What a glorious weekend! The collective hyperventilation seems justified—the miracle of democracy, the wisdom of crowds, how millions of seemingly incoherent actions can add up to one powerful cohesive signal. One can’t not be excited by what transpired on Saturday. A colleague at the office summed it up when he said, “I voted for the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), but I’m delighted that the country has given a clear mandate to the Congress.”
Is it possible to explain the results? Already, theories are beginning to be floated: the maturation of the Indian voter; the BJP’s mismanagement of the Modi roll-out; Rahul Gandhi’s brave decision to go it alone in Uttar Pradesh; the end of communal politics; the return of national parties; the demise of the Left. Unfortunately, the canvas of the country is too vast to lend itself to bullet-point summaries. There are too many inconsistencies that the theories will find hard to ignore: If Varun Gandhi was a signal that the BJP lost more than it gained, the Mangalore moral policing incidents did little to dent the BJP’s fortunes in Karnataka—if anything, the outcome in the state was better, with the BJP upping its tally from 2004. Again, if the loss of the Left was a signal to speed up liberalization, this needs to be tempered with the reality that the Trinamool Congress is now the largest ally in the United Progressive Alliance—and Mamata Banerjee’s stand against industrialization places her left of the Left. And again, while the Congress and the BJP together accounted for 322 seats in 2009 versus 283 in 2004—a jump of 39 seats, or at least 13%—their combined vote share actually fell by 1.3 percentage points from 2004. So much for the resurgence of national parties.
And so on.
Essential message: beware the convenient narrative.
WHAT CAN HAPPEN
Even if it’s difficult to attribute clear causality to the election results, there’s no denying that we could be at the threshold of something significant—that somehow, serendipitously, we have been given a national gift. A clear political mandate, continuity of leadership in New Delhi, the emergence of youth as a national force (kudos to Rahul Gandhi) and a prime minister who in the last year has understood how to manage political allies (that is, when should groupthink end and decision-time begin).
All these add up to tantalizing possibilities for India on multiple fronts: for the average citizen and the country as a whole; for India within and India abroad; for the poor and the rich. Our experiences—and that of the global crisis—have shown that it is not only desirable but also possible to embrace a pragmatic model of economic development that eschews ideology for inclusiveness, that gives equally to the capitalist as it does to the tribal. Our maturing model of democracy should give us more stakes in global diplomacy, allowing us to suggest that India’s form of public institution-building is more relevant than that of the West, especially in other parts of the developing world—Iraq showed that you can’t carpet-bomb democracy. Soft power can be more than Bollywood, cricket or Punjabi cuisine.
The next few decades could be a big window for India, with these results acting as a springboard to galvanize the nation. In two very different ways, Barack Obama’s victory and India’s elections have been milestones of 2009, the world’s most powerful democracy and the world’s largest democracy each showing how the power of the people can be harnessed in one magnificent national event of collective voice.
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR US
After the hoopla dies and the next government is sworn in, the rest of us—about a billion, give or take—will confront our everyday lives. We need to strike a balance between demanding a lot from the new government at the Centre, and demanding more from ourselves. The danger is that we allow the obstacles we encounter to overwhelm us and lose sight of the possibilities that have been unleashed. And in the process, go back to our instincts of only blaming the government for all that ails our society.
Change cannot happen only because the Congress party got 206 seats in the 15th Lok Sabha. We must recognize that millions of Indians should lend their shoulder to the cause of nation-building, especially the rich and the middle class. Getting engaged in larger public causes is not just about social service, it’s about personal growth—understanding ourselves, making sense of our lives.
If last month’s elections show anything, it is that politics and government matter, and affect almost everything about our lives. Witness the record-shattering moves of the financial markets on Monday—so much for those who believe that our lives work despite government, not because of it. Any takers for moving to Pakistan?
The true power of the election results will be felt only if it brings more talented Indians into the public realm, to learn first-hand about the methods of public change.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org