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A New Political Narrative

It’s a month since Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister. Prabashi Post is in conversation with Hindol Sengupta, Editor-at-Large, Fortune India, to gauge the change and understand what lies ahead.

Hindol Sengupta
Wed, Jun 25 2014

Photo Courtsey: Wikipedia

About Hindol

Hindol Sengupta is the Editor-at-Large, Fortune India. Author of five books, he is the founder of the Whypoll Trust, which specialises in open government using technology and design.

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An Enigmatic Beauty


বরিশালের বাঙাল

My many Kolkata

Hindol, you have been a curious observer of Election 2014, which is significant in more ways than one. How do you assess the verdict?

This is a historic verdict. This verdict is the rise of what I call an experienced democracy - away from what we have had till now, which is a measured democracy. Allow me to explain what that means. A measured democracy is one where the elections are held regularly and are free and fair. It is a democracy where when one party loses; it goes away and leaves power quietly. India achieved this successfully - unlike say our neighbour Pakistan, we have never had army coups etc. What happened during 20 years of economic liberalisation is that the expectation from democracy changed - and the politicians did not. This expectation could not be fulfilled, though the promises that it would be fulfilled had been made. This disconnect exploded.

But what we didn't have is an experienced democracy, which is where voters feel or experience a sense of democracy on a day to day basis, where voters get a feeling that their elected representatives are working for them.

The biggest problem of an older generation of politician is that they just don't get it. In the cities, the most vocal English speaking set is part of the 'system' and therefore gets what they want, so they never demand real democracy - at least that used to be the case till now. In rural areas, older generation politicians are used to throwing some dole and getting votes - or else through cash or alcohol.

All of this has changed and Narendra Modi is one of the few politicians who really understood this. He realised that a lot of old loyalties are crumbling and the voter is looking at things they have never had - a sense of security of livelihood, a sense of pride in being an Indian, a sense of growth, success and progress and a sense of nationhood, all of which many people did not feel they had in a system that blocked doors to those who were not from an elite background.

This is a victory narrative and in that sense very close to why Lalu Yadav first won in Bihar - it is a victory of ‘swar’, a sense of giving voice. But what has given this even greater meaning is that in some areas at least, some very core areas like jobs and electricity and roads, Mr Modi was able to showcase a sense of purpose. As I have written in my book, I was horrified to hear a speech given by P Chidambaram, the former finance minister, before the elections. He said will we sacrifice the 'idea of India' for a few more kilometres of road, some more hours of electricity etc. I was amazed that those who have always had the benefit of infrastructure and development could be so insensitive about the poor in a country where 300 million people, for instance, have never had electricity, where children die because of the lack of healthcare facilities. It was like the French queen who is rumoured to have said - they don't have bread to eat? Let them eat cake instead!

Now that Mr Modi has won and has won so convincingly - this verdict unties his hands. He is now free to show us the India that he can build. The prosperity he can give us. This is a historic opportunity, and I think Mr Modi will understand its importance and try and do the needful. If he disappoints us, history will never forgive him.

Hindi heartland has seen a big shift, is it only about Narendra Modi or deeper issues, deeper meaning is revealed through the verdict there?

You see the problem is that for the 'old style politics' of India, the Muslims, the Dalits, the lower castes - they are not treated as human beings with aspirations and desires like everyone else. Like you and me. Like the rich. They are treated as 'voting blocks' who can be fooled and deluded and cheated to 'shift their votes'. All this is the terminology of the past. None of this works any more. The Hindi heartland voter, the Dalit voter, the lower caste voter, the financially poor voter, whatever you call them, votes exactly, increasingly, like anyone else. For example, promise of a better life, jobs, water, electricity, roads, no violence, and no crime. In Uttar Pradesh for instance, the Samajwadi Party government was an utter failure on all counts. And the feeling was that Mr Modi was offering a real difference. And so they took it. He showed them a dream which they bought. Now he has to deliver.

But this is not the only reason. There is another big reason - in the last few years, unprecedented work has been done by the RSS (Rashtriya Sayamsevak Sangh) and its affiliates, including a relatively new affiliate called the ‘Hindutva Abhiyan’, led by an IIT-Varanas graduate called Lahiri Guruji, and together they are transforming the idea of the word ‘Hindutva’.

You see this is not well understood by the English media, because they are so arrogant about anyone who doesn’t speak English like them or don't have foreign degrees, that what Hindutva meant 10 or 15 years ago is not what it means today. The RSS has been responding to the changing nation by redeveloping a totally different meaning of Hindutva which puts economics first or economics at the heart of it. They have realised that building the temple or promising to build the temple has no buy in from the people unless there is a promise of prosperity. So Hindutva in large parts now is the promise of prosperity first. Also - and it would be unfair to not mention this - there was too much talk about how Muslims could 'stop Modi'. This created a polarisation and in some areas, Hindus and lower castes voted strategically to counter the Muslim vote to 'stop Modi' and instead brought Modi to power.

There is a curious coming together that is happening, that has started to happen. In fact, this in a sense, oddly, perhaps would have been Ambedkar's dream - the breaking of caste using economics, where prosperity makes caste irrelevant. Now of course it is debatable whether the return to Hindu identity after this breaking using prosperity is something he would have liked - but my bet is yes. Why? Because remember for all the bitterness, Ambedkar left Hinduism about one and half years ago before his death when he conducted the mass conversion to Buddhism in Nagpur. So my bet is that Ambedkar, a very smart economist and social reformer is laughing somewhere that even the RSS has been forced to in a sense embrace his views.

Real change can be brought only through long term programmes but what should new government do that everybody can feel change in the air within, say, six months?

The first and biggest change that people can feel lies in two things - what I call the 2Ps - prices and power or electricity. If Mr Modi can show the country that he is really moving on these two fronts and that prices will come down and more and more people will get access to smooth supply of electricity that itself would be enormous - a massive success. The voter is smart. The voter knows that everything won't change magically. But if Mr Modi can show determination on making change happen on these two fronts, he would have made a huge difference in the first six months.

Among your 100 things, many things are easy to do and show change i.e. toilets, how should the new government go ahead?

One critical thing would be to take state governments into partnership. Already Mr Modi has said again and again that he will work to take chief ministers into confidence and function as partners with them. This is very crucial because a lot of the ground level work can only happen if the state governments are proper partners in the idea. The good thing is Mr Modi has so many MPs to work with - even if he can ensure that the MPs of the BJP + NDA (National Democratic Alliance) start to use their MPLAD funds properly every quarter of the year with time bound completion of projects - that itself would be a great start. Can MPs for instance draw up reports of the toilet situation in their constituencies and work up a plan to change things? See again - it does not matter if magically things don't change. Voters understand that they can't. But there must be a sense of purpose on the ground.

You talked about the economic models of the BJP and that of the Congress. What should be a golden combination, i.e. what are the things in BJP’s thinking that it should avoid?

Mr Modi is a very practical man. I don't think he swings either extreme Left or Right and prefers to take a case by case basis approach. But since India Inc feels, or many in India Inc feel, that magically he can clear all projects - one of the things to keep in mind is the environment. We have a huge environmental crisis in India. In Haryana, the Aravalis are under massive threat. Even in Mr Modi's Gujarat, a lot needs to be done to make the Sabarmati clean - even though perhaps the most amount of work has happened in that state. So Mr Modi must be careful that business people don't push him to compromise on environment and clear projects that destroy it - that is extremely critical.

Mr Modi is the first politician and will certainly be the first PM who consciously rejects the 20th century binary of Left and Right.

’The 100 Things’ you put before voters for consideration, scariest seems ‘Debt Do Us Apart’. What should the new government do in the proposals to be put forwarded in the budget, likely in the first week of July?

Ensure that government spending is tightened. A lot of the programmes of the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) were well intentioned but so much of that money was basically stolen. Who is helped by that? In fact if by cutting down on some of those hugely leaking government schemes, if better programmes and more targeted programmes are put in place, it would be far more helpful. One UPA idea which I think works is that of the Aadhar number - it doesn't have to be exactly that, in current form it has issues - but some sort of identification to better deliver subsidies would be very important.

What real change do you see in the voting pattern? Do we have started thinking about caste, religion, region etc.?

In essence what we are seeing is the birth of a new republic which breaks away from all the traditional and often condescending assumptions that everyone always made. I have a term for this. See, there is a generation which never saw Gandhi, never saw Jayprakash Narayan (JP), and has no real memory of either Partition in 1947 or the Emergency in 1977. This is a completely different generation from what Salman Rushdie called Midnight's Children or the generation of India's freedom at midnight. Now there is a Manmohan's Children - or a generation which has only seen a growing, liberalising India, a generation whose memory of India is based on liberalisation unleashed by Manmohan Singh and then followed up by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This generation will drive the change for the future and will egg on even earlier generations to change how they look at India. This generation does not want to hear about India's poverty - it wants to know how India can be rich again. And they have given Mr Modi a chance and have convinced in some senses everyone else to give him a chance too. It is a chance he cannot afford to go wrong with. It is a once in a million years chance for change.

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bullet Comments:

Kajari Guha (Thursday, Jul 3 2014):
Very intelligent and wise remarks to the questions put to the writer.Thanks for sharing.We all are agog to see the miracle happen.However,Modi alone is unable to do the wonder.The mindset has to be changed and the fund has to be created to bring about the changes we need.The basic needs like roti kapda and makan are the most important issues that have to be solved by creating job opportunities.All these cannot be achieved in the blink of an eye.So hope against hope and hope for the best!


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