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PK Kaul Memorial Lecture

PK Kaul Memorial Lecture

PK Kaul Memorial Lecture: February 21. At Noida Club

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me first say that it is indeed an honour to be delivering the PK Kaul memorial lecture. Mr Kaul was one of the country’s most respected civil servants, a product of an age when civil servants were truly çivil’. Times have changed but I do believe that there will be a core set of values that Mr Kaul represented that will last forever. And so I am humbled to be here today at the NOIDA club where I have spent many a convivial afternoon in the company of friends.

One of those core values that holds us together as a people, as a nation, is indeed, democracy, and the idea of one person, one vote. We live in a time when it is fashionable to criticise Jawaharlal Nehru, when we seem to blame India’s first prime minister for almost all that has gone wrong since: from the vexed Kashmir issue to the slow pace of economic growth. As a great admirer of India’s first prime minister, I find some of the criticism perplexing: Nehru’s greatest contribution has been to instil a deep commitment to democratic values, and elections are fundamental to this commitment. I still recall meeting Nawaz Sharif in 2004 in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. Mr Sharif was in exile at the time and he turned to me and said in admiration, “India is a remarkable country. Just see how you people have ensured a peaceful transfer of power from BJp to Congress. And look at us in Pakistan: Benazir is in exile, I am in exile and a military general rules over us!”

When Nehru held the first election in 1952, a chennai-based editor suggested that it was the “greatest gamble in history”. Winston Churchill saw it as an “act of madness”, convinced that India would break apart. Truth is, 16 general elections later, the idea of Indian democracy has been one of our great triumphs and Nehru, Sukumar Sen, the country’s first election commissioner, and many other netas and bureaucrats deserve great praise for it.

Lets now turn to the elections of 2014 and 2015: the general elections of 2014 and the delhi assembly elections of 2015. Both have thrown up stunning verdicts and in this lecture I aim to try and see the parallels between the two.

Let me suggest, rather bravely, maybe even foolishly, that the two results, or certainly the main protagonists in the two elections have more in common than in divergence. Firstly, both Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal I believe are beneficiaries of the fact that Indian elections are slowly becoming quasi-presidential in nature. Indians are looking for leaders: strong, decisive, credible. It is this leadership question that lies at the heart of the overwhelming mandates of 2014 and 2015.

In 2014, India, or large parts of it, was looking for a leader who would be diametrically opposite to a Manmohan Singh: Singh was a soft spoken bureaucrat: he became prime minister only because Sonia Gandhi deemed it so. He was therefore never first among equals, never really in a position to assert prime ministerial authority. He was seen, especially in his second term, as weak and ineffectual, essentially a political survivor. By 2014, many Indians were tiring of him, some were angry that he had stayed silent and hadn’t acted in the face of mounting corruption and a slowing economy. We were looking for a Mr Fix it, a strong Arnold Schwarzneeger like figure who would talk the talk, and hopefully walk the talk.

Enter Narendra Modi with his 56 inch chest and a promise to deliver the good days or ache din. Where prime minister Singh spoke of money doesn’t grow on trees, Modi spoke of bringing back the good times: high growth, jobs, a war against corruption. Ina period of low growth and negativism, Modi was simply the right leader at the right time talking the right language. Leaders emerge in a context, and the context in 2014 was the search for a muscular leader. The 2014 mandate was, above all else, a mandate for change, for a new kind of leadership that was more open and more communicative, seen to be more assertive. A CSDS survey shows that atleast one in three of those who voted for the BJP said they did it only because Mr Modi was the prime ministerial candidate. In other words, the BJP might still have been the single largest party in 2014, but wouldn’t have got a majority without Mr Modi as their leader. He was the X factor. His past as the chief minister of Gujarat during the 2002 riots didn’t matter: his present as a leader who spoke of good governance did.

It isn’t just Manmohan Singh that Mr Modi needs to send a thank you card for the 2014 verdict. He must send one to Rahul Gandhi too. The fact is, between 2009 and 2013 in particular, Rahul never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. By refusing to take up a ministerial responsibility, by refusing to communicate or get involved in major issues, be it in parliament or outside, Rahul almost conformed to the stereotype of being a baba log leader, someone who was there only because he carried the most famous surname in Indian politics. The BJP made the 2014 elections about a self-made leader in Modi versus a political dynast in Rahul. This narrative was aided by the likes of a Mani Shankar Aiyar who committed another self-goal by reminding Mr Modi of his chaiwallah origins. The elitism of the Congress versus the rootedness that Modi seemed to represent: this was a no contest. Maybe, Mr Modi should send a thank you card to Mr Aiyar as well.

A similar leadership question dominated the Delhi election campaign as well. Who do you want as your chief minister was the question posed during the Delhi campaign. Interestingly, Kejriwal didn’t take on Mr Modi in this campaign but asked who was the BJP’s CM candidate. In a sense, the almost unspoken message was ‘Kejriwal for CM, Modi for PM’. A CSDS survey in fact suggests that several Kejriwal voters said they had voted for Mr Modi and the BJP in the general elections. If Mr Modi benefitted in 2014 from the disarray in the Congress ranks, Kejriwal benefitted in 2015 from the chaos in the BJP. And if Mr Modi has reason to be thankful to a Rahul Gandhi, then Mr Kejriwal should send a thank you card to Kiran Bedi. Ms Bedi is a doughty police officer, but politics needs more than just a danda to succeed: you need to be seen as someone who carries credibility with the wider masses. Sadly, Ms Bedi ended up becoming the Sarah Palin of the BJP. If Rahul Gandhi committed gaffes in his tv interviews, so did Ms Bedi. In her public appearances, especially on tv, she came across as an angry woman, not always in control of herself. The camera it is said doesn’t lie. It didn’t in the case of Rahul Gandhi who, in an infamous tv interview, seemed to reply to every question with ‘RTI’ and ‘womens empowerment’ even as Dr Bedi couldn’t make a distinction between jhuggi-jhopdis and unauthorised colonies.

Which brings me to the other key change in our elections: the battleground has shifted from the maidan to the media. We aren’t a tele-democracy yet like America, perhaps in a country as vast and diverse as India we never will be. But the fact is that media exposure does play a major role in voter preferences. Interestingly, among those who had highest media exposure, Modi was their preferred PM choice in 2014, Kejriwal their CM choice in 2015. Both Modi and Kejriwal are first rate orators, very good communicators. Both know how to use the camera and prime time television to their advantage. They may look very different, their content may be dissimilar, but they both convey a certain aggressive machismo in their public interactions. And both I might point out end their speeches with a rousing ‘Bharat Mata ki jai!’’

Both also seem to connect well with young voters. During the 2014 general elections, India had around 12 crore first time voters in the 18 to 23 age group, that is around 15 per cent. A CSDS survey showed that around 40 per cent of these voters opted for the BJP, less than 17 per cent for the Congress. So, among younger Indians, Modi was preferred to Rahul by a margin of almost two to one. This might seem strange at first sight: Modi is 64, Rahul is 44. And yet, the fact is, Modi talks the language of a younger India: of a digital India, of an India which is being driven by technology and by aspiration. Interestingly, Modi is constantly engaging on new age platforms like twitter and facebook, Rahul isn’t even on them. Kejriwal too, has been very active on the social media, the average age of an AAP volunteer is in the early 20s. Modi and Kejriwal attract the young because they strike out as change agents, as non corrupt anti-establishment figures, individuals who are promising to end the monopoly of the old order and this is an idea which is attractive to a younger India.

The core constituencies of Modi and Kejriwal are different. Modi’s core voter had a ‘Hindu nationalist’ self-image; Kejriwal’s core voter is to be defined more in class terms: dominantly from the lower income households. And yet, there is a unity here too. Modi consolidated his core vote by creating a conflict in a sense between his vision of secularism or nationalism and the Congress’s definition of a secular India. Kejriwal consolidated his core vote by creating a tension between the aam admi and the khaas admi or the VIP. Both could not have won the elections only with their core vote: this is where their leadership and promise of fulfilling the aspirations of an impatient electorate worked successfully. Both are promising to get rid of corruption, both say they will wage war against mehngai, both are brimming with energy and new ideas, both are 24 x 7 politicians, both are their own high command, almost authoritarian in their style. This style I believe appeals not just to young India, but also to a neo-middle class: those who are determined to get ahead at all costs and are angry with the pace of change in society.

Will both last the distance? Predicting the future in Indian politics is very difficult. Harold Wilson, the former British prime minister once said a week is a long time in politics, frankly, in India, a day can be a long time.

Remember also, both Kejriwal and Modi have set public expectations very high and voters have rewarded them with majority governments. Failure could lead to rapid disillusionment. What is true though is that both are beneficiaries of a declining Congress. In the general elections, the BJP’s highest success rate was in those states where it was in direct contest with the Congress like a MP or Rajasthan or where the anti-Modi vote was sharply divided like it was in an Uttar Pradesh. In Delhi, Kejriwal benefitted from the collapse of the Congress vote with many traditional Congress voting groups, including Muslims and Dalits, choosing AAP.

Which leads me to suggest that maybe if Kejriwal is able to successfully create a Delhi model of governance much like Modi championed a Gujarat model of governance, then in 2019, we might have the rather intriguing prospect of a Modi versus Kejriwal battle. This doesn’t mean that regional satraps like a Jayalalithaa or a Mamata will disappear, just that the alignments could be more sharply framed between a BJP-led coalition and one which is more loosely aligned around the left of centre politics of an AAP. For a mediaperson, a Modi versus Kejriwal election would truly be a big fight! I look forward to it.


© 2020 Rajdeep Sardesai. All Rights Reserved.

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