Event ReportsPublished on Mar 16, 2015
Prime Minister Modi has come to symbolise an aspirational India who has been chosen as "an agent of change rather than continuity." Experts think it is unfair to judge him in such a short time. His success depends on whether the rhetoric of the elections would translate into governance.
PM Modi symbolises an aspirational India

Observer Research Foundation hosted a book discussion on journalist Rajdeep Sardesai’s recently published book "2014: The Election That Changed India" on March 12. Panel members included Ashok Malik, AII-ORF Chair, Harsh Sethi, Consulting Editor, Seminar and Mihir Sharma, Editor-Opinions, Business Standard and Manoj Joshi, Distinguished Fellow, ORF.

Describing his book, that chronicles the developments that led to making the general elections of 2014 a potential game-changer in Indian politics, Mr. Sardesai said that it was essentially a narrative of India’s political evolution since the early 1990’s and culminates by exploring the pivotal 2014 elections.

One of the central themes of the book is the analysis of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s journey: from being one of the many RSS workers to becoming a deeply polarising state Chief Minister, and ultimately becoming the preeminent iconic leader of the nation. According to Sardesai, Modi was "at the right place, at the right time, in the right context." He cited the declining economy and a silent political leadership of the Congress as primary reasons that contributed in propelling PM Modi’s rise.

In his campaign, Modi was able to project himself as a solid leader who had previously delivered astounding prosperity in Gujarat through strong governance and astute business sense. There were constant references to the ’Gujarat Model’ and its success in comparison to other states like Uttar Pradesh.

On its part, the Congress Party, rather than challenging the governance model, tried to make it a personality contest with attacks on Modi’s authoritarian persona and references to the 2002 riots. In Sardesai’s view, this was counter-productive for two reasons: first, the median age of Indian voters has declined significantly and a large section of the new, young, and impatient Indian voters were looking for a better future instead of dwelling in the past; and second, after the largely silent leadership from the Congress, India was looking for a strong vocal leader, and the Congress unintentionally projected Modi as one.

Reiterating the importance of the shift in demographics, Sardesai stated that the BJP was able to get 37% of the votes from the age group of 18-23 years. Moreover, Mr. Modi’s efforts to the reach out to the youth and active employment of social media seemed in direct contrast to Rahul Gandhi’s evasiveness. BJP’s ability to micro-manage the campaign was also crucial to their success in the elections.

Additionally, India is at the stage where the ideologies of political parties do not significantly differ. In this scenario, noted Sardesai, the face of the party or its leadership becomes central. The Congress recognised at a much later stage. Focussing the Congress’s lack of in this respect, he said that "Rahul Gandhi never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

Speaking further on Congress’s missteps in the last few years, he said that the Congress should have put up a fight in the 2012 Gujarat state elections. Sardesai observed that in 2012, Narendra Modi was dealing with the challenges of anti-incumbency and discontent post a massive draught in the state. However, the Congress’s virtual absence in the Gujarat elections allowed Modi to become a third-time CM with relative ease.

It was after his third consecutive victory in the state that Modi rose to fill the leadership vacuum in the BJP that eventually led to the Congress Party’s resounding defeat in the national elections. Hence, Sardesai highlighted miscalculations and complacency by the Congress Party as one of the many factors that aided Modi in the 2014 general elections.

Further, he said that the parallels between the 2014 general elections and the 2015 Delhi state elections in Delhi cannot be understated. Like Modi, now Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was able to convert the state elections into a Presidential contest. His appeal to the lower income order in Delhi was remarkable and his pro-poor, pro-development, local issues-based campaign was aided by the growing sense of impatience in voters as well as BJP’s own arrogance demonstrated through their campaign.

Concluding his analysis, Sardesai noted that since the publication of the book, India hasn’t changed much; however, there have been certain interesting developments that may have far-reaching implications. The recent budget highlights the PM’s strategy of incremental change. He also underlined the importance of the BJP-PDP alliance’s outcome in Modi’s overall plan. The Delhi election results imply that young Indian voters are increasingly result-oriented and unforgiving. They’re relatively well off from their elders and have a different set of demands. Politics and politicians must recognise that. The current demand is for a stronger, more decisive, media friendly leader who can promise a stronger economy and job creation.

This was followed by comments from the first panellist, Harsh Sethi. He stated that the long-term impacts of the election on democratic and electoral trends will become more apparent with time. Political parties, economy, democracy as well as demographics are constantly evolving. Combined with shifts in communication technologies, they will continue to impact "national culture." He said that while 2014 was perhaps an election that changed India; the 2014 elections more likely represent the result of a changed India. He added that the implications of migration and extravagant election expenses are crucial and deserve further analysis. Mr. Sethi also highlighted the changing role of regional parties.

Mihir Sharma, the second panellist, said that the 2014 elections were significant in disproving the idea that people vote based on the increase or decrease in their own income. Although certain groups may have benefited under the UPA government, the economy downturn played a decisive role in their voting decisions. Another significant development in 2014 was the central role of economic issues in the campaigns vis-a-vis identity and vote bank politics. However, he added that the discourse on economy did not go into any details, plans or strategies. While the campaigns shaped up like a Presidential contest, none of the candidates were quizzed on their strategies by the public or the media. Lastly, he stated that the Congress now must play the role of an honest opposition in order to overcome their credibility deficit.

Emphasising on the issue of corruption that is plaguing the country, Manoj Joshi, the third panellist, said that immediate structural reforms were needed to tackle India’s challenges. Drawing parallels with previous elections, Joshi added that with each election, the paradigm shifts in some way or the other. While he believed that Modi had the leadership abilities to manage the bureaucracy in its present form, he stressed on the need for an equally capable team to achieve the PM’s desired goals. Joshi felt that major restructuring of several ministries is required for the better management and delegation by the new Ministers.

The panel discussion was followed by a vibrant question and answer session in which Sardesai reiterated that PM Modi has come to symbolise an aspirational India who has been chosen as "an agent of change rather than continuity."

It was said that it is unfair to judge Modi as a Prime Minister in such a short time. His success depends on whether the rhetoric of the elections would translate into governance, his respect for constitutional institutions, his ability to manage fiscal federalism, his ability to create new jobs, his ability to handle the government in the face of scattered opposition, and the success of his plans such as the NITI Aayog.

(This report is prepared by Vidisha Mishra, Research Assistant, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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