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India’s elections and the politics of development

Indian supporters of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) celebrate outside a counting center in Siliguri on May 16. (Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images)

The sixteenth general elections in India have produced a stunning victory for the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The conservative coalition has secured 336 seats out of a total of 543 seats in India’s lower house of parliament. The BJP’s Narendra Modi is slated to take oath as India’s fourteenth prime minister.

Does this electoral victory give Modi “a clear mandate to push forward his economic agenda?”  It is difficult to tell. His election victory signifies a combination of backlash against the country’s inherently conservative development regime of the past and Modi’s masterful deployment of a suite of political strategies that epitomize the rough and tumble of India’s electoral politics.  

The ‘Gujarat model’ of development, named after the state that Modi has led since 2002 as chief minister, signifies high economic growth propelled by a business-friendly regulatory environment and large investments in infrastructure necessary for promotion of growth in business, industry, and capital intensive agriculture.

Critics argue that the Gujarat model is lopsided and marked by exclusion of large numbers of the state’s poor who are not part of the formal economy. They may cite the BJP’s 31 percent of the national vote share to argue that India’s poor have not voted for Modi’s growth-oriented platform. That claim is not entirely without reason considering that 65 percent of country’s population lives below the $2-a-day poverty benchmark of the World Bank. On the other hand, the Modi-led BJP swept the entire slate in states such as Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, which have experienced the type of ‘economic dislocations and social breakdowns’ that critics associate with the Gujarat model. Yet, there are alternative explanations for the BJP’s electoral successes in the states with large numbers of poor people. 

While electoral numbers are only a partial reflection of the complex set of underlying issues, results of the recent elections point to a very strong anti-incumbency effect. In big states, such as West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Odisha, strong regional parties that offered a credible alternative to the National Congress Party secured remarkable electoral victories. The regional parties in these states fought against the BJP and Congress, which shows that voters in these states also rejected the BJP-led platform. Moreover, seen in the context of India’s recent political history, discussed below, the anti-incumbency vote symbolizes the proverbial final straw on the back of a tired camel. The camel in this case is not really the National Congress Party as much as it is the notionally socialist model of development

 For nearly four decades following the independence in 1947, the Indian state remained the most dominant economic actor. Economic reforms introduced in the early 1990s led to the state moving out of some industries (and hotels, airlines etc.). The state also cut back  its tight control over the formal economy. However, this did not mean that state was or is any less relevant to the lives of majority of the population. If India is the world’s largest democracy, it also houses the world’s largest informal economy, which provides about 84.7 percent of all jobs in the country. Governments’ social welfare policies are critically important to those in the informal economy. The large size of the country’s informal economy and high rates of poverty are indicators of the accumulated failures of country’s past governments, most of which have been led by the Congress Party.

When seeking electoral mandates, the Congress Party showcased small gains in the economic conditions of the poor masses and minor additions to rural infrastructure. Such small gains, however, were disbursed selectively through a patronage system that the “Congress system perfected under the leadership of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and then by his daughter, Indira Gandhi. Even though both of these leaders were known as staunch socialists, Indira Gandhi, in particular, built her politics around the populist slogan of Gareebi Hatao (Remove Poverty). In practice though, the state-led social and economic development did not result in substantive changes on the ground. The accumulated outcome of this notional socialism was, as Paul Brass argues, a deep-seated conservatism in India’s development regime, which failed to meet even “the basic minimum needs of its people”.

India’s economy liberalized in the late 1980s and early 1990s during governments led by the Congress Party. However, the party did not put its electoral fortunes at stake for the sake of pursuing economic reforms. Instead, as Rob Jenkins showed, the Congress governments pursued “reforms by stealth” by cloaking “policy change in the guise of continuity.”

The BJP-led NDA government (1998-2004) was the first incumbent government to fight the 2004 general elections on the strength of an anticipated mass appeal of economic reforms that the NDA government had carried forward. However, the opulence of the first high-tech electoral campaign, encapsulated into jingles of “India Shining” amidst the high rates of poverty and unemployment in rural areas, irked Indian voters, who shunted the NDA aside. The 2004 elections revealed a significant divide in the level of support for reform between the urban middle class and the majority of the urban and rural poor. The Congress Party-led UPA coalition was voted into power for two consecutive terms leading up to this month’s general elections.

Keen to address the continued imbalances in India’s economy, the UPA-led governments enacted a number of ‘rights-based’ laws and interventions aimed at the development of broad-based infrastructure, such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, rural livelihood missions and a nationwide plan to provide good all-weather roads to unconnected villages. However, observations of some of these key programs on the ground suggest that neither the UPA governments nor the party cadres were fully committed to ensure implementation. Consider two such programs, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and the Forest Rights Act (FRA).

MGNREGA is a unique piece of legislation through which the state committed to provide jobs for unemployed people who would work at the minimum wage in programs to build rural and agriculture infrastructure. Political economist Dilip Mookherjee summarized research on its effects in a recent essay and concluded: “Providing employment to rural unskilled labour is the single most direct and effective way of reducing poverty,” and the MGNREGA was successful “in providing a safety net and reducing poverty for the most vulnerable sections of the rural population.”

Notwithstanding the importance of MGNREGA, and advocacy by one of the top advisers of the UPA for active involvement of village-level cadres, the Congress Party failed to mobilize its cadres to ensure effective implementation of the program. The state of affairs was even more dismal vis-à-vis the Forest Rights Act (FRA), which grants land and forest rights to India’s 100 million indigenous Adivasis. The law was introduced in part to counter the growing influence of India’s Maoist rebels. Field research and interviews conducted by this author in the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh revealed that the Congress leaders and cadres had failed to make use of the opportunity the FRA provided for active involvement of elected representatives, resulting in nationwide failures in implementation of the law. These failures are particularly critical because in at least two states the forests and land rights activists had offered to work with the Congress Party if party cadres were asked to mobilize.

Reports suggest that in addition to the multiple cases of corruption, voters also punished the Congress Party at the ballot box for its failures to implement the programs it showcased repeatedly. Post-poll assessments suggest that faulty implementation of FRA contributed to the party being routed in all but three of the Adivasi majority seats. Ironically, in the state of Tamilnadu, Congress’s competitors secured significant electoral dividends for a carefully monitored implementation of the MGNREGA. These failures are the manifestation of the fact that the Congress system was not structured as a vibrant cadre-based party system, nor has it ever been ‘a viable force for social change’. As a senior Congress leader acknowledged in his post-election comments, patronage politics continues to dominate the party’s internal functioning. The structural failures of Congress have been evident in the past in the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh. In each of these cases, Congress has yielded ground to the political right.

The results of the sixteenth general elections, examined within the context of India’s recent political history, suggest that India is witness to an unprecedented backlash against its inherently conservative development policies and programs. And Modi knows this well – he rarely brought up the state versus the market debate, let alone taking sides, during the long-winded election campaign. As a political commentator has argued, “For all his brilliance and innovation, Modi did not enlighten the nation about his ‘agenda’; he simply harnessed the anti-Congress mood.”

More importantly, careful analyses of the election campaign show that in key states, Modi’s victory is owed to a meticulous planning “constituency by constituency, candidate by candidate, and caste by caste.” Moreover, one of the key target constituencies that the BJP’s election manifesto targeted at the behest of Modi is the ‘neo middle class’. In the past, Modi has promised to form a committee to define this ‘neo middle class’. He is determined to prove wrong the old notion that patronage politics could only win pre-defined constituencies. At the same time, it would be a mistake to read too much into the rather small vote share that the BJP secured in these elections. Modi’s tenure as the chief minister of Gujarat shows that he is among the best practitioners of a well-known political science dictum: policies make politics.

To conclude, India’s election results are a classic case of equifinality, that is, “there are multiple causal paths to the same outcome”.  Modi and the BJP have become the default political choice of groups of electorates who have remarkably different types of engagement with India’s political system. Notwithstanding the mood of the moment, it is important to remember, above everything else, Narendra Modi epitomizes the craft of political entrepreneurship in all its hues and colors.

 Prakash Kashwan is an assistant professor in the political science department at the University of Connecticut at Storrs.