Do Indian voters remain deeply aligned with caste, clan and community (read religious) interests, as reported in the ongoing state elections? Possibly, yes, they do. Continued allegiance to traditional identities makes sense, if new ones never had the chance to take root.
Industrial work was one such silo-buster, as is urbanisation. Both have, however, had a limited impact on India’s social profile. Large, organised industry employs barely 10 million people, or just two per cent of the workforce. The impact of urbanisation is still far too recent to induce a change in social behaviour. Migration by men, for work in the urban, informal sector, has done a lot to contribute to the urban sprawl. But it doesn’t let new urban identities take root, as families remain village bound.
No surprise then, if the 657 political parties (many of which are moribund) that are registered with the Election Commission vie for existing group interests as votebanks. There are only two examples in the past three decades which go against this grain of votebank politics. The BJP came to power at the national level in 2014 by disrupting traditional identity-based votebanks. In a powerful outreach to young, aspirational India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi provided the instant hope of jobs through a government which worked for them, not against them. This enlarged support beyond the BJP’s traditional votebanks — upper caste and bania groups. It helped that Narendra Modi is himself from a backward caste. His is a rags-to-riches story. More important, he flaunts his humble origins and makes a virtue of his struggle to make good. More conventionally, he publicly dons the mantle of the selfless “sevak”. Anybody in the audience could be him, if they only had the gumption to succeed.
The Aam Aadmi Party had similarly disrupted traditional identity politics in December 2014. It fashioned a winning alliance of the urban poor and neo-middle class against the corruption of elites in the Delhi state election. This anti-establishment, anti-corruption model is now facing a test, for its resilience and appeal, in the rural settings of Punjab and the BJP stronghold of Goa — both of which are “rich” states.
Like the Congress during the post-Independence period, Mr Modi’s BJP is shaping a new India. It is an India that recognises today’s harsh international realities. First, unlike the rosy expectations of the 1950s, foreign aid, as an instrument of change, is dead. Economies need to fund their own development, by borrowing from the market or collaborating with foreign investors. This requires governments to bend before those who have the surplus capital; ship up to strengthen their own economies or continue to lag. Second, the consensus of the 1980s, that markets could substitute for the State’s inefficiency, is less credible, particularly after 2008. Strong states seem inevitable, albeit exercising judicious restraint while regulating markets.
China has been the most successful economy, post 1990. It deserves a Nobel Prize for overcoming massive poverty and low levels of human development to become the factory of the world. It accounted for 1.5 per cent of world GDP in 1990 — the same as India. Since then it has cornered more than a fifth of growth in world GDP. By 2015 it accounted for 15 per cent of world GDP and has liberated nearly 300 million people — almost as many as the population of the United States — from poverty.
The Chinese story is of a single-party-managed mega-nation. By mixing market principles of merit and competition with the political energy of a proactive state, it has fashioned a massive politico-industrial machine. China has little patience with the effete romance of liberal idealism. Theirs is the classic hunter’s approach to life — smart strategy matters more than social ideology for filling your belly and remaining stronger than your adversary. This approach resonates in a world where persistent vulnerability to poverty; falling real income and increasingly skewed income distribution clouds even the rich world.
Mr Modi’s world is that of realpolitik. Performance and outcomes matter the most. In contrast, the other national parties seem dated. The Congress — once a people’s movement, albeit led by professionals — is dormant. The Left is trapped in ideological echo chambers, seemingly unaware that organised, permanent workers are a diminishing votebank. That economic forces have moved value addition beyond the spatially focused, integrated work areas, of the industrial age. The Lohia movements of the late 1970s rallied the backward castes into regional parties. But these lack vision, credibility or sustainability, beyond their narrow votebanks. The dalits have been transactional in their support for parties, while Mayawati has tried to substitute the Congress with a rainbow-style coalition. Muslims remain boxed into a defensive stance, perpetually seeking the status quo rather than transformation.
Where then do we turn to for leadership in India? The BJP is a clear and credible option. The mantra is that the government must focus on economic inclusion and social inclusion will follow. To take a practical example — higher government revenues from a more efficient tax regime can enable transfer of universal basic income to the poor and marginalised. This neatly avoids the clunky and inefficient option of physically providing cheap goods and services to the poor and caste or community-based support for the marginalised. It may also reduce corruption significantly by around one per cent of GDP.
This, however, would imply a reworking of the existing social compact between citizens and the State. Will citizens be ready to give up their entitlements and de facto freedoms, in return for the State providing more economic benefits — security, macroeconomic stability, jobs, infrastructure and access to healthcare. With money and smartphones in their pockets, people — including the poor — will be able to shape their own societies, without being clouded by the past seven centuries of civilisational shibboleths dumped on them. Can Mr Modi get past the elites who benefit directly from the status quo? 2019 will tell.