Sunday, 6 April 2014

India's Watershed Election - Why It's Still Not A Now-Or-Never Moment

In heated political discussions with friends, one point that has been repeatedly made by supporters of Narendra Modi is that India faces a now-or-never moment with the 2014 general elections. If Modi is elected with a clear mandate, he will clear the cobwebs of corruption and inefficiency that plague the economy and restore the country's earlier trajectory of high growth. If the Congress party is re-elected (a remote possibility), or if the next government comes to an effective standstill due to an unwieldy coalition, then India would have missed a historic chance to improve its economy and will thenceforth be condemned to remain a poor nation, perhaps for all time.

I don't buy this doomsday argument. I don't believe that this is a bet-the-house kind of election at all. Yes, it is a moment in India's history that could mark a turning point in its fortunes, but there could be others in case this moment is missed.

Some of my friends have pointed out examples of great historical characters who have changed the course of history, implying that Narendra Modi is one such rare giant in a field of pygmies. If India fails to elect him, their argument goes, it will be stuck with pygmies who will fail to restore the country to greatness. However, what's often forgotten is that even great historical characters are products of a society that is ripe for their ideas, because the same ideas have fizzled out when another leader espoused them in an earlier age when society was not ready.

No leader achieves anything alone. They have to motivate and inspire followers, and in order to attract a critical mass of followers, it is imperative that their message, however revolutionary, resonate with a significant number of people. In other words, society has to be ready for change in order for a great historical character to be able to work their magic.

India has been ripe for change for a few years now. That's really why the Congress is finished. Corruption, inefficiency, all of these have played a part, but now the operative force is the electorate's desire for change. Rahul Gandhi simply doesn't represent change! He's just more of the same. His father Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 was described by political pundits as representing both continuity and change. Rahul does not have that cachet.

Whether one likes it or not (and the BJP and AAP supporters will both resent the comparison), both Modi and Kejriwal are expressions of the Indian people's desire for change. Electoral arithmetic will tell who succeeds in this election, but the winds of change are durable and not dependent on a single person, because they spring from the aspirations of Indian society.

That's why I'm sanguine about India's progress. It is going to happen because people want change and society will throw up a leader who will bring about change. It may be Modi, or it may be someone else. The actual person doesn't matter. Even if today's top leaders are nowhere on the scene, change will still occur. New leaders will be found, and things will change. Even if the parliament that emerges after this election is hung, and the government collapses in a couple of years, there will be another chance and another leader. And another. And another. Because people's aspirations are not going to be set aside just because one particular political configuration did not deliver.

My personal preference, as I described in my article for McKinsey, is for a federal polity where the states are autonomous and compete with one another for investment and labour, and where it is less important who the prime minister is. I think decentralisation will willy-nilly come about because it is the only way to resolve the logjam of coalition politics at the centre.

In any case, India will be unrecognisable in 15 years. The change will have been brought about by the people. Even if Modi is PM for 3 terms, this progress would not be due to him, but due to the forces already marshalled and waiting for the moment.

In the early sixties, the question "After Nehru, who?" used to be despairingly posed by people even when Jawaharlal Nehru was still alive. He would respond jocularly, yet entirely seriously, "After Nehru, you!"

So let it be in 2014. The leader is only the vehicle. The true agent for change is the populace. 

A National Geographic picture of an Indian crowd which I cropped into a silhouette of Narendra Modi using The GIMP.

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