Delhi Dispatch: Indian National Elections 2014 – A Report
“Change" in India, just about 6 months ago, was represented by the Aam Admi Party (AAP - The Common Man Party), a new political formation that emerged out of a public movement in India against corruption. Their party/election symbol, the common Indian reed broom (the “jhaadu”), stood for various things, but prominent among those was the “sweeping away” of the rampant corruption and malgovernance that had increasingly plagued the country.
India had seen scams and scandals surfacing with sickening regularity under the ruling UPA (United Progressive Alliance – of which the Congress Party was the chief constituent) government which had ruled India for two terms of five years each, for a total of 10 years. The AAP's battle- – and rallying-cry was the struggle against and rooting out of this endemic corruption.
Their electoral debut was in the state elections for the city-state of Delhi, India's capital. In a remarkable performance, they managed to get 28 seats out of the total 70 and with the help of a political alliance, went on to form the government in Delhi. They had then swept away doubt and ridicule and it seemed providential that they had been given a chance to “sweep away” corruption that they came to power.
But in the national elections of 2014, which ended on May 12 2014, the real – and one could say the megascale, even Herculean – “sweeping away” that occurred was effected by the nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP – Indian People's Party) which gained 282 seats out of the 543 in the lower house of the Indian parliament (the Lok Sabha – People's Assembly), securing an “absolute majority,” (the midway mark being 272).
In India's multiparty political landscape, with only two real national parties till now – the BJP and the incumbent Congress – it was seen that, especially in more recent times, no one party managed to get an absolute majority countrywide in national elections. As a result, the national parties had to ally with several other parties, mostly regional ones and form alliances to rule at the center.
But the BJP bucked that trend and swept away every opposition, prediction, foreboding and calculation to garner enough seats on its own strength to not need any alliance partners, really.
A big chunk of the credit for the BJP's runaway victory is being given to its prime-ministerial candidate (and now India's 15th Prime Minister!), Narendra Modi. Modi was the chief-minster of the western Indian state of Gujarat (akin to the governor of a US state) and he held that position since 2001. However, soon after his taking over as chief-minister in 2001, there was a horrific incident in 2002 in his state of Gujarat where more than a thousand Muslims were killed, many gruesomely. It has been claimed by many human rights activists and concerned citizens that much of the killings happened with direct knowledge of Modi and he chose to let the bloodbath progress.
The justice process for “Gujarat 2002” has been slow and is still ongoing. Yet, Modi has not been indicted by any court though several ministers in his then ministry have been found guilty and jailed. Modi has never explicitly apologized for the incident though some people say that legally that would be harakiri for him, an admission of guilt. Be that as it may, it is well known that he did go on a Glory Voyage (“Gaurav Yatra”) soon after the 2002 carnage to redeem the reputation of Gujarat, for, as he told the people, that reputation had been tarnished by accusations of riots and killings – which, as Modi coaxed people to say, were all untrue.
Modi went on to win re-elections in his state very comfortably and this seemed to bolster his supporters' claim that he and his actions had the full support of the people of Gujarat. His other claim to fame has been his aggressive methods in “developing” Gujarat – from building a network of roads to delivering electricity in the remotest areas, among other things. He also began holding economic summits in the state called “Vibrant Gujarat” event to attract investment into his state and also to serve as a platform for high-powered networking.
For the national elections 2014, the BJP had appointed Modi early on as its prime-ministerial candidate to lead the charge in their campaigning. The BJP had performed quite unimpressively in the last elections of 2009 and had some sense that they had to put all their energies behind fighting the 2014 elections. They chose Modi as their frontman, hoping to cash in on his perceived reputation for developing Gujarat and in corollary fashion, of being a capable administrator to represent to the people the image of a doer.
Their task, as they probably realized early on, was made easier by the fact that the ruling Congress party had been dogged by massive scams in various government schemes and their rule had seen the beginning of a popular movement of discontent (the India Against Corruption movement). There had been unbridled inflation with almost unchecked increase in prices of all essential goods and the general mood of people at large was of frustration.
Though the Congress government had, reluctantly, initiated several flagship, rights-based social welfare programs – the most well-known among them the Right to Work program, NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) – their impact and effectiveness was always a matter of debate. While they were supposed to have won their re-election to their second term in 2009 to the goodwill generated by schemes like NREGA, that impact seemed to have petered out in their second term and much of the positive capital they had gained from the introduction of such schemes floundered.
The BJP launched a massive national election campaign with Modi as the centerpiece, arranging his in-person rallies at more that 400 locations across India supplemented by publicity blitzes in the physical and virtual worlds, using publicity vans that traversed India's vast countryside and also connecting with overseas supporters over the web (He addressed an election rally in April at multiple sites using 3-D holographic technology). Soon, there were murmurs and even public discussions of a “Modi-wave,” such was the “ripple-effect” created by the publicity-hype over the personality-driven election campaign of the BJP . Modi proved tireless in his efforts to traverse the country, thus making extensive public contact with the people.
It was however his consistent message that is believed to have won the day for him and also swung such a large chunk of the vote in his direction. Modi's campaign team early on decided on “development” as the mantra that Modi would espouse. He was seen to be especially suited to be the carrier of such a message – what purported to be a package of hopes.
He was perceived to be the solid champion if not the originator of the “Gujarat model of development,” which as it was conveyed, encompassed various administrative efficiencies, delivery of services and of course, ensuring a state of prosperity for the state of Gujarat, of which Modi was the chief minster since 2001. It must be stated at the outset that among all Indian states, Gujarat has historically been a region that has had a history of commerce and trade (it having an extensive coastline and several serviceable ports has been a traditional factor; Gujarati business-people ranged the world to trade their goods; many of them settled in Africa – and today the diaspora is found spread across the world). The business and trading class of Gujarat has also established itself in India's commercial capital Mumbai, dealing in both traditional modes of business and in the most current worlds of global business and finance.
The state has been known for being business-friendly and it has always seen levels of industrialization that have been higher than in most Indian states. It was in such conditions that Modi's putative successes must be seen. Still, he was seen as the special hero of ensuring clean and quick governance, rapid business clearances and what probably struck a chord with the masses – ensuring basic delivery of services. In a country where water, electricity, roads etc can be frightfully difficult to access for a great number of people – most Indian cities depend on private arrangements for water; electricity supply is rarely dependable and roads almost non-existent beyond the limits of larger cities – the projection of Modi's successes in making such basic amenities available came as a promise backed by proof that such improbabilities had been attained in Gujarat. The promise was that the fabled Gujarat model would be replicated everywhere – water, electricity and roads delivered to your doorstep. It must have seemed like a dream worth casting one's vote for.
Never mind the naysayers who started producing various reports that challenged Modi's development model, bringing up little known issues of farmer suicides in the state, child malnutrition etc that seemed to give the lie to all the spectacular claims. Nothing, it seemed, could tarnish the “shining India” image that Modi was claiming to bring forth. The dream was sold very convincingly – and then you had Modi himself, in person carrying the message from place to place, pounding the lectern at each rally about his own achievements and even making fun of other states - ruled by other parties - that did not measure up in terms of development indices.
A lot of younger first-time voters were also slated to cast their vote the first time and it is said that they constitute the new, emerging “aspirational India,” an India fueled by the availability of more consumer goods, access to the internet and the world of e-commerce – coupled with higher salaries (disposable incomes) as, first various global players and forces (like the outsourcing business) drove up take-home salaries and then the government of India also awarded its employees a substantial raise under what is called the Sixth Pay Commission.
It also bears mention that the BJP's parent organization, the cadre-based, more explicitly Indian-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS – The National Volunteers Corps – of which BJP is considered the political offshoot) also massively mobilized its volunteer base to plug for the BJP – and Modi. The RSS has had the reputation of staying away from politics but these elections were perceived by them as some sort of a do-or-die effort for some of their Indian nationalist ideas. The RSS has been the ideological mentor to the BJP and a lot of BJP's members (and current ministers in Modi's cabinet) have strong associations with it.
In the end, the BJP's campaign was also one which was extremely well-funded, so much so that it prompted a Congress minister to say that they were “outfunded” by the BJP. This coming from a party that is traditionally known to have bottomless monetary resources when elections were concerned! Early on in the election campaign several columnists in the press wondered about the backing and promotion that was catapulting Modi, already seen as business-friendly. It can hardly be a secret that several business houses have flourished in his reign – and surely scores others would like to reap benefits in the future. So whether it was an aspirational class, the frustration with the ruling Congress or Modi's appeal that won BJP the house, there can be no denying that they had backers with deep pockets, who, as one political contestant said colorfully, will want their investment back with outsized interest and profits, that “interest” coming from further squeezing the farmers, the indigenous and an increased battle over resources.
Umang Kumar is an activist with the Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia.