It is a month since Indian elections are over. It was one where India found itself and came home, without a GPS or an algorithm but with a heart for a compass and hope on its sleeve. Hopes of 1.3 billion people in Prime Minister Narendra Modi who in his second term has to create jobs on a war footing to rise to the challenge we have reposed in him. More importantly, the government has to get out of the way to enable an environment that primes entrepreneurship and risk that are some of the basic tenets of growth and development. A gainfully employed people are also peaceful people. The Goods and Services Tax (GST) of Modi 1.0 was a major start.
Much more must kick in if we want to become a $5 trillion economy by 2024. Eminent people have been consulted for the budget to be presented in two weeks. We must remain alert to its details about how the economy will be spurred and intelligently attentive about its ambition. It is our future at stake and this column turns to a few questions beginning with the big one - what do we want to achieve by giving the unexpectedly massive mandate to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and rejecting the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA)?
Many things, some of which none can elaborate yet as in Elections 2019 we spoke to ourselves about ourselves and for ourselves without guilt or guile. In this affirmation is not a rejection of the other as some continue to believe. Democracies confirm all people and there is no problem with Indian democracy, the world’s largest, unless you think divergent views are a problem that must be crushed. Our growing-in-literacy people and empowered citizens did have a problem though with one thing - a vast majority felt marginalised, rejected and left behind by a few who saw nothing but self-interest in socialism and communism with drizzles of capitalism for the longest time since India became independent.
No, Fascists and Nazis have not taken over India – Indians have and these foisted-on-us labels have nothing to do with our history or geography, people or culture. Therefore they have nothing to do with our ambitions. Among us are people with several leanings including all hues of the political spectrum but the heart of India is a roaring democracy. It is up to us to drive and secure it because nation-building is not an exclusive exercise of a group. Our vote just proved it.
Over the past few weeks, I spoke to lawyers, activists, politicians and voters in Europe about democracy as the Continent renewed its Parliament a few days after us. Their comments had a common thread – liberal democracies in the largely western context that emerged after WW11 were not delivering anymore. Capitalism and later globalisation had cut people from people, lawmakers from voters, entire populations from their roots. If the system was not working for common people, who was in danger - the European Union (EU) or people living and working in it? How could the two be separated given that peace and cohesion is the EU’s strongest gift to itself?
In two generations, Europe rose from devastating wars to economic prosperity. Once where grandparents starved and fled, grandchildren flourished looking for leisure activities. Yes, there was the Marshall Plan and related economic investments and defence umbrellas, but at the base of it all was a work ethic and a commitment to never repeat the deadly past. A lot of that is currently under strain, but nowhere will it snap. I do not for a moment believe the EU is collapsing as pundits across the Atlantic and their friends on the other side of the English Channel hope, no more than I believe Modi has returned to spell India’s doom and gloom. His naysayers make little sense – their view is to say an ocean has water but waves have no water in them!
Nations need an identity be that economic, linguistic, military, religious or all and more. Shared conversations, shared exchanges and shared hope. Without a debated grounding in these areas, nations can stagnate as a people that does not recognise its past cannot go forward together. In the EU elections most eyes were on Germany, the economic bulwark of the Continent. The far right AFD party made inroads, but the Greens did better, doubling their score. Something is happening in Europe just like something is in India – very diverse, but very interesting in terms of mature and maturing democracies.
The Prime Minister and his cabinet have work to do and promises to keep. Employment, public health, education, infrastructure and trade are as important as social conversations that respect difference and diversity. How the new team will engage with a gaping hole of an Opposition in Parliament will be a space to watch especially as the latter is petulant and angry with the drubbing at the polls. False fears will continue to be fanned – irrelevance is an ugly companion.
Ten years ago if someone had said the Congress would be decimated no one would have believed it, no more than anyone would have seen Modi’s landslide victory in 2014 scoring even better in 2019. The Congress party and the Opposition groupings have lost India’s language and rhythm. It doesn’t naturally follow that the BJP has fully understood the enormity of people’s expectations.
We cannot grow into a major power if we celebrate mediocrity in our national political discourse wherever it comes from. The current government formation has some ministers holding many critical ministries. Perhaps this is a holding pen as there’s talk of lateral induction. “First rate people pick first rate people, second rate people pick third rate people,” Abhijit Iyer Mitra, one of India’s top defence and national security analysts told me recently. Think about this deep as people are brought in to positions of responsibility to lead the country. We deserve the best.
The Indian economy is slowing down and qualified people will tell us how they are dealing it. From them we have the right to expect answers that don’t swing between percentages and parody. We expect our government to speak to us, with us, about us and not at us. We will keep the faith in our vote we expect the leaders of our democracy to be worthy of it. The pull is no longer between liberal democracy and populism. It is now between accountability and strength. The voter is strong today. This much I know and I keep the faith.