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Saturday, April 05, 2014

India’s election: Can anyone stop Narendra Modi? - asks The Economist



"Can anyone stop Narendra Modi?" The Economist asks, perhaps rhetorically. Then goes on to conclude that "He will probably become India’s next prime minister. That does not mean he should be."

So - I am going out on a limb by trying to explain why I think a stable NDA/BJP led government, is probably the best bet for the Indian electorate, at this juncture.

Primarily, I believe this is a 3 way contest between the Congress led UPA, the Incumbent, the Kejriwal led AAP, the Upstart and the Modi led BJP, the Challenger.

The regional parties (and yes, the CPI/CPM motley is a regional party, nothing more); have been unable to coalesce into a third front and thus haven't even tried to proffer a credible option. Their skin in the game is, in my cynical view, primarily "support on sale to the highest bidder".

The Incumbent: 10 years of economic capitulation interspersed with systematic loot. That summarises the two UPA terms in a straight sentence. The second term (2009 to 2014) is the real tragedy. In May 2009, the Congress was given a historic mandate and put in charge of an economy, which largely due to a combination of luck and a diligent Central Bank (the RBI), had escaped relatively unscathed from the global financial crisis. This was the perfect opportunity to power ahead with reforms - GST, clarity on FDI and Taxation, sweeping land reforms - starting with e-governance on land ownership, use of biometric social security identifier (AADHAR) to target and subsidise people instead of wastefully subsidising goods (fertilizer, fuel, food). None of this was done - a great sin of omission. Top it up with their numerous sins of commission – 2G Spectrum, Common Wealth Games, Coalgate, land deals, Adarsh Housing – to name but a few. “Crony Capitalism” doesn’t begin to describe the extent and scale of the loot. Having reduced an eminent economist and the architect of India’s economic reforms to a dumb puppet, the Congress led UPA, has in all but words preferred Rahul baba, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family as their prime ministerial candidate. A candidate who comes across as well-meaning but na├»ve at best, and a clueless dynast at worst; does not offer any change from the present status quo of loot, dole and sops. For our nation, 5 years more of the same is simply not sustainable.

The Upstart: The Common Man awakes, arises and rids the country of corruption. A true triumph of rule for the people, of the people and by the people; for a few fleeting weeks, earlier this year,  this dream seemed to come true, with the Aam Admi Party’s (AAP’s) stunning performance in the Delhi state elections. India is fed up with corruption and voters booted out the corrupt. As if in acquiescence of this mandate, the AAP formed the state government. A party born little over a year back from the popular anti-corruption movement led by the veteran Gandhian, Anna Hazare, AAP existed to combat corruption. And people voted for them with precisely this expectation. Unfortunately, AAP in power spent more time agitating on the streets than legislating in the assembly; focused more on citizen activism than on policy making. Well intentioned they did seem, but they came across as immature and unprepared. But the biggest disappointment was their resignation on the eve of general elections on the pretext of a failed legislation. Of course the legislation was going to fail; they were a minority government and did not have the numbers in the state assembly! AAP’s decision to resign from the state government and contest the nation-wide general elections came across as incompetent and opportunistic. AAP’s leader, Mr Kejriwal, is highly intelligent and articulate, no doubt – but so far, his claim to fame is activism and street demonstrations rather than governance and good policy implementation; not a safe and credible alternative to form a central government.

That brings us to the Challenger: The BJP led National Democratic Alliance. Out of power for 10 years after a decent 5 year term which got the brisk growth rates for the India economy started, this is now the principle “opposition” party. Historically, they have had undeniable right wing leanings and are often described as a “Hindu Nationalist” Party by critics. The focus of their first full term in power (from 1999 to 2004) was largely economic development; and in the run up to this election, development remains their key electoral agenda. Their proposed Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi has ruled the state of Gujarat from 2001 and has won three state elections in a row. While economic statistics and rankings are always debatable, many visitors to the state have remarked about the good roads, vastly improved electricity and water supplies, telecommunications coverage and such visible measures of development. The media, historically somewhat hostile to Mr Modi, has criticised many aspects of his rule, but so far no major corruption scandal has been unearthed – reason to surmise that as politicians go, Mr Modi appears to be relatively clean. SO here we now have a party that seems focused on development and has a leader with a credible track record of having delivered it. If it were just this, the choice would be a no-brainer. Of the feasible alternatives, Mr Modi led BJP offers the best chance of delivering economic growth – something the country direly needs.

The one blotch that scores against Mr Modi the most (and which very likely cost the BJP the 2004 general elections) stems from the communal riots between Hindus and Muslims that rocked Gujarat in 2002. Over 1000 died, and Mr Modi is believed to have either actively connived with the rioters (less likely) or stood by passively and allowed the carnage to continue (more likely). He therefore is a strongly divisive figure, quite open about his Hindu Nationalist right-wing inclinations; albeit in the last few years he has shifted focus sharply away from Hindu Nationalism to Economic Development. As the Economist has warned in this article, many fear that he may relapse to his right wing leanings once in power. I wouldn't call these worries unjustified; in the event of a Hindu – Muslim riots or much more likely, provocation by terrorist agents of the Pakistani state, Mr Modi is more likely to respond aggressively than a pusillanimous Rahul Gandhi, let alone the geriatric Dr Singh. No doubt, allies within the NDA or any that support his government from outside would act as restraints, nevertheless the chance remains that “peace and harmony” may be disrupted.

Do I still believe that a BJP government remains the best choice amongst those available? Yes. Simply because of the various choices available, a BJP led government is our best bet to mend a broken economy. So do I choose economic growth over peace and harmony? No I don’t. I however firmly believe that while a BJP led government MAY, disrupt peace and harmony, a non BJP government that cannot bring back economic growth WILL CERTAINLY disrupt peace and harmony.

Here's why. India’s “demographic dividend” it’s young population, the 100 million new voters added to the electorate since 2009 (i.e., youth who turned 18 in the last 5 years), need jobs. If we don’t want our youngsters to go rioting we must educate them and put them in factories and warehouses, call-centres and garages, shops and bazaars! If we leave them uneducated and jobless on the streets a number of them will certainly take to crime – theft, robbery, murder, rape, drug peddling, smuggling and of course rioting too! The problem will only be aggravated by India’s appalling sex ratio of 940 women per 1000 men (as of 2013); basically 6% of men are not going to find mates and naturally the odds stack against uneducated and jobless men. 6% seems small? Well in India, 1% means 10 million people! We are talking millions of uneducated, jobless, unmarried/unmarriagable men here! Fertile ground for criminal recruitment leading to an unmanageable law and order situation – what chance does peace and harmony have?

No matter how secular a government we have, there are always going to be communal minded hate-mongering leaders around; the most effective way to blunt their hate-mongering is to deprive them of cannon fodder – disaffected youth! And for that we need growth – a government that hands out dole and ramps up quotas will not be able to create jobs; but a government that builds roads and power stations and irrigation canals DOES create jobs and also creates incentives for private companies to build factories, warehouses, software parks and malls – which create even more jobs.

So the conclusion is clear, if we want any chance of preserving peace and harmony in India, we need economic growth and hence – ab ki baar, Modi sarkaar!