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From vikas to vote

This election proved that voters are looking to fashion a future, not reward the past. Modi will have to govern like he campaigned.

In a village in eastern Uttar Pradesh, Sarita Kumari had noticed changes in the government school where her children were enrolled. The Congress’s Central schemes meant new buildings, midday meals, notebooks and uniforms. But she was not satisfied. “The English teacher doesn’t come,” she complained. So she spent half her monthly income on private lessons for her children. Asked whom she would vote for, she replied without hesitation: “Narendra Modi.”

This interview was part of a five-state election series for The Indian Express titled, “Is there a vikas vote?” I travelled to constituencies with recent improvements in health, MGNREGA, electricity, schools and roads. These changes were being fuelled by large infusions of Central funds (the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana alone cost an astonishing Rs 21,700 crore a year) and better implementation by the state government. But the translation of this vikas to votes was a more complex story. Overall, three broad trends emerged: material well-being was unleashing aspiration, not gratitude; development votes were going to effective state leaders, not the Centre; and the Congress’s attempts to speak in multiple tongues sounded like mumbo-jumbo to the voter.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi begins his tenure on the promiseof development, these trends need elaboration.

The first is that development is not automatically leading to grateful voters. The Congress’s welfare schemes have improved the lives of more Indians than its measly 44 seats demonstrates. Rural roads in west Bihar, schools in eastern UP, MGNREGA in Tamil Nadu, infant mortality reductions in Jharkhand and electricity in Gujarat — these were all consequences of funds pouring in through expensive Central schemes. “Achhe din already aa gaye hain,” a hassled Congress worker in Gujarat proclaimed. But Sarita Kumari hadn’t noticed. All she saw was rising prices, a corrupt Congress and teachers who didn’t show up. The Congress’s pitch for gratitude was lost on her. Their messaging was all wrong.

As was Nitish Kumar’s. Champaran in west Bihar was once the kidnapping capital of India. Today, little girls in school dress run beside smooth roads that glisten in the afternoon sun. Every voter I spoke to credited Nitish with this “change” but was unwilling to reward him with their vote. They were interested in fashioning a future, not rewarding the past. They wanted more.

Modi’s brilliance was to grasp this yearning for more. Voters didn’t care that the Gujarat model he marketed was an exaggeration. All advertisements are. The point was that it was a reasonable product, marketed in a way that exactly fit consumer demand. That’s why they bought it, that’s why he won. But Modi must know that this brand of salesmanship has an expiry date. Aspirations feed on themselves. Five years from now, Modi will have to point to continuing progress and promise more. Or the Modi model will go the way of the Congress’s schemes and Nitish’s roads.

The second trend is that the vikas vote vests not in Delhi, but in state capitals. In India’s federal polity, things of immediate concern to the voter — law and order, roads, education, health — are implemented by the states, while more distant policy — national finances, defence — are with the Central government. The suave consultants around Jairam Ramesh in the rural development ministry may have crafted the actual schemes. But it was the state government that voters saw doling out the money.

This was evident in Tamil Nadu, where the Congress last held power in 1962. At MGNREGA worksite after worksite, women watering trees were thankful to “Amma” for giving them money. Nobody knew this was Sonia Gandhi’s signature scheme. An AIADMK district worker smiled when I told her this was unfair. “When you go to a restaurant and the food is good, you tip the waiter, not the cook.”

Voters are rewarding states for development, not the Centre — as Modi understood in marketing his reign as Gujarat chief minister. The problem for the Congress is that it finds strong regional bosses to be a threat to the high command. For good reason. Faced with an implacable dynasty at the top, Congress state heavyweights might well secede (Sharad Pawar) or produce progeny who split the party (Y.S.R. Reddy). The BJP, on the other hand, is less top-heavy. It has allowed for five chief ministers — in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Goa, Gujarat and Rajasthan — who are competent enough to convert vikas into votes. Modi has a reputation of cutting his political underlings to size. But as prime minister, he should allow BJP state leaders to grow. If PM Modi mimics the Congress high command culture, he will suffer its fate.

A third lesson from this election is that you can’t mean everything to everyone. The Congress tried to talk both development and inclusion, grievance and aspiration. In trying to speak to all Indians, it spoke to not one. The Congress still suffers a hangover from the 1950s, when it was, to borrow political scientist Rajni Kothari’s phrase, a “system” rather than a “party”. In the absence of external political competition, opposing views would be aired by different factions within the same party, giving the Congress votes from all segments of society. Those days are gone. You now have to sell a single storyline, or your competitors will undercut you.

In this election, Modi mostly stuck to one story: development and governance. When I trailed the BJP candidate in the Panchmahal constituency of Gujarat, he referred to religion only when assuring his Hindu audience that “there has been no riot since the ‘storm’ of 2002”. A party worker confided that “Saab has given instructions. Religion should not be an issue.”

The problem will arise when “saab” stumbles while presiding over India’s fractious democracy, as he surely will. He will be tempted to turn, once again, to the politics of Hindu gripe. That would be missing the central message of this election: India is in search of a single narrative of material mobility, not mixed messages. Modi can choose to be the man who brings prosperity to his fellow Indians. Or he can choose to be the leader of Hindu hearts. He can’t do both.

How Modi chooses to govern, only time will tell. But the way he chose to campaign was evident at a rally in Mumbai in December 2013. That rally drew more than 5,00,000 people, packed like cattle into a baking field. Many were rural migrants, escaping failing farms for a new life in India’s financial capital. Arms outstretched, Modi thundered: “Is there electricity in villages here? Gujarat is in your neighbourhood where there is 24 hours electricity 365 days a year.” As his helicopter left for clouds beyond the horizon, the crowd, in dreamy stupor, chanted his name. Then they voted.

Five years from now, they will vote again.

The writer is a Phd candidate at Princeton University

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