This is a deeply polarised general election. Democracy, born in a city-state, probably never imagined it would, one day, attain such elephantine proportions. The only other country with a comparable population is run by a dictatorship, ostensibly, of the proletariat, but it has voted President Xi Jinping leader for life. Which of the two is a better engine of growth and more stable in the long run is something to ponder over.
If adherents of the three broad political camps in 2019 had anything in common before April, they will have shed most of it during the bitterness of this campaign. What will remain at the end of May are sets of numbers and the implications of their configuration. The renewed battle thereafter will be taken into the portals of Parliament, into the State Assemblies around the country and, inevitably, once more on to the streets. Can we call this change or chaos? Is its functioning profligacy of the spirit or a melding together of national identity — a work in perpetual progress?
Going forward, will it be Modi’s “New India” or Nehru’s old “Idea of India” that will prevail? These terms have grown to become much more than political slogans. They represent something of an uncompromising binary attended by high emotion.
This is an election being conducted for 900 million eligible voters. Over two-thirds of the electorate has been voting, statistics show, across the length and breadth of the country, in seven phases. The entire exercise is conducted by the expert Election Commission (EC). It is the biggest democratic election on earth. The admirable continuity of free-and-fair elections at various levels, from the panchayat to the municipality, from the State to the Nation, over seven decades, is a hallmark of the Indian experience.
But this general election may well be different. It is as if this country has reached the proverbial Crossroads. Depending on the path the voters choose now, the future could be very different from the past. Or it could involve a tame U-turn into the older values, shaking off the last five years as if it were an aberration. That is provided, of course, that a non-NDA government can survive any length of time.
With just two tranches of the polling remaining, the contenders and opponents have taken positions so divergent they could well be from different planets. There is the ruling NDA, with its ideological similarities and advantage of incumbency, alongside its weaknesses, also coming from the deficits of that same incumbency. And, in the opposing corner of the ring, there are the loosely- tied gathbandhan (alliance), mostly made up of regional parties, having to reluctantly throw in their lot with the Congress for the sake of their joint numbers. It won’t be the first time for such a formation, bristling with internal contradictions, roughly glued together, by a need to seize power.
And then there is the seemingly neutral and equidistant remainder, a would-be federal front, and those that nod at the idea but stay on their own side of the picket fence, away from all the rest. This too is a sizeable chunk, waiting till after the elections, to formalise, if not to see which way to jump after assessing what they can get out of it for themselves, their voters, their states.
The assessments on the probabilities of the outcome are also widely divergent. Those that lean towards Modi, the BJP and the NDA indicate that Modi 2.0 is imminent. Those opposed, in the Congress, and their compatriots in the regional parties, have an entirely different tally. Some have a belief that neither side will obtain the numbers to a majority of 272 plus out of 543, and that everything will depend on post-poll negotiations.
The satta bazaar projections every day, in the absence of exit polls, prohibited by the EC till the last round of voting, give the elections and a majority to the NDA. But the election results will only come on 23 May, or later, depending on how much time it takes the EC to tally over 10 million VVPATs.
Should Prime Minister Narendra Modi secure a second term in office, it will probably represent the gathbandhan’s worst existential fears. While this may not be entirely justified, that is, to fear extinction, the willingness to effect changes into a more Saffron avatar will become urgent. It will have to reflect in the gathbandhan’s future conduct and policies, more so if the NDA victory is decisive. Otherwise, there is the risk of falling to the margins of the political map for years to come. Besides, almost all the leaders of the gathbandhan, as it happens, have various corruption charges against them. These tend to flare up if they make trouble for the government when they themselves are out of power.
The NDA will, in a second consecutive term, assert its ideas, and the opposition would do well not to take too contrary a position. This is because the public mood would have changed too. However, the NDA on its part will also need to contend with a block of 100 MPs that will likely oppose most of its policies.
Even with an NDA majority, it is the other section of a 100 plus MPs that are not allied to the gathbandhan that could help the government achieve a broader consensus on important issues. This will be important for substantial change, though the NDA will be hoping for cracks and fissures in the gathbandhan’s unity to exploit.
On the other hand, should the ‘Congress plus’ end up forming the next government, it will certainly roll back the clock on the NDA’s ideas. But this, only to the extent that such a formation survives. In the past, such conglomerate governments have been seen to last months rather than years, with the first Janata Dal administration under Prime Minister Morarji Desai being the only one that managed to hold out for a couple of years.
It’s the economy, stupid!
The public will soon tell us what it wants but in addition to the ideological direction that will be reset, either way, there is urgent need to stimulate jobs, income, and consumption in the economy.
These are flagging with two important areas of speculative interest — the stock and debt markets and the real estate market neglected throughout Modi’s first term. It may be the government’s position that it wants to curb the speculation but that is not how the stock and real estate markets work.
In the former, particularly the debt market needs to be unshackled so that there is trading, and deepened, with a view to attracting more foreign capital. This, while the due diligence process in mutual fund debt instruments management needs to be bolstered. The Indian rating agencies, too, have fallen down on the job as the number of debacles in highly rated instruments from groups like the Anil Ambani led Reliance, Indiabulls, IL&FS, Yes Bank, and almost all the PSU banks show.
The real estate market has suffered from government neglect even though it has accounted for 12% of GDP in a good year. A law like RERA will certainly help the consumer protect itself from builder excesses, but do little to stimulate growth. Similarly, settling the quantum of GST issues may be good for taxation but what does it do to stimulate the sector?
Some economists are cautioning against policies that are leading India towards a “middle-income trap”. This, could, in potential, finish India’s ambitions of sustaining high growth. We have always relied on the size of our domestic economy and the demand it represents. But vital slow-downs in consumption, such as much lower car sales, need to be reversed once the new government takes office.