A people’s choice

Opinion by James Bradbury
May 22, 2014, 1:32 a.m.

When Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party was the landslide winner of the past month’s parliamentary elections in India, campaigned for an “India free of” the incumbent Indian National Congress, even he must have assumed that to be an exaggeration. But voters (and the country’s winner-take-all electoral system) obliged. The Congress Party, dominant for most of India’s post-independence history, won fewer than ten percent of the seats in the lower house—not enough even to serve in the constitutional role of official opposition.

This was, as is often argued, the first Indian election in decades that can reasonably be described as a referendum on an individual candidate, but it was more than that. It was also an unprecedented rejection of ten years of rule by a party—one long taken for granted as the embodiment of mass politics, the establishment and even the idea of India—that is now so dominated by one family that its likely next step after the failure of its PM candidate Rahul Gandhi, son of party president Sonia Gandhi, is to swap him out for his sister.

Yet another characterization of the parliamentary elections, less frequently seen now than it was several months ago, is that they were a grand choice between development models, with the Congress representing left-wing economist Amartya Sen’s vision of social welfare-driven growth and Modi the neoliberal prescriptions of Jagdish Bhagwati, the architect of India’s 1990s economic reforms.

But this too is incomplete, especially in hindsight. India didn’t vote the Congress out because of their welfare schemes: They voted the Congress out because, time after time, welfare schemes were all they offered. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—the very man who as finance minister under Narasimha Rao had spearheaded the implementation of the Bhagwati reforms—was an invisible (and usually inaudible) leader whose deep loyalty to the Gandhi family, for whom a new welfare proposal was the solution to every problem of government, consistently won out over his better policy judgment.

The Indian left—and there is a vast political space to the left of the Congress, with socialist and communist parties of every stripe and affiliation holding power in several state governments—views the Congress’s “faux-socialism” with disdain. But while it is certainly the case that the most loudly trumpeted, and most expensive, welfare policies tend to be aimed more at voter blocs than social needs, the Congress’s critics from the left are reeling due to an election in which large numbers of poor and middle class voters, both urban and rural, shifted from longstanding Congress loyalties to voting for an overtly conservative party.

The left—and the Congress—will continue to view things differently, but it was precisely the BJP’s conservative development vision, even more than the party’s right-wing Hindu nationalism (which Modi consistently downplayed on the campaign trail), that drew so many Indians to vote BJP this month. Modi is no Thatcher—he opposes liberalizing foreign access to the Indian retail market, is thought to have mixed feelings about privatization and plans a set of massive infrastructure projects as the centerpiece of his economic platform—but he has shown India a credible economic alternative in which business can play a constructive role.


In the absence of an official political opposition, the role of a check on the Modi administration falls largely to civil society and the press. And when the left decries “Big Media” as being dominated by the corporate interests they claim brought Modi to power, and the right argues equally passionately for the existence of an uncritically pro-Congress journalistic cabal, this check can come only from the increasingly assertive third section that practices neither Modi-worship nor Gandhi-apology.

The magnitude of Modi’s mandate itself provides somewhat of a silver lining for the 69 percent of Indians who voted against him: Unlike Manmohan Singh, he cannot blame coalition allies or opposition intransigence for the government’s failures.

But five years is a long time, and Modi may only become a more divisive figure as he begins to pin down policy choices that his campaign had deliberately left unspecified. Above all, he must choose between adopting the policy platform of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP-affiliated Hindu paramilitary group to which he has dedicated much of his life, and being Prime Minister for all Indians.

It is too soon to tell if Narendra Modi’s victory this spring should be seen as a triumph of democracy. (His most ardent detractors, unsurprisingly, see instead a mirror of the elections that brought European fascism to power.) But it already explains why democracy matters.

The modern Chinese state, for instance, argues that what differentiates it from western democracies is simply a lack of “inefficient” and “disorganized” rotations of power between multiple political parties. Both the Congress and the BJP have massive nationwide party bureaucracies, constructed at a scale far beyond anything we can imagine in the United States. China might call it duplication—but the Indian people call it a choice.

Contact James Bradbury at [email protected].

James Bradbury is an international politics opinion columnist for The Stanford Daily. His goal for "Outside the Bubble" is to provide accessible, (hopefully) informative and slightly opinionated context for the week's world news headlines. James is a sophomore from McLean, Va. majoring in linguistics. To contact him, please email jbradbur 'at' stanford.edu.

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