The closer the election, the clearer it becomes that this is the most important general election since 1977. In that distant year, Indian voters were offered a choice between a dictator and her son on one side and a raggedy, disparate caboodle of crusaders for democracy on the other. They chose the caboodle mostly because they had learned the hard way what losing democracy meant. This time the choice increasingly appears to be between the past and the future, between an old idea of India and a new one. Those selling the old idea, in their different ways, are the Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party and the ‘secular socialists’ who banded together last week as a third front.
What is the old idea of India? It is the one bequeathed us by Nehruvian socialism whereby we have created India as she is today. A land in which a vast infrastructure of politicians, officials, clerks and peons govern badly an angry and restless populace that no longer understands why basic needs are so hard to meet. A land in which young people demand to know why the sons of officials and politicians live like billionaires while they hunt desperately for jobs in a market that in the past 10 years has dried up. So crony capitalism is a favourite catchphrase with the AAP lot, without them noticing that this is always a creation of the state. In the eyes of AAP, it is corporate India that is to blame.
What is most depressing is that if you talk to leaders of the parties in the old India club, the solutions they offer are no different to the ones we have already tried. In their campaign speeches, they talk of secularism and socialism, poverty alleviation schemes and empowering women. On corruption, the Lokpal is a ‘new’ idea that has been around for 40 years. They know that they offer nothing new, so they throw in dark references to the man they most fear and loathe. Narendra Modi.
The reason why they fear and loathe him is because his popularity, according to recent polls, has increased dramatically despite repeated attempts by the old India club to remind voters that he is a ‘maut ka saudagar’. A merchant of death as Sonia Gandhi famously called him. What they seem not to have noticed is that his popularity has increased because he has succeeded in selling voters a new dream of India. In a sales pitch to businessmen in Delhi last Thursday, he offered a detailed account of what his priorities will be if he becomes prime minister.
After making it clear that he believed that India’s strengths were “democracy, demography and demand” and its weaknesses were serious deficits of governance, trust, morality and hope, Modi made the case for what he thinks can be done. He said nothing could improve without “good governance”. He did not say in so many words that by this he meant massive administrative reforms, but used anecdotes from Gujarat to make this point.
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Then he talked of needing to improve “the quality of life” for the average Indian. It was vital to make India a country in which young people could live with hope and dignity, he said, and for this they needed jobs and the amenities that remain mostly unavailable to rural Indians. Electricity, clean water and a standard of living that could be described as a standard of living. He said, “We need in rural India to keep the soul of the villages but provide people with the utilities and services available in urban centres.” He reiterated that he saw urbanisation not as a problem but as an opportunity.
What touched my own cynical soul to its core was his suggestion, when talking of healthcare, that we pledge to make India clean and sanitary by the 150th anniversary of Gandhiji’s birthday. This was the best tribute that could be paid Gandhiji, Modi said, because he had worked so hard to convince Indians of the importance of sanitation and hygiene. In modern terms, Modi emphasised, the benefit would be a huge reduction in India’s healthcare bills, because it would shift the emphasis to prevention from cure.
He talked of many other things and in talking of them made it sound as if there was no reason at all why they could not be done. Listen to the whole speech on YouTube and you may discover the real reason why Modi leads the race to become India’s next prime minister. He offers hope in a time of deep despair and he offers a dream of prosperity at the end of a decade when the Indian economy has sunk to its lowest ebb in recent memory. The old India club offers only ‘poverty alleviation’ to people sick to death of poverty.
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh