Modi has another option: to walk into the reformist space abdicated by the Congress and AAP
In this season of conspiracy theories involving “evil” corporates, here is my humble contribution. That our greedy, thieving and cruel private telecom companies now employ full-time humorists to invent SMS-friendly jokes 24×7. And as these go viral, they make money. How else can brilliant jokes land in your inbox before you have even absorbed the headlines that instigated them?
What else can explain such incredible sense of timing?
Two of these landed on my ancient Nokia phone even before Rahul Gandhi had finished speaking at the AICC, and Arvind Kejriwal had visited the Union home minister. The first: Rahul Gandhi says the BJP sells combs to the bald, AAP offers haircuts to the bald and the Congress promises them a Right to No Hair Loss Act. The second was even nastier: I took a Delhi autorickshaw. Told the driver, aage signal se Kejriwal le lo. Chap was so perceptive, took a U-turn.
Both display a sharp understanding of our politics that will put most of us columnists to shame. The second is even more effective than the first because it is more prescient and can so easily be employed in a manner that, for want of a better word, you can call modular. For example, and particularly after today’s AICC speech, what if you asked a smart auto driver, “Aage se Rahul Gandhi le lo?” He will most certainly turn left. And then you run into a slight problem. What if you told him, instead, “aage se Narendra Modi le lo?” He will not know whether to go left, right, make a U-turn or stay still, and even the AAP has not yet empowered its autorickshaw supporters so much that they can levitate. Maybe all he will say is, “Sorry sahib, aap kisi aur ko poochho, main toh Modiji ka vision document dekhne ke baad kuchh keh sakta hoon (you ask somebody else… I may get some idea only once I see Modi’s vision statement).”
This Saturday’s National Interest is not about SMS jokes, but on serious issues like economic and social ideologies that must make the dividing lines in a robust, contentious democracy, which sadly does not happen in India. Every major political party in India claims to be both secular and socialist. The fight, in each case, is only over who is more socialist or secular than the other. It is difficult to think of another significant democracy with wider consensus on social and economic ideologies. This leads to an ideological mish-mash that makes our electoral politics more personalised (Modi, Kejriwal) and feudal (Rahul Gandhi and other dynasts), and the voter is left confused. Since we are taking liberties with the serious business of politics today, it is a bit like a Sixties formula film, separated-at-birth-or-at-a-mela and then reunited at the end. You know the story, you know the ending: a happy group photo and also who all will be smiling in it when the police jeeps arrive to pick up the corpses of the bad guys. The only product differentiation then was the film’s star cast.
That is how static and personalised our politics has become. India deserves better than this freeze and two recent developments — the unveiling of the AAP’s economic agenda and Rahul’s hard left turn — open up a real possibility that the discourse could become more diverse and therefore richer. People deserve to be offered a choice better than between faces and families. Give them conflicting ideas and ideologies to choose from, and trust them to make better choices.
Kejriwal’s party has opened the window on economic policy. In what it has unveiled so far, it is our most leftist party ever. None of the leaders of our parliamentary Left (the CPM, CPI, etc) has threatened to roll back any reform, or to renationalise anything. Not since George Fernandes threw out Coca Cola and IBM in 1977.
They all know the consequences of such economic adventurism. And even if doubts clouded their minds in the heady days of the NDA’s defeat in May 2004, these vanished the moment A.B. Bardhan’s “bhaad mein jaaye disinvestment (disinvestment can go to hell)” statement sent stock markets crashing 330 points in one day.
The traditional Left thereafter preferred nuanced caution. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee even justified this by stating that he did not believe he had been elected to implement a revolutionary agenda and that he had to work within the Constitution. Now that hypocrisy has been challenged by the AAP. A brilliant Indian diplomat and a friend of mine (yes, I have friends in the IFS), loves to say that at JNU (his alma mater), “we consider the CPM a very dangerous rightwing party”. So JNU now has a clear choice in the AAP, the revolutionaries in white topis. That should wean them away from the Gandhians with guns, as Arundhati Roy famously described the Maoists. No matter what Rahul promises, how much more free gas he gifts us, no matter how many projects his chosen ministers block, he cannot beat the AAP at povertarian socialism. His panicky, copycat partymen can cut power tariffs, offer free medicines, but it won’t work, just as it didn’t for Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan. He has to search for something else.
Narendra Modi can look at this as a challenge or an opportunity. Challenge, because his own party, in its utter bankruptcy of imagination, has also chosen socialism as its economic philosophy. Years ago, confused and short of ideas, and inspired by the Neanderthals of Nagpur, it proposed the concept of Gandhian Socialism (1980), and please do not ask them how touching the RSS sounds promoting anything Gandhian.
Socialism is the most persistent virus in Indian politics and the party has never even tried to get rid of it. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s reforms, particularly disinvestment, were blocked more by his own party’s pinkos than the Congress’s or the Left’s. In fact, the Congress even helped him pass some reformist legislation, including the most significant of them all, allowing FDI in insurance. Modi’s stature, personality and track record now give him the opportunity to change the script as Vajpayee failed to, despite wishing to do it so desperately.
If Modi is building his entire campaign around economic success in Gujarat, the idea and dreams of growth and global strength and respect, he cannot do it by promising 24 free cylinders of LPG or cuts in power tariffs or even a Right to Free Khakhra, Dhokla and Oondhia and Butter Chicken Act. The fuel growth needs, is entrepreneurship. Which, in turn, needs lesser, cleaner government, fair and clear regulation and a market-friendly environment. The Congress, and now the AAP, have fully vacated this space for him. He doesn’t have to make the BJP the new Swatantra Party. But he can certainly benefit from moulding his party’s economics more to the ideas of Vajpayee. Nobody would believe him if he said he was going to be as non-threatening to Muslims as Vajpayee.
If he lets the other two rivals, therefore, polarise this election only on the basis of secularism (identity), he will come up short. But if he is willing to take a risk and create a genuinely new platform on growth and free markets, he may just have an exciting new product in a tired, bored market. Rahul’s Congress cannot be more socialist than the AAP, so it is banking on being more secular than Modi. Modi can’t be more secular or socialist than either. So the only way for him is to be more reformist. He can listen to Amartya Sen, even if he is no fan of his. Sen said at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Friday that he would want India to have a party believing in free-market economics that does not do the politics of religion. Or he can think of the auto driver of Delhi, who waits for his vision document to decide whether to turn left, right or stand still.