that Modi falls into this category. One senses that his ambition is not content with being just one of many Prime Minsters: his sights are set much higher, and he wants to leave a legacy of being one of India’s most significant Prime Ministers. This ambition stands in contradiction to his DNA.

There is a piece of Native American folklore that each one of us is born with a battle being fought within us by two wolves. One wolf stands for selfishness, avarice and cruelty; the other for love, generosity and empathy. You are not a passive bystander in this battle: you determine its outcome, for the wolf that will win the battle is the one that you feed. In this light, Modi’s conundrum is to decide whether to feed his ambition or his DNA.

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