[ This piece was published on the op-ed page of the NEW INDIAN EXPRESS on 13.3.2017 ]
First, a note of sanity among all the celebratory pandemonium: the BJP has won two major states , lost in two and barely hung on to the fifth; the Congress has not been decimated: it has won in two states and is the largest single party in the third. But since Uttar Pradesh has more seats than all the other four states combined the stupendous performance of the BJP there cannot but overshadow the others, and its portent for future national politics has to be considered carefully.
The number crunchers will be at it for weeks, analysing castes, communities, regions, ages, gender and what not. But what is already clear is the fact that Mr. Modi’s new syncretic formula of success- an amalgam of aggressive economics and social engineering- will be hard to beat in 2019. He has delivered little on the economic front so far except Demonetisation, but that one strike won him this election on the 8th of November itself because of its pure perception value. The brilliant reverse social engineering of Amit Shah, centered around the pan India Hindu identity of the BJP, has delivered the coup-de-grace to the narrower Hindu parties like the SP and BSP by subsuming all the sub identities like Dalits, Yadavs, Jatavs. Kurmis, OBCs. The BJP has now created its own social coalition., a more powerful one. Only this can explain the massive 325 seats it has won in UP- the religious polarisation ( which did happen) is only one part of the explanation. Mr. Modi has stormed these hitherto sacrosanct social ghettos and left them in ruins. This is something all Indians should welcome.
There are other important takeaways. Modi is the Colossus in whose shadow the BJP exists. As long as his brand equity holds he does not need a CM face, it fact it may even become a liability. He does not need allies: in Punjab and Goa where the BJP fought in an alliance it lost. Thirdly, for the first time in decades a Prime Minister is conducting himself like a true leader of a nation- setting the agenda rather than following a populist clamour. He is not a careful builder of concensus but a risk-loving unilateralist. This election perhaps demonstrates that this is precisely what today’s India, sick of indecisive vacillation and appeasement, desperately wants. This fits in with global trends too; more and more countries are seeking out authoritarian leaders- Trump, Putin,Duterte, Erdogan- in these troubled and uncertain times.
Where does Mr. Modi take the BJP and the nation from here ? The reaffirmed mandate comes with heightened expectations- of tangibles, not mere promises. Modi is riding a tiger and cannot now dismount, he has to deliver in the two years remaining for him and this is a gauntlet he will happily pick up. I visualise a renewed thrust and urgency being added to his Reforms initiatives. The biggest of them are already done things- GST and Demonetisation. There is no time left for initiating any new reform, and there are plenty already on the table which are languishing: expect the centre to get after them with a missionary, if not messianic, spirit here onwards.
Some of them are already up and running ( and have paid the BJP rich dividends in these elections): Jan Dhan, Digital India, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, Gas cylinders distribution, Udai ( for State Electricity Boards), Scholarships for minorities, Direct Benefits Transfers, Swacch Bharat, Kanya Smridhi Yojana and Ujjwal Yojana. But to seal up 2019 Mr. Modi will now concentrate on the big-ticket reforms already announced but hanging fire owing to bureaucratic lethargy, stake-holder resistance or non-cooperation by states. His biggest concern has to be the creation of new jobs-at least 20 million in the next two years- what with 18 million new voters being added every year.This involves tackling the following sectors/areas:
Banking: even though the Banks are now awash with deposits post demonetisation the lines of credit are choked and they are reluctant to lend. The reason is the NPAs which have continued to increase under the present govt. and now amount to more than Rs. 7 lakh crores. This logjam has to be broken if Make in India is to be a success .
Manufacturing: The key to the massive job creation Mr. Modi needs to win 2019. Currently stagnating at 16% of GDP, the target is to reach 25% by 2020; this by itself will create 100 million jobs. But the private investment necessary for this is just not happening due to issues related to credit, land, labour and infrastructural constraints. The govt. has to unravel this Gordian knot.
Defense Production : the most critical aspect of Make in India is the indigenisation of defense production. Our armed forces will need US$ 100 billion of equipment in the next decade, almost all of which is currently imported. The govt. wants to achieve 60% indigenisation by 2020 which will not only create millions of new jobs but will also conserve foreign exchange. But we are nowhere near this figure. To achieve it a new policy on strategic partnerships with the private sector is needed: the draft policy has been languishing since 2016. Expect Mr. Modi to now crack the whip on this.
Bureaucracy: this perennial stumbling block to any reform now will have to either change or perish. Modi cannot allow this rusted frame to stand between him and a place in history. They have got the gravy from the 7th Pay Commission and will now have to deliver on both policy and implementation. Mr. Modi’s changes so far have been cosmetic, tinkering with appointment procedures and ACRs. He will now wield the broadsword and hack away the deadwood and the undergrowth. This will, however, create a strong pushback.
The Judiciary: there has never been any love lost between Modi and the higher judiciary. This uneasy relationship will become more strained and become a battle between two tyrannies: those of the elected and the unelected. This is dangerous ground, however, a struggle between the twin values of accountability and independence. With his reaffirmed mandate Mr. Modi will now demand more of the former, and the people will support him given the dismal sate of our criminal justice system.
I foresee some other, not so welcome, reaffirmations by the Prime Minister and his govt.- a harder line on Kashmir, a determined reiteration of the BJP’s unilateral concept of Nationalism, a renewed push for the Uniform Civil Code, more ABVP inspired unrest on university campuses, further encroachments on the federal structure, a further distancing from the minorities. One unfortunate consequence of the BJP victory will inevitably be that the BJP will feel vindicated for everything it has done in the past- good and bad- and pursue it with even greater vigour.
The writing is on the wall for the Opposition. They will have to find new leadership, move beyond the jaded secular versus communal rhetoric, break out of caste and class silos, offer better options of development and economics, campaign on ideas rather than personalities, subsume their individual egos for constructive alliances. They can either hang together or they will hang separately.