Ashoak Upadhyay

A mandate against the technocrats

| Updated on: May 20, 2014
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The politician won over the expert, as the young yearn for powerful, charismatic leaders

While the media is now riveted on how the Narendra Modi government will pan out after a decisive and ground-breaking election, it might actually help to look elsewhere.

A good place to start might be to look at the defeat of the UPA, and specifically that of the Congress. The popular notion is that corruption brought it down, but perhaps something else tipped the scale in favour of the BJP and Modi.

With the wisdom of hindsight, one can see the vacuous leadership of the Congress as the main cause for the voter’s tilt towards the BJP.

The Congress never stood as a united bloc, as a party with unity of vision and purpose, aggressively propagated.

All through electioneering, it represented loss: loss of face, loss of identity and, finally, loss of leadership spine.

That is ironic because, in two terms, the Congress and the UPA did a great deal for the common man, the underprivileged and the un-entitled. To the organised economy, it did a singular service for which, ironically, it has continued to receive brickbats.

The post-crash (2008) stimulus package helped revive consumer goods output by boosting demand.

The fiscal and monetary stimulus did contribute to inflation, but that — as the RBI governor Raghuram Rajan pointed out in October 2013 in a lecture at Harvard Business School — was really on account of the fact that the West did not slide into a Great Depression as many feared. Therefore, commodity prices did not fall as much as expected.

That monetary policy here later turned hawkish could be seen as an undesirable outcome of a very laudable objective.

Misreading people

Yet, the Congress did not position itself at the forefront with these achievements both for the organised and unorganised sectors.

The most revealing evidence of an anomie at the heart of the party was Manmohan Singh’s press interview before electioneering got into full swing. All he took credit for was — the Indo-US nuclear deal! The rest was silence.

The Congress misread the people; not just the “aspirational” section that senior leader Kamal Nath after the results pointed to as a strategic error, but Indians at large.

People look for powerful leaders, larger than the party they represent, to guide them.

Even with feet of clay, leaders gifted with the ability to transmit power and strength as near-sovereign beings endear themselves to the public.

The Congress lacked that charismatic leader. It chose for the head of the government a professional unable to project that aura of a sovereign willing to dispense justice and well-being in words, if not in deed.

The BJP, blessed perhaps by destiny, found one in its flock and chose him wisely. Had it not been for Modi, the results just might have been different.

Technocrat vs politician

The second problem for the Congress, in hindsight, was the choice of a non-politician as head of state. The high command chose a bureaucrat-professional unable to project both his personality and the party’s over the dissonance within.

Inadvertently, this election destroyed a minor myth that glows at the edge of a metropolitan-industrial consciousness: technocrats or professionals with clear-headed views and decision-making abilities are better at ruling the country than rustic politicians.

Even with 31 per cent of the vote share, Modi won the votes of even the young in many states.

Indian youth did not place their trust in youthful leaders alone or technocrats (where is Nandan Nilekani?) but on a provincial politician speaking a language of hard-nosed materialistic ambition.

The tea vendor came to represent for an emerging provincial middle-class youth the clearest evidence of the type of leader they wanted: what they did not want were Oxbridge economists.

Empowering the poor

Having won such a huge mandate what should one expect from the new Prime Minster?

Of course, the ‘development’ agenda springs to mind. However vague that may have been to the critical ear, it is clear that the notion encompasses more than just a rate of growth.

Some economists may point to the reduction in poverty numbers over the decades but that has to be set against the growing recognition within the country and abroad of rising income inequalities and substantive poverty.

According to the Empowerment Line, a measure devised by McKinsey Global Institute, more than 2.5 times the 270 million below the official poverty line lack the means to avail of basic needs: energy, water, education, sanitation, and so on.

So more than half the population will not be in a position to think of “aspirations” unless they are empowered with basic amenities.

Can economic growth and more jobs help empower them? If the record of job creation during the years of high growth between 2004-09 is any indication, growth may continue to be jobless.

But equally important will be the consensual agenda, the ability and willingness to pull every community together.

A consensual society

The patchwork quilt that constitutes the demography and history of this nation cannot be allowed to come unstitched.

Having such a huge majority places a responsibility on Modi. In his post-election rally in Vadodara he admitted that the mandate places a huge responsibility on him.

But that responsibility cannot be defined by partisan or party interests. They have been pre-set by history and the democratic framework that legitimises his power. His task will be to ensure that the default template of social harmony is not allowed to be tampered with by anyone drunk with power.

What about the voters who handed over the reigns of power for the next five years to Modi and the BJP?

Published on March 12, 2018

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