of the Pahle India
Foundation is the author of a new Transitions Forum paper which examines whether India
's developing democracy can achieve rapid economic reform.
This paper is the second in a series organised by the Legatum Institute's Transitions Forum, the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies, and World Affairs. The series explores the politics of economic reform in developing democracies and what lessons can be learned for coalition development during difficult reform processes.
India is in the midst of a historical triple transition. Its economic transition is affected by, and in turn, drives the social and political transitions that are unfolding simultaneously. India’s diverse and pluralistic society makes this a hugely complex development. The challenge facing India is to generate 12 million jobs every year and in addition wean millions who are currently trapped in low-productivity agricultural and informal sector employment. This has to be sustained over the next two to three decades. Therefore, the country must achieve high rates of economic growth and create conditions to attract investment from domestic and foreign investors. If successful, India will emerge as the third largest economy in the world by 2047, when it will celebrate the centenary of independence from colonial rule. Given the exploding aspirations of its young population, the socio-political consequences of another episode of aborted economic transition could be catastrophic. The stakes are very high. In this paper we assess the likely impact of the political changes of 2014 on economic policy-making and prospects for India. The focus is on prime minister Narendra Modi’s performance so far and the way forward.
2014 produced a political outcome in India that defied all past trends and forecasts. The Indian National Congress (Congress), which led India’s independence movement and has ruled for 49 of the last 67 years, managed a mere 19 per cent of the 554 million votes cast and the lowest ever tally of 44 seats in the Lok Sabha (the powerful lower house of the bicameral federal parliament). The Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) became the first non-Congress political formation to win a clear majority of seats. It secured 33 per cent of the vote, and with its pre-election allies, won 335 of the total 565 parliamentary constituencies. This was a surprising result.1 The trend towards increasing political fragmentation and primacy of local issues and regional parties, as witnessed over the last three decades, was decisively reversed. The complete rout of identity-based regional parties in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar also gave the lie to the often-expressed assertion that the May 2014 verdict represented only an anti-Congress vote. The electorate unequivocally supported Narendra Modi, who ran a presidential campaign that touched the aspirational chord of young voters, an electoral majority in themselves. He thus became the first prime minister to be born in post-independent India, with a greater degree of freedom in tackling the country’s current challenges.
The BJP’s remarkable victory in the 2014 general elections came on top of unprecedented gains in three major states—Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan—where elections were concluded in December 2013 and in Gujarat, where they took place in December 2012. The BJP resurgence continued even after the 2014 general election, as it scored equally impressive victories in provincial elections in Haryana and Maharashtra held in October 2014. Within the space of less than a year, India had witnessed a historical political change in which the BJP has replaced the Congress as the natural party of national government. The two maps on page 4 show the change in India’s political landscape.3 Clearly, the BJP now dominates the heartland of the Indian political scene with Congress having been literally marginalised. Indian democracy, considered to be an aberration by many at its inception in 1947 and not given high survival odds, had matured and deepened.4 Politics is unlikely to be the same again.
But there is no mistaking the fact that the BJP, like other political parties, is on notice from the young Indian electorate. These Indians are impatient for a paradigm shift in economic performance that will benefit the great majority and not merely select segments of the Indian elite. This is starkly evident in the BJP’s resounding defeat in the Delhi elections held in January 2015. The party did not only lose: it was vanquished. It barely managed to retain its presence in the provincial assembly, winning only three of the 70 seats. This was despite running the same presidential-style campaign that Modi had led a year earlier and designed by the ‘master strategist’ and newly appointed party president Amit Shah. The BJP left nothing to chance. It mounted a slick carpet advertising campaign and commandeered its leadership from across the country to campaign in Delhi. Despite this highvoltage BJP campaign, the newly born Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, “common person’s party”) won an unimaginable 67 of the 70 seats and 53 per cent of the votes.
The critical difference between the two parties was not, as some have argued, the AAP’s unbridled populism. Populism did play a role. However, the more important factors were, first, AAP’s ability to connect with the people. It successfully highlighted the BJP’s inability to improve the daily lives of Delhites during the eight months of the president’s rule.5 Second, voters were already wary of the BJP, which had adopted the traditional practices of a ruling party, visibly enjoying the trappings of power and beginning to appear arrogant and complacent. The politically conscious Delhi electorate conveyed its disapproval loudly and unambiguously.
India 2015: Towards Economic Transformation was launched on Thursday, 16 April 2015 at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, DC