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Indian Elections and the Leadership Factor – A Look at the Past Decade

Indian Elections and the Leadership Factor – A Look at the Past Decade

By Saurabh Gandhi

Edited by Nidhi Singh, Junior Editor, The Indian Economist

If one were to describe the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections of India in one word, then that word would be ‘Modi’. His past, his speeches, his style, his rhetoric, his tongue and cheek, his attacks on the so-called ‘first family’ of Indian politics, his ideas, his capacity to make people believe in the dreams that he showed them, and most importantly, his connect with the people, even though he always spoke from the stage above, became the talk of the nation during these elections. It can be said that these elections had become a referendum on leadership. But the question is how it came to such a situation that a nation of 1.2 billion people decides her fate on the basis of one single person.

Even before Mr. Modi was declared the Prime Ministerial candidate by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), one of its senior leaders Mr. Arun Jaitley (now a Union Minister) had thrown some light into how the BJP would like the elections to play out. He said, “the coming Lok Sabha polls would be a ‘referendum on leadership’ as the country had been suffering hugely due to leadership crisis under the UPA rule.” He went on to add, “When the principal opposition party, which has a proven leadership, throws up a powerful personality, the elections could become quasi-presidential in nature.”

To the chagrin of the BJP, that is exactly what happened. We could see Mr. Modi exhorting people to vote for the candidates of the BJP in all constituencies of the country, saying that each vote to the BJP would actually be a vote for him. And people did vote for him. That was evident when the BJP won seats even in areas where it didn’t have much organizational base. But what was the reason behind such a huge mandate in favour of one leader? Some say that it was because of the lack of any strong leader in the government during the five years (2009-14). Many attribute it to the problem of dual leadership which was pulling the government in two opposite directions, with Sonia Gandhi being pro-poor and Dr. Singh being a true reformist with the end result that the government got entangled into a policy paralysis. And a lot of people would say that it was Modi’s charisma that won him this mandate. He was simply too good a PM that India could not afford to have. Let us dwell into the past to try and get an inkling into which one of these reasons is true.

If we look at the 2009 elections, in which the incumbent Indian National Congress (INC) came back to power with a renewed mandate, we will see that it was the same two ‘non-leaders’ Sonia Gandhi and Dr. Singh who had led from the front. Even at that time, the BJP had an iron-man in the form of Mr. Advani to lead them. Even he brandished the sword to highlight his strength as compared to the so-called weak PM Dr. Singh. But the result was that India had overwhelmingly voted for the soft-spoken PM. Why was it so that the leadership factor which was so important in 2014 was of least concern in 2009? The answer lies in one word called ‘performance’.

In 2009, five years after UPA rule, the situation was like this. There was high economic growth in spite of the global slowdown. The nuclear deal had just been approved by the Parliament. The government had shown decisiveness by leaving the Left parties behind. In short, the corporate class had little reason to be disappointed. If we look at the lower strata of society, the government had just announced a huge loan waiver for the farmers. The MGNREGA and various other social sector schemes of the ruling party had touched the lives of the rural part of India. The middle class was more than happy with a PM who had risen to that height on the basis of his merit and not through party politics and who had raised their aspirations through high economic growth.

In 2014, it was this ‘performance’ which was missing. The huge array of scams one after the other, the censures of the apex court of the country and the ‘176000 crore’ CAG reports had paralyzed the government’s decision making. Whatever it did, there was no conviction. Be it the ambitious idea of ‘Apka Paisa Apke Hath’ through the Aadhaar initiative or the announcement of FDI in retail, the government had to give in to either its coalition partners or the opposition or to infighting in its own ranks. Even as the economy deteriorated and corporate India was losing trust, the government brought that famous retrospective tax amendment and lost it all. That was a turning point in the invisible line of trust between corporate India and the government. On the other side, all the pro-poor initiatives of the government had failed to take-off. The Right To Education was entangled in implementation issues. The Land Acquisition Act and the Food Security Act were brought in too late for it to have any effect on the rural and urban electorate and at a bad time when the investor sentiment was too negative. All these marked the ‘non-performance’ of five years which made the leadership factor important.

But then in 2004, when the BJP was in power, the BJP had most of these things in control. They had a leader in the form of Atal Behari Vajpayee. There was high economic growth at the far end of its tenure. Inflation was lower as compared to now. Corporate India was happy. So then what led to its defeat in the 2004 elections at the hand of Italian-born Sonia Gandhi? Did leadership come into the picture here? In some ways, yes. Leadership comes into question when the nation feels that it is being ignored. In 2004, a part of India was not feeling that it was Shining while the rest of the country was. It is this rural anti-incumbency against the NDA that Sonia Gandhi had tapped into. Moreover, seeing a foreigner moving across rural India, listening to people’s grievances and promising to lift them out of poverty is something few could ignore. She even had the courage to take a highly pro-poor stand in a conference hall filled with businessmen. That made her a leader of the poor which she continued to be till 2009.

After her 2009 victory, Sonia reclused herself more and more from direct contact with her main constituency – the rural poor. Her limited interventions were in such a form that appeared as if she were giving out doles. Her son Rahul had little to offer in the form of new ideas. In fact, if analysed, it can even be said that Rahul Gandhi was not a factor in these elections. If the government had performed well, then those Rahul speeches would not have sounded so boring and preachy. But since it hadn’t, the leadership factor came into play and Mr. Modi milked it to a great extent and in this milking, Rahul Gandhi helped him by appearing non-interested in the beginning and lacking ideas in the end.

All the political parties have a great deal to learn from the results of these elections. The common lesson for all of them is that if they govern well, then whatever form of leadership they have, will be an asset. If they are not working for the people, then the opposition will have the advantage. This advantage will be enhanced if they have a leader with a mass appeal. More than anyone, Mr. Modi knows that he has to deliver or else, the leadership issue will haunt him in the future.

A commerce graduate from St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, Gandhi is a politics enthusiast. He has been an intern at Youth-Ki-Awaaz and has a keen interest in current affairs. Innovation in India’s education system and gender equality are issues which are very close to his heart. When not following news, he is either reading or crossing movies off his “To see list”. A self confessed social media addict, Gandhi can be reached on Twitter @saurabhgandhi92. Call him mad and he will love you for the rest of your life.



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