To be at crossroads is a wonderful experience - full of excitement, lot of uncertainty and an urgency to act. Post 2019’s bitterly fought Elections, here is the time to ask some uncomfortable questions to oneself - both for the victors and the vanquished. Very often, winning is more an outcome of tactics rather than strategy, but the winner mistakes the triumph of tactics as a longer-term acceptability of his style and substance. It could also be that the outcome was due to the push and pull of extraneous factors. The winner just happened to gain unexpected traction from the spiralling thrust of wind. No doubt, there is a philosophical touch to the moment of reckoning. This is not to take away the credit for the massive victory that the Modi-Shah duo has achieved. But we need to look at this great moment in India’s political history with a dispassionate objectivity.
As Narendra Modi emerged the clear winner, should we conclude that his exhortation of “Congress Mukt Bharat” has been endorsed by the electorate overwhelmingly? Such a conclusion is a travesty of the ground reality; true, the Congress has been severely mauled in the Hindi heartland but still managed a respectable vote share of nearly 20%. The combined vote share of about 58 % for the two mainstream parties augurs well for the evolution of a healthy democracy.
The loud and clear message in this election has been the total rejection of the hotchpotch coalition that sundry political outfits stitched together at the election time. The moot question is whether the slogan of Congress Mukt Bharat is at all relevant and in the interest of the Nation. The short answer is, “Not at all.” I do not think that a single party democracy is an idea worthy of being cherished by a lively democracy with its regional, linguistic and cultural diversities.
Being a purist in thought and action, Mahatma Gandhi suggested soon after Independence that for the healthy development of democracy, the behemoth National movement that coalesced a wide spectrum of political opinions should be dismantled allowing the necessary space for the emergence of political parties with divergent vision and views to fill the vacuum. A noble thought, a bit naïve though, according to many scholars. The Nobel Laurate, Gunnar Myrdal in his masterpiece on the post-World War II development, “Asian Drama”, hailed the wisdom and foresight that Congress leaders showed in politely ignoring the suggestion. Many of the newly independent countries, especially in Asia and Africa that emerged post-1945 ended up as military dictatorships or farcical democracies whose only claim to democracy was the inclusion of words like “Democratic”, “People’s Republic” and the like in their names. They were mostly personality-centric virtual autocracies. What saved the day for India was the presence of the political infrastructure with a dominant political party to provide the much-needed stability in the initial years of the nascent nation.
Over the years since adopting our Constitution in 1950, the electorate, comprising predominantly of illiterate, semi-literate and rural population demonstrated raw wisdom and political maturity by assertively rejecting nepotism, political arrogance and complacence. The ability of our people to differentiate between the provincial and federal electoral priorities was demonstrated once again by the recent elections in states as diverse as Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Telangana.
The electorate has spoken decisively. It is now for the parties and their leaders to take the message with an objective perspective. I would like to put down three messages from Election-2019 that the ruling and opposition parties should pay heed to.
Firstly, NDA and BJP should take the coming 5 years as a fresh lease of life given by the people of India to decisively act on the unfinished agenda from the first term. The new Government needs to intensify efforts to keep the promises on job creation, farming and farmer interests and social infrastructure, notably healthcare and housing-for-all. Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 riding the popular image of him as a performing Chief Minister who delivered what he promised. However, in 2014-2019, though he articulated well his vision of the New India and announced programs and policies with incessant flow, he nevertheless fell visibly short of delivering on time what he promised. Whether Smart Cities, Make in India or Skill India, the gap between vision and execution was quite uncharacteristic of the Modi we knew from his Gujarat days. 2019 is a chance to redeem his promises and salvage his reputation as the one who not only talks but also executes well.
Secondly, Modi 2.0 should be alive to the reality of a multi-cultural, diverse and vibrant India where all shades of opinions need to be respected. When our forefathers coined the term, “Vasudhaiva Kudumbakam”, they would not have been naïve enough to ignore the diversity in culture, faith, beliefs and ways of life that people of the world follow. As one who repeats the Sanskrit phrase with alacrity, Modi ought to practice what he preaches by enforcing civility, mutual respect and tolerance in the social fabric. A great leader has the authority and responsibility to say, “Ma Nishada” to the fringe elements. If not used for reining in the law breakers among the ultra-rightists, what use is his 56” chest for this Nation? If the laws are found wanting, this Nation has given him the mandate to change the laws. Let the next 5 years be the period when those who attempt to indulge in hate crime, through words and deeds, get the clear message that their place is inside the cell and not in the public space.
Thirdly, Modi has the mandate and the responsibility to implement the much-needed reforms in the legal and financial framework to attract and scale up investments from within and outside the country to create the much-needed physical infrastructure in the country. To be fair, tremendous work has been done in the past five years especially on road transport and port sectors. The planned and initiated rail, logistics, manufacturing and other infra projects need to be pursued with redoubled vigour. Land acquisition for public purposes should be debottlenecked, without which development is impossible. More and more sectors should be opened up for investment by the private sector; foreign technology and investment should be welcome with transparent policies and procedures as well as with effective regulatory framework of global standards.
For the next five years, one would suggest the following focus areas for governance: dedicate Year-1 for reforms, Year-2 for consolidation and Years-3 and 4 to ensure that projects are completed, operationalized and stabilized. If the agenda for the first four years are implemented successfully, Year-5 will be the thanksgiving time when the Government will have enough resource to splash on welfarism and populistic handouts. With successful transformation to a developed infrastructure and effective governance, you may not hopefully need to follow hand-out politics anymore by next election time.
This brings us to the three-point agenda for the Opposition.
The first priority for the Grand Old Party would be to regain its pre-eminence as the principal opposition party. This Nation deserves a political consolidation along two-party dominance. While BJP should evolve to be the right-of-centre choice for the wider electorate, the Congress is the natural claimant to the lead role in the left-of-centre political space. Congress needs to review, reform and recharge with the agility of a youthful warrior and not like a centenarian struggling to stand up and move on. For a 100 year plus party and for a democracy about to celebrate 75 years of existence, it is too naïve to regress to the culture of family lineage. The Congress Party owes this nation a transition to more professional and transparent way of leadership selection.
Secondly, it is time for Congress to redefine its role as a constructive Opposition. In this country, Opposition has come to mean, “shout, disrupt, walk out”. There have been many Members of Parliament in the last house, who displayed sound professionalism in moving private bills, making studied and rich-in-content speeches and asking incisive questions. Truth be told, most of such outstanding talent was spotted outside the GOP, while many in the Congress seemed keener to distract and disrupt the proceedings. The Congress has now a greater responsibility than ever to raise the standard of discourse in Parliament. The Party should ideally use the next five years to set an entirely new paradigm for Opposition parliamentary behavior. They have already settled their score in the last Lok Sabha. They copied the style that BJP had followed in the second NDA regime - same old shouting down, walkout and obstructionism. Both the ruling and the opposition parties should now have a clean break from the past. Show us, the citizens, you can conduct matured and effective debates. (In fact, it is high time the entire parliamentary proceedings should be telecast live!)
Thirdly, Congress should go back to re-building the party from the grassroots. The major factor why Kerala unit of Congress is strong is because there has been a steady supply of young leaders in the party cadres. This is the result of building up the party through its feeder organizations. For many years since the 1960’s the Congress in Kerala has attracted, groomed and given space for growth to many young men and (fewer!) women. Apart from feeder organizations, NGOs and cultural organizations have played a role in developing youth leaders. Many of today’s leaders have in fact come through Malayala Manorama sponsored ‘Bala Jana Sakhyam’ (Youth Organization) that provided a platform to school and college students in leadership development activities. Congress needs to build a cadre of talented youth leaders with social commitment as a foundation for growth across India.
Elections are key milestones in the evolution of democratic societies. Parties, leaders and the citizens need to learn lessons from the elections and follow up by changing, demanding accountability and monitoring the performance of those elected.
As a last word, those who lost this time will do well to follow the example set by Smriti Irani. In 2014, she didn’t lose heart and accept defeat; she resolved to work hard at winning the next time around. And look at what determination and hard work can achieve. Are the Congress men and women listening?