Hope you are well. I keenly watched the results of the Delhi assembly election and would like to extend my sincere sympathies to you on your party’s really poor performance. My innings as the president of the United States is ending in less than two years, whereas you have just begun your stint as India’s prime minister. As your friend, I am sharing my experience as the head of government.
I feel your pain. My party (the Democrats) lost their majority position in the Senate late last year. I now face a lower and upper House controlled by the Republican Party. Some people may say that you and I represent different political ideologies and, as such, I may have no advice for you. That is a naïve statement. Leaders like you and me, who represent the aspirations of millions of people, have a lot in common.
Please don’t take seriously the suggestion that the reason for your party’s poor performance is the growing class divide in Delhi (similar to what I am told about the US), or the negative campaigning by your party. While there may be some truth to these claims, that is certainly not the case. Each party has its own social base. The Congress, like the AAP, mobilised the lower classes in Delhi and the BJP did well among the middle classes. The different social bases of parties in Delhi are not new to this election.
Negative campaigns, too, have been a part and parcel of electioneering in Delhi. As an avid student of political history, you know about the exchanges between Indira Gandhi and Ram Manohar Lohia in the 1960s and Rajiv Gandhi and V.P. Singh in 1989. The Democrats and Republicans in the US, too, have a similar history. The effect of negative campaigns is generally marginal to the final result.
What you must not forget is that both of us came to power heralding promises of change and hope. The BJP’s victory in 2014 was not just due to the widespread anti-UPA sentiment, but also because a lot of people believed in your message of a better future.
Narendra bhai, historic mandates are born of historic expectations. When you present the report card of the NDA government to Indian voters in 2019 and ask them to give your party another chance, they will no longer be enamoured of all the promises and announcements you and your government have made. They will be asking if their aspirations have been met. Meeting the aspirations of young Indians is a tall task. But there is hope.
What worries me is that your government acts like a political party in constant campaign mode. There is an announcement overdrive. It is understandable, given that in the past six months five states, including Delhi, have had assembly elections and you need new campaign promises. India is, however, yet to see how your government plans to provide employment, reduce administrative inefficiency, and bring tangible improvements to people’s lives. Your supporters do not miss an opportunity to list out theJan Dhan Yojana, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Adarsh Gram Yojana and so on as some of the major achievements of your government. You would agree that not much has been achieved on the ground even through these projects.
I am aware that we both like to have a look at hard evidence before taking a decision. The data from a series of opinion polls conducted by the Cicero Associates in the run-up to the Delhi election clearly suggest that voters do credit you for your initiatives on foreign policy and for pulling up the bureaucratic machinery. But they are also quick to point out their unhappiness over many issues (Table 1). Even your much-vaunted Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is seen as a political stunt. This has also led to a decline in your popularity (Table 2).
In the last three months, another 12 per cent of Delhi citizens think that your performance is not up to their expectations. This is a steep fall. In our connected age, we lose support very quickly. Technology, which propelled us to power, can also take votes away from us at the same speed.
I empathise with the challenges you face. You and I have multiple demands on our time and we have to multi-task. As my term as president draws to a close, I think hard about what I have done for my country’s future. My advice to you, as someone who seeks to leave a mark on India, is that your government should stick to one, or for that matter two or three, big policy initiatives, follow them through, and make sure they have the desired impact. Do not micromanage.
Let me give you an example. When I was elected president in 2008, I had to deliver on a financial crisis, the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, a security crisis in Afghanistan, healthcare reforms, climate change, immigration reforms, etc. When I went back to voters in 2012, I had one big policy decision — the affordable healthcare act — to campaign on. I recognise that this act is far from being perfect, but I made sure to clear every obstacle that came in the way. The healthcare reform act was not only rescued from Republican opposition in the Senate but also from judicial challenges in the Supreme Court. The technical difficulties with the website (healthcare.gov) in the initial period threatened the reforms. Legislative loopholes in the bill have allowed states that are controlled by Republicans not to enact the law in full measure. Despite these glitches, the act has been described as a big step in providing better and lower cost healthcare to millions of Americans. This is my legacy and I am proud of it.
Narendra bhai, it is your prerogative to select the policy area(s) you wish to focus on. The opposition and various interest groups (including in your own party) would pull you in many directions. Let the performance of your party in the Delhi election be a reminder that your government needs to switch gear from campaign mode to governance mode. Leaders like you and me, who are elected on the promise of hope for the aspiring classes, cannot govern by politicking alone.
The writers are with Lokniti-CSDS, Delhi and the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, US.