Sunday, May 25, 2014

A new era, and a wild card for India

There has been much analysis already of India's mammoth general elections and its new dispensation, specially the enigmatic new prime minister.  Most of analysis seems to range from gung-ho cheerleading from BJP supporters or desperate, now-the-deluge- hand-wringing from India's 'progressives. As a centrist, who leans right on fiscal matters but left on social ones, I have found both unsatisfactory and incomplete. More importantly, as someone who can write in English but has roots deep in India's rural heartland, and relies on a network of Hindi language news sources, local politicians, journalists and activists to get a sense of the grassroots, some of the analysis - and indeed political reactions and predictions - has felt quite distant from what I observed during my visit to India in April.

Firstly, there is no doubt that Modi - and it is important to distinguish this from the larger party - ran a tight, energetic, efficient, tireless campaign. BJP has shown itself riven by factions, centred often around strong personalities, but Modi early in the campaign seemed to circumvent, and in later stages, sweep all the factions along in his wake. Much kudos to his team that were able to manage the internal politics and divisions of the party.

While I may be seen as overly optimistic, this may bode well for governance of India. One criticism of Modi has been his authoritarian style, one that may work perhaps for a chief minister but will fail when confronting the mind-boggling diversity of interests a prime minister must address. His campaign's ability to rein in, manage and carry along the often very disparate elements of the BJP and its allies may be an indicator that Modi is not nearly as much of a solo player as many in the media have made him out to be.  

Secondly, I was struck by the positive tone of the BJP campaign. The 'achchhe din aane wale hain" (good days are coming) slogan may have sounded cheesy to metropolitan ears, but by focussing on quotidian but necessary needs - education, irrigation, welfare of the girl child - it appealed to those in small towns and villages who struggle to access even the most basic services and products a functioning state should provide. In comparison, the Congress television campaigns focussed on the past, seemed to be more about receiving largesse rather than tools of empowerment, and in one particularly tin-eared instance featured a Sikh 'farmer' lauding the party. A focus on past achievements is most unlikely to win support, specially amongst a predominantly youthful population focussed more on the future. 

It is also worth noting here that BJP also brought in an online code of conduct for its less than media savvy party rank-and-file in 2013. This rag-tag band of supporters led by some party members had caused immense PR damage, attacking and abusing anyone they felt was the 'enemy.'  In doing so, they often relied on grotesque sexist, caste-ist and sectarian abuse, demonstrating to critics the veracity of the party's (and Modi's) hateful underbelly.  Modi's team was smart to rein them in and limit the damage they could have caused in the months leading up to the elections. (Full disclosure: I was also attacked by these keyboard warriors for a period of about 10 months. I have been most surprised that they have gone dormant since mid-2013). 

However, without minimizing BJP's achievement in running a stellar political campaign, it is also necessary to note that circumstances were finally appropriate for a change in dispensation. I had expected the 2009 polls to push forward an anti-Congress shift: a youthful demographic with huge percentage desperate for development, education, jobs and with hopes for the future seemed quite unlikely to accept privileged heirs to various political and business dynasties as the face of change (led by Rahul Gandhi). I was wrong then, but perhaps the tipping point had not been reached, and in 2009, BJP was a deeply divided party that could not marshal a campaign, much less a government. The internecine rivalries were such that various party leaders worked harder to ensure the loss of their own candidates than to attempt winning the election. 

Both party discipline and demographic change within the voters combined this time to deliver a BJP electoral victory. Here it is crucial to note that the UPA-II was mortally wounded not only by the many scams, absymal economic policies, lack of governance and an increasingly hubristic attitude to the voter. UPA-II's attitude to popular movements ranging from Anna Hazare's Lokpal/anti-corruption demonstrations to the post-Delhi gang rape student protests was more reminiscent of colonial action than anything undertaken by elected representatives. It was also - far more than many 'progressive' analysts are willing to accept - hurt by the Gandhi clan!

Sonia Gandhi's super-PM-ship may have been possible in a time before social media and the dizzying array of small, regional, traditional and electronic media outlets. But the constant attempts to blame UPA-II for lack of governance while crediting her with any tiny positive decision or PR victory resulted in making her look dictatorial, albeit benignly so. Congress - better than any other party - should remember, after the Emergency, that the Indian voter may look for a strong leader but is not very amenable to dictatorial ones. Her inept son, Rahul Gandhi, fell into similar patterns, publicly tearing up bills tabled in the parliament, flaunting not his 'moral' credentials but rather his arrogant contempt for a parliamentary democracy. 

Priyanka, who has till now played the constant politico-familial bridesmaid, may have been hyped by the media, but her arrogance turned off more voters in the Hindi heartland than Congress (and their press enablers) are willing to believe. It is also delusional to believe that her much hyped resemblance to Indira Gandhi carries much resonance with voters who are mostly under the age of thirty, and thus have little memory - fond or otherwise - of that leader. 

What I was struck by most, however, was the levels of personalised resentment against the Gandhi clan.  In 2014, for many average voters - the storekeepers, farmers, taxi drivers, students who comprise the unstable but growing lower-middle class - the Gandhi clan had become a symbol of not only arrogance and entitlement, but rapacious greed. I was also struck by the numbers who expressed disdain for a dynastic structure of power, insisting that they wanted leaders who had 'done something' rather than 'part of a family.' A corollary to this is the rejection of the politics of largess, where populist hand-outs can win votes. This may well be a result of changes in economic and literacy levels of the population, but for me, it seems to be a positive development. 

In many ways, the Varanasi election can provide an insight into Modi's - and BJP's - success. The city lies in a primarily rural belt that has been long ignored by the Delhi administration, and battered by caste-ist politics of the likes of SP and BSP. Despite the numbers of religious tourists, and its location as a regional centre for education, medicine, business, Varanasi has seen little development, much corruption, and almost criminal neglect by both state and central administrations. Sadly, even then, Varanasi has received more attention that the neighbouring towns and villages, where poverty can reach sub-Saharan levels, there is little difference between political leaders and mob bosses, and police, district administration, judiciary and politicians collude to pillage the land with near impunity. Indeed, in most instances, there is little difference between the government in the area and the criminals. 

Few in the media noted that part of the Modi-mania in the streets of Varanasi and elsewhere in the country was also equally about desperation. At least in Purvanchal, there is a sense of utter desperation and despair, and many are willing to accept any change, because they believe they are already living the worst.

Varanasi is also in many ways a microcosm of India. It is one of the most sacred sites for Hindus and attracts millions of religious tourists. Just beyond the city limits, Sarnath continues to be a crucial Buddhist sacred site. It also boasts of the world-famous silk industry, now in an advanced state of decay, and almost entirely composed of Muslim weavers. The city also has neighbourhoods that have been historically dominated by communities from various parts of India, drawn there for its religious significance and settled within the city boundaries for centuries. It is worth noting that despite the platitudes about Varanasi's pluralism - and secularism - in much of Indian press, the communities do not always co-exist without tensions. Economic scarcity and political manipulation have in recent decades added to these inter-community tensions. 

The 2014 elections marked a big change for Varanasi, the surrounding region, and by extension for the country. The Congress candidate was a well-known mobster, known for violent crime. The AAP candidate offered a middle-class 'new' option but was seen in the city as Congress's B-team, specially amongst many of the middle-class. Modi - who received rapturous welcome from many - was received circumspectly by the numerous Muslim voters in the city. His reputation - and the lingering stain of 2002 Gujarat riots - made that inevitable. But for the first time in many election cycles, many in the city and the region dared to hope that political attention may lead to positive changes.

However now the city waits - much like the country - divided between wild hopes and guarded ones, but also with fear amongst some and palpable worry. In Varanasi, Modi has made specific promises for development of the city. He has also reached out - not in the vote-bank way of Congress, SP and BSP - to the Muslim community. While he has refused the facile symbolic political gestures such as visiting the Gyan Vaapi mosque, he has promised 24-hour power supply to the weavers, as well as twinning them with the industry in Surat. As a sound-bite generator, this makes little news. But for those of us who know how desperately the weaving community needs assistance, this holds out a ray of hope. 

There is also talk (unconfirmed) of a PMO office branch in the city, suggesting that Modi will be spending at least some of his time in the city and far from the rarified confines of Lutyen's Delhi. In the days since the elections results were announced, the city has been on knife-edge, waiting with bated breath for 'change' to begin, and every bulldozer, every crane heading to a public site is seen as a symbol of that change. There is a sense of anticipation, hope, a barely suppressed shiver of excitement that I - for one - cannot remember from before. 

Therein also lies the danger: Modi has promised 'good days,' and we all know these can't be delivered overnight. And yet, he will need to deliver, and fast. In many ways, he has much leeway specially in areas like Varanasi, Purvanchal and much of the non-metropolitan India that has been so ignored and depleted that any change will be gratefully accepted. At the same time, he is faced with a young, clamouring population that may fast run out of patience if the promised changes are not visible soon. 

Then there is Modi himself. Hero and villain, depending on who speaks. Messiah for his fans, the veritable face of evil for his detractors. Despite his many appearances on television, there is little public sense of the man himself. His track record as chief minister is mixed, albeit better than most others (although given many of India's chief ministers, this may be a particularly low bar). 

I have written about Modi before, and while I am (still) not a fan, I do not believe his prime ministership will spell the end of India, or indeed marks the country's transformation into a fascist dictatorship. A majority he has been given makes his path easier to push through some of his governance agenda but I doubt his government will lead to sectarian pogroms as many seem to predict. But then again, I have been called an incurable optimist by many. I choose to remain so, specially when it comes to India, and even now when the country has thrown up a wild card.