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Rise of aspirational India

by Ramesh Thakur

The charismatic Narendra Modi will lead a majority government for India. The last election to produce a majority government was in 1984.

Modi’s journey from the humble origins of a low-caste tea vendor to prime minister of over a billion people is no less stirring than U.S. President Barack Obama’s story, with rather more substantial executive experience. Modi won because voters rejected the stale, populist and patronizing politics of a corrupt Congress coterie around a cocooned first family. They were drawn instead to Modi’s promise that the country deserves and can do better: remember the hope and excitement of “Yes we can”?

The biggest indictment of Congress may well be that Modi could never have been their prime ministerial candidate. The cultural-intellectual elite fears he could unleash sectarian violence; ordinary Indians hope his victory portends development, growth, jobs, public probity and administrative competence.

India’s electoral process and institutional strengths deserve fulsome tribute. The number of polling stations was 913,000; there were 1.3 million electronic voting machines staffed by more than 4 million election personnel; and security was overseen by 2 million-plus police officers.

Of 814 million eligible Indians, 540 million voted (66.4 percent — the highest turnout in Indian history) in nine phases from April 7 to May 12. (The time frame must be compressed: The process seemed interminable and etiquette, manners and civility visibly deteriorated as tempers began to fray.) The results were known the day counting began (May 16): There were no allegations that the elections were stolen, a la Kenya, Zimbabwe, Iran, Thailand, or even the United States in 2000.

The 2014 elections may mark a turning point when the fast-growing aspirational class came into its own as a potent political force: the group of poor with ambitions to climb up the middle class ranks. Instead of handouts, they want the state to give them a hand up the ladder through the provision of public goods like education, health, law and order and infrastructure.

As well as policy advantages, Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were streets ahead in organizational and campaign skills and strategy. He clocked up more than 300,000 km and addressed 450 rallies. The BJP mounted a massive outreach exercise directly to voters, and Modi’s extensive road shows were buttressed by intensive use of hologram technology — his apparition would appear and disappear like the gods to enthrall audiences.

In so thoroughly cleansing the Parliament of Congress MPs — down from 206 to 44! — voters have decisively repudiated the politics of dynasty, inheritance, entitlement, corruption and sycophancy. For the sake of the quality and effectiveness of India’s democracy, the Congress party needs to recoup and regenerate. This will be difficult without cutting the umbilical cord with the Gandhi family.

Yet the sycophants are circling the Rahul Gandhi wagon. The dramatic vote collapse (by one-third to under 20 percent) and seats (by four-fifths) reflected poorly on the collective leadership of the party, insist the flatterers. It cannot possibly be the fault of a mere party vice president who held no Cabinet post in the defeated government.

Over the last three years, India’s urban young have flooded the streets in massive numbers, proclaiming they’ve had enough and are not going to take it any more. A new political party was formed last year to tap into the growing mass rebellion. The Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party’s clever acronym, AAP, is Hindi for the respectful form of “you.”

AAP generated political excitement, and in the Delhi elections last December, it rather unexpectedly ended up forming the government. But it self-destructed through vigilante antics, anarchic street demonstrations by the Cabinet and anti-market policies that alienated the aspirational base.

Had AAP shown itself capable of good government in Delhi, it would have done exceptionally well across the country in the general election. Instead, its bubble had burst and voters punished its self-indulgent tantrums. But it has a base and can build on it.

Two final notable features of the election are the sidelining of the purely caste-based parties and the decline and irrelevance of the left front of communist parties of various shades and hues. Modi’s catchy, effective slogan was “MG2″: minimum government, maximum governance.

India’s weak economic institutions — stifling regulatory norms, barriers to starting and closing businesses, tardy and costly enforcement of property rights, complex and time-consuming dispute resolution procedures — are matched by poor quality of governance in the legal and political institutions and bureaucratic and police structures.

The new government’s policy agenda should focus on more market opening reforms, more integration with the world economy and innovations in farming. In addition, Modi should pursue a five-part agenda in his five-year term: infrastructure, water and sanitation, education, corruption and administrative reform.

The public sector is large, parasitical and inefficient to the point of being dysfunctional. India will need at least $500 billion in infrastructure investments over five years to repair critically neglected road, rail, air and sea transportation networks and power grids.

Only a tiny fraction of India’s people is served by safe drinking water and hygienic sanitation facilities. India has the worst health statistics of any country in the world by some margin, with the majority of disease being water-borne or water-related. Modi’s campaign pledge to build more toilets than temples is entirely appropriate.

Corruption (bribery and extortion) distorts markets, encourages inefficiency and generates revulsion among ordinary people. Petty corruption is especially endemic at the lower, clerical levels of administration — precisely where the ordinary citizen comes into daily contact with officialdom.

While China, East and Southeast Asia are closing the education gap with the West, India is falling further behind. Indian secondary school students were second from the bottom for 73 countries tested in math, science and English.

Although there are still a few pockets of excellence, the average quality of India’s higher education has been falling steadily behind world standards. India struggles in all global university rankings and against Asian benchmarks.

Its education and research sector is over-regulated and under-funded, with teachers being burdened with excessive student numbers and teaching, to the neglect of quality original research.

If Modi can show substantial progress on the above five-point agenda, he will have earned re-election with a solid majority in 2019 and positioned India to provide ballast for many struggling Western economies.

The number of serious challenges confronting the country do not diminish: financial crisis, terrorism, Maoist insurgency, an antiquated educational system, debilitating poverty, choking infrastructure, climate change, food and water insecurity, and fragile states in the neighborhood.

India will be much better equipped to deal with these challenges with a strong, stable and decisive government pursuing cohesive, market friendly and socially inclusive policies without an aggressive foreign policy agenda.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; adjunct professor, Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law, Griffith University, and editor-in-chief of Global Governance from Jan. 1, 2013.