Courting the Public

Narendra Modi in the 2014 Campaign
Narendra Modi in the 2014 Campaign. Source: Zee News, March 2014.

In democratic societies, the relationship between candidates and voters boils down to the more-than-familiar concept of courtship. Often, campaigns employ a myriad of strategies to court voters, which include winning the hearts of the people through actions or through words. Even though the conventional wisdom suggests that action speaks louder than words, the time constraints and financial limitations during campaigns hinder candidates’ ability to showcase their capability through well-developed policy-making. Due to these practical constraints, politicians quickly resort to sweet-talking their constituents: making grandiose promises to secure votes. India’s post-colonial political history teems with instances featuring such dysfunctional relationships.

After 1947, the Congress Party, the major political party leading the freedom movement from Britain, won over the trust of the people with its success in the fight for independence and, therefore, impressively dominated the political scene with a single-party majority until the 1990s. The last decade of the millennium was met with electoral challenges for Congress, who had to form alliances – namely the United Progressive Alliance – to maintain control over the national government. Because the public’s trust in Congress previously lay at the core of Indian politics, the abandonment of the party in the 2014 elections must signal some dramatic political change. Congress suffered an unprecedented, humiliating defeat, winning only 44 seats in the 543-seat Parliament, while its rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), controlled the national government with majority rule. Various factors could be pointed to as causing this shift, but a major driving force behind Congress’ decline lies in its empty promises.

Jawaharlal Nehru – the first Prime Minister and leader of the Congress – fought to secure a secular democracy for India. His daughter Indira Gandhi, who later became the third Prime Minister and the central figure of Congress, campaigned under the slogan “Remove Poverty” in order to establish vote banks amongst the poor, the untouchables (Dalits), and minorities. By 1975, it was clear that Indira Gandhi had not eliminated poverty India, but instead, removed democracy with emergency rule, effectively instating rule by decree. As a result, India used the remnants of democracy to punish her by voting her out of power. Similarly, in In Spite of the Gods, the Rise of Modern India, journalist Edward Luce illustrates Congress’ familiar gap between promises and policies. In one anecdote, the chief minister of Hyderabad Y.S. Reddy promised free electricity to farmers, but only the richest farmers with the necessary infrastructure benefited from the subsidies.

Indira Gandhi and her father Jawarhlal Nehru, both served as prime ministers of India. Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi carry on the legacy of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty that once dominated Indian politics.
Indira Gandhi and her father Jawaharlal Nehru both served as Prime Ministers of India at different points in its post-independence history. Sonia Gandhi (widow of Rajiv Gandhi and President of the Indian National Congress party since 1988) and her son Rahul Gandhi carry on the legacy of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty that once dominated Indian politics. Source: suffragio.org 

Hence, it barely comes as a surprise that the Indian populace became disillusioned with the national government after its tragic love story with the Congress Party. Far from representing and addressing the true interests of the people, the party has degenerated into an electoral strategy geared toward winning votes rather than formulating sound policy. The question now is: does Congress’ failure remain an isolated case study, or does it foreshadow the BJP’s relationship with the people?To avoid Congress’ fate, the BJP must sell itself as a different and better alternative. Indeed, it has. First, Modi has a good track record as the Chief Minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014. Overseeing a stunning surge in economic growth and development, Modi promises to apply his “Gujarat model” at the national level. Next, while Congress tailors policies to specific social cleavages across the nation, Narendra Modi – current Prime Minister and leader of the BJP – steers clear from identity politics and, instead, creates policies for the entire populace.

One of Modi’s promises was to reduce corruption. On August 19, 2014, at Kaithal, Haryana, he strongly condemned corruption, likening it to cancer in the country. “Do you want a corruption-free country or not? Should strong steps not be taken to remove corruption? We will take those steps.”

In addition, Modi commits himself to the reduction of inflation while increasing economic growth. The idea is to enrich India’s population as a whole – to benefit both the rich and the poor and exclude no social groups Clearly, this an attractive goal. Instead of relying on expensive and unsustainable welfare programs to uplift the poor, Modi chooses to increase the size of the economic pie to generate more resources for proper distribution. Upon hearing such assuring rhetoric, the once disillusioned public welcomed his platform in anticipation of the “Modi Magic.”

Now that it has been a little over 100 days with Modi in office, how have things fared? Rhetoric aside, little has changed since Congress’ times, as the BJP worryingly resembles the Congress in various ways. Even though the natures of their policies seem different, their campaign styles and strategies remain the same. Modi has been too quick in making big promises.

First, eradicating corruption sounds like a good idea to the people, but not to the people with the power to hinder anti-corruption efforts – his ministers. Besides, a few days after calling “corruption deadlier than cancer,” the government controversially sacked the Chief Vigilance officer of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).

Next, in spite of hopes for economic growth, little does Modi realize that being a Chief Minister of a state is different from serving as Prime Minister of a country. The Gujarat model of development may succeed at the state-level but not at a national-level, given the immense diversity across the country. In addition, while Modi expresses his willingness to bring change to all Indians, his ideological orientation casts doubt on this promise. He remains the head of the BJP, the Hindu nationalist party notorious for its anti-minority philosophy, and even oversaw the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 when massacres of minority Muslims occurred under his nose.

A change in party-rule does not necessarily signal meaningful improvements in governance. After all, the BJP is the same wolf as Congress, simply under a different guise. With the BJP in power now, history is repeating itself. Beyond the control of individual actors or parties themselves, the structural factors of India’s political landscape have led to a cycle of dysfunction:  incumbents fail, challengers win. This counterintuitive pattern indeed defies the widespread theory of incumbent advantage, simply because of the incumbents’ failure to deliver promises. And Modi is no exception to this trend.

A prime example of the systemic constraints hindering Modi’s efforts to follow up his rhetoric with actions can be found in his own backyard – the notorious bureaucracy. More often than not, red tape and structural barriers inherent within the government itself become culprits for the gap between promises and policies. Luce tells the story of Sheila Dikshit, the Chief Minister of Deli from 1998 to 2013, who “talks candidly about the corruption afflicting her administration and complains loudly about the limitations of politics.” More specifically, attempts to remove trash from the urban streets failed in practice because sanitation workers do not show up to work. Politicians like Dikshit and Modi may have genuine intentions, but bureaucracy and politics shackle their ability to translate concerns into concrete change.

Yet, all is not lost. Still early in his term, Modi can alter the status quo if he surmounts  several pressing challenges. The paramount challenge is to overcome any possible resistance from his civil servants and reform the state from within – to reduce corruption and increase bureaucratic efficiency. Only then can he proceed to deliver his promises more smoothly. Ultimately, Modi’s most daunting task at hand is to rebuild the Indian people’s trust in the national government. Trust, the bond between the government and its people, takes years to build, but seconds to destroy. Indeed, what the skeptical electorate of India needs now is not another reincarnation of its ex-lover, the Congress, but a man of his words.

Featured Image Source: thehansIndia.com