Return of the Economist: My Reflections on Indian Elections 2009

Front-page photo in Indian Express on May 16, 2009

Front-page photo in Indian Express dated May 17, 2009

[If you are unfamiliar with Indian politics, you may want to skip the details!]

To mark the culmination of the Indian elections 2009 today, I thought it appropriate to share with you some of my reflections on this mammoth exercise. These are purely my personal opinions, and you are welcome to disagree.

I should confess that I am not a dispassionate observer of Indian politics; I take sides based on an issue at hand — but have no particular political affiliation by-and-large. From the beginning of this election process, I had been passionately rooting for Manmohan Singh till as recently as a week back. To a slightly lesser degree, I was against LK Advani, mainly because of his opposition to Indo-US Nuclear deal (which seemed opportunistic to me) and the recent Varun Gandhi blunder.

That was when I read this article by Razeen Sally, “Congress deserves to lose India’s elections,” Financial Times. It made me see Indian politics with a different eye at least for a week before the counting day. On the hindsight, I think it is important for us as responsible citizens and voters (unfortunately I could not vote!) to open our ears to the issues raised by both sides of political divide.

All said and done, I am delighted (and hopefully you are too) that a stable government is returning to New Delhi, with perhaps most-respected middle-class economist politician that India has produced at its helm. However many grouses we may hold against the last five years of UPA government, we can be reassured that Manmohan Singh will neither take Indian governance in a terribly wrong direction, nor will represent a repelling face that can leave India vulnerable as a whole.

Perhaps, the defining statement of this election is that the days of fooling people with:
  • identity politics of caste or
  • using religion as a political tool or
  • ideological rigidity or
  • sheer incompetence and corruption

are over, hopefully forever. It is upto the politicians concerned to read the writing on the wall: To survive in Indian politics today, you need to show some progress in your report card on development. Manmohan Singh, Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik, Shiela Dikshit, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Raman Singh, and let me stick my neck out, Narendra Modi represent the face of an Indian politician today, much more than the stereotypical caricature with a Nehru-style topi and a suitcase making hollow promises.

This, to me, is the sign of a maturing democracy. It gives me immense satisfaction to see such a thriving democracy in India, surrounded as it is by countries prone to dictatorships, military takeovers, communist monarchies, and worse, terrorist regimes. This election says there is a reason and a sound chance for an Obama-style Hope in India.

May God bless India!

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9 thoughts on “Return of the Economist: My Reflections on Indian Elections 2009

  1. Karthik says:

    I do agree with the fact that stable government will do good for the country, but I don’t agree with a few of your points. Well, first of all, the image that Congress is going to create an Utopia out of India is misguided at best. Most of your favored Congress’ reforms were begun by the preceding NDA government. All that this Congress comes up with is RESERVATION. They seem to me to thrive on dividing the nation, may not be by religion but by such measures. Reservation is a very retrogade step and is irreversible to the best of my understanding.

    You are thinking like the average Indian voter today who doesn’t look much beyond the recent past. Varun Gandhi was a mistake this time, so was Tehelka. But, I would say that these are pretty small issues, which shouldn’t be given a lot of weight. We should be looking at a partys policy as a whole and not isolated incidents like these. Liberalization is BJP’s mantra, and that is how they managed to put India on the world map during their last reign. Congress seems to me to be taking all backward steps, our GDP has reduced over the years and our internal security is in doldrums thanks to these people who lack the guts to take any concrete steps. Once, BJP came to power last time, within one month Pokhran happened. It showed to the world that India is here to stay, they showed spine, they showed that India wont be weighed down by US pressure. Afzal Guru, the mastermind of attack on our parliament is still alive. Kasab’s mother wants to meet him in India. What are we coming to ? These people who waged war against India should ahve been executed long back. My personal opinion would be to make their execution in public also, to instill fear in the minds of future terrorist, even thinking of attacking India.

    Coming to Modi, Vikram, did u know that Gujarat is one of the best administered state in India ? Modi is one of the best performing Chief Minister in India. In India, Congress controls most of the media. Modi is always the bad guy. Godhra was probably not right, but are we ready for some non performing useless Chief Minister in his place ?

    Finally, Obama is not a role model man. He has done nothing till now to prove that he is as good as he promised. We’ve had better people at the helm in India. So please don’t americanize everything.

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    • Hey Karthik,

      Appreciate your views.

      Let me clarify that I did not say Modi is doing a bad job in Gujarat. On the contrary, if you read my last paragraph, I have listed him as one of the ideal politicians India is proud to have today.

      All I have said is that he does repel some sections of the society, and surely you’ll agree with that proposition. Unless he is able to reinvent himself (which he trying to), he cannot be India’s representative to the world.

      Vikram

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  2. Krishna says:

    Bizzare’s the name of Indian politics… Varun Gandhi has won from his constituency and TC in west bengal despite being more leftist than the left! I wish there was some way to explain the mess.

    Krishna

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    • I agree there have been a few exceptions like Varun’s victory, but my guess is he has cost BJP many seats across India. And he has not really improved BJP’s UP tally either. In the end, I think it was a serious lack of judgment on Advani’s part to disregard EC’s advice and retaining a venomous entity like Varun. That singular moment showed the weakness in an otherwise strong leader — his stature and eligibility for Prime Ministership got diminished. Quoting Shekhar Gupta, it was akin to Vajpayee’s “Modi moment.”

      By the way, Mamata deserved to win because Left tried to industrialize by force. I don’t think she is anti-industrialization otherwise. And she has shown that sustained campaign against a muscular regime will eventually pay dividends.

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  3. Aravind says:

    It is good that there will be a stable government. What I hope to see is

    1. In terms of economy, along with the growth, they should keep inflation down. Make growth inclusive. Bridge the urban-rural divide.

    2. Security – a law like POTA for terrorism (Kasab’s trial has been a mockery of the judicial system) along with the proposed federal investigation agency. Some sort of incentives for people to join the armed forces – there were good points in the BJP manifesto. I don’t see why UPA should not implement them. Post 26/11 status quo in terms of terrorist threats maintained, and bettered.

    3. An end to border disputes with China in Arunachal, Bangladesh in Bengal, some progress with Kashmir. An end to infiltration through these borders.

    4. NREGA – I have seen, being applauded only by the congress. I hope to see it more successful so that independent observers recognize it as a contributor to rural development.

    5. I do not want to see reservations in private sector being introduced. That will be a death blow to the successful capitalist story in India.

    6. I would also like MMS to be tougher by discarding seniority in choosing his ministers – will be pleased if younger people are given chance, especially Rahul Gandhi (for he seems to be saying all the right things, though he has done little in Amethi) and Shashi Tharoor (I would rate him above anyone else in congress for a post related to world affairs – he can have an experienced advisor if need be.) Finance will be tough. With PC losing, I think it is best if MMS retains that post.

    7. Environment – though it is a luxury to care about the environment, it is high time India looked at this more seriously – oil will be less reliable, an encouragement of energy-centric entrepreneurship will be necessary, as is also a willingness to lose a little on development to ensure pollution norms (it will be tough convincing people of this, but they have to do it – they should not put it on the back burner for it might already be very late – will test MMS’s mettle.), drinking water is a big concern.

    8. Education – The congressmen have beaten their chests about Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, but you and I know how successful it has been, I want to see an improvement there. Higher education – it is not enough to just increase the numbers of IITs and AIIMS. Technion, when it comes to successful institutes of higher education outside US, is a very good model to emulate. And again, there is more than enough reservation already – I would attribute much success of franatics like Ram sene to the fracturing of the social structure through overly implemented affirmative action and minority appeasement (Congress does go overboard here – I see no reason for a secular party’s website to have Urdu pages.)

    It is heartening that the regional parties got very minor support this time. Some people have even gone to the extent of calling this the dawn of a two-party like system in India. I would still hesitate to do so, for two reasons. One, that this sort of a reaction is a part of a cycle, where a party gets a majority, becomes complacent and arrogant, neglects policies, people get annoyed, sway in support of regional parties who promise immediate corrective local action with next elections. Two, that there is no ideological basis for India’s parties. You cannot label Indian parties with the usual labels given to political parties. I hope to see that change. I want each party to stand for something they believe in and fight for or against policies based on those beliefs. Secondly, I want people not to vote for MMS or Advani, but to vote for MMS’s ideas or Advani’s ideas – this _has_ to happen if India has to really do well as a democracy.

    The thriving democracy you see is not something I see. It is doing OK. But there is just too much to improve for me to give it such a tag. The apathy of the educated class to the system is a clear reflection of that. The abysmal turnover after “Jaago Re” etc proves this again. But people have to realise it is a vicious circle and they _have to_ get involved. The basic structure of India’s democracy has to change. People should look for candidates who have identified problems, have plans to solve them. And this bottom-up change can start only at the local level – candidates for corporators and corporation members are the ones who can really influence people. We need smart people with creative ideas at this level – and therefore, again, I strongly encourage you to consider politics as an option – need not be now, but at some time. Though sooner is better. But, yes. If you compare India with its neighbours, we sould be very happy. But, I compare it with the US.

    Last is the BJP’s future. They have one if they distance themselves from the image that people have about them – that they fuel groups like Rama sene, join hands with Shiv sena in moral policing, marry off couples found going around on Valentine’s day, throwing in grandiose ideas of a Hindu empire into people’s minds. Advani failed in recovering from his Babri demolisher image. The Jinnah comment was a good start, but he did little to further that. Modi is horrible again in this respect when it comes to Godhra. The sooner they get into the Vajpayee mode, the better for them. But I do not see them forming a government in the next elections also, unless congress screws up really bad. The sort of a commnal divide this has caused is also very worrying. BJP has to realise this and try to undo it and appeal to the liberals. Therein will lie the ultimate test for Modi and his partymen.

    I also agree with some points put forth by Karthik. But, I would disagree with him on the Obama comment. I do not know how anything would be different if “the ideal guy” was president.

    I would also disagree with you, Vikram, on including “the Obama-style Hope” in your post(which your email did not have). There is no comparison between Obama and the congress “leadership” of MMS, especially when it comes to inspiring people.

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    • I agree with the points you are raising. Youth ministers would be welcome additions, now that some oldies have either lost or have been reduced to irrelevance by this decisive victory of Congress.

      I couldn’t agree more with you on the necessity for BJP to come to terms with the state of Indian psyche. Every democratic polity needs responsible center-left and center-right parties. Congress has deservedly occupied the center-left. BJP was my hope for the center-right space. Unfortunately, it started showing signs of moving towards extreme and fringe right, to compliment Left parties that moved extreme left. Both have been humbled for being so out-of-touch with Indian reality.

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  4. supritapagad says:

    Very well summarized. Very informative too especially for someone like me who hasn’t been keeping up with the Indian elections except for an occasional glance at the news. Thank you so much from sharing the knowledge and the opinions.

    One question for you. Would you have been just as supportive of Congress if Rahul Gandhi was to be the Prime Minister if Congress won?

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    • I would not have been as keen about Rahul G as I was about Singh. My sense is that he needs more experience before he can step into PM’s shoes. Though he has been making all the right noises of late, he had not really been tested, and has a long way to go before he earns it on his own terms.

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  5. Karthik R says:

    2 brilliant points:

    > Manmohan Singh, Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik, Shiela Dikshit, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Raman Singh, and let me stick my neck out, Narendra Modi represent the face of an Indian politician today, much more than the stereotypical caricature with a Nehru-style topi and a suitcase making hollow promises.

    Nice that you did include Modi here. Because in spite of his communal orientation, “hindutva”, etc… etc…, I don’t think Gujarat has ever before witnessed development and economic progress as it is doing now.

    > That, to me, is the sign of a maturing democracy. It gives me immense satisfaction to see such a thriving democracy in India, surrounded as it is by countries prone to dictatorships, military takeovers, communist monarchies, and worse, terrorist regimes.

    That’s one thing which keeps making me swell with pride every once in a while. Even if we consider ourselves as a not-so-mature democracy as of now, we are still managing to pull it off in a neighbourhood which is certainly by no means conducive for democracy.

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