Subtext of 2019 mandate will be the same as for 2014: Not continuity but change.
While voters pay attention to the promises of an Opposition party, they factor in only the achievements of the ruling side. India expected Prime Minister Narendra Modi to leap to a flying start. After all, in 1992, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao (as Minister for Industry), within his first hundred days in office, dismantled several of the hurdles on expansion and investment placed by successive governments till then. His Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh, went the other way and retained most of the existing taxes on citizens of India and domestic companies, even while slashing them on foreign enterprises. Had Singh given tariff cover to Information Technology hardware units owned by his fellow citizens, this country may not have witnessed the flood of imports of IT hardware that has characterised external trade in India since then, including expenditure on mobile handsets by a country where Nokia shut down a giant handset plant in Tamil Nadu owing to issues relating to taxation. In India, it is much easier to shut down a plant than to construct one. Most such growth-dampeners have yet to get cleared. Cultural values, national security, protection of the weaker sections; these are a few of the excuses offered by those who operate from (im)purely commercial motives as they block competition through ministries or the courts preventing fresh capacity. Surprisingly, the incoming government gave a passing grade to its predecessor in the first Economic Survey of the Modi government. Instead, what ought to have been done was to use the atmosphere of goodwill and cooperation created by the BJP’s poll victory in holding a Joint Session of Parliament to rectify several of the blockages to growth and social justice that have long lingered within the governance system. For starters, there needed to be much more transparency and accountability in the civil service than has been the case since Sardar Patel transplanted the Imperial Civil Service practically unchanged into the post-Independence era. The Central government’s power to sanction projects needed to get reduced and much of such residual powers moved downwards to state and even municipal level. A more equitable allocation of revenue than at present needed to get created as would give greater spending power to the lowest units of administration, rather than having vast sums coagulate at the Central level. A Joint Session of Parliament in 2014 or early 2015 to steer through systemic changes would have had an effect even greater than P.V. Narasimha Rao’s reforms during his initial months in office.
Instead of using the Joint Parliamentary Session method sanctioned by the Constitution of India to get through essential business, the Modi government decided to seek a Rajya Sabha super majority by making every state election as important to the BJP government as the national polls. Given their zeal over the next three years to take over political space to a degree not seen since the period when Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister, Narendra Modi and personally handpicked BJP president Amit Shah made a coming together of the Opposition all but inevitable before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Even the CBI or the ED, those immensely useful tools of practical statecraft, will find it a tough slog to separate Mayawati from Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, or to break up the Rahul-Lalu combo in Bihar, the two states responsible for the present BJP Lok Sabha majority. Had the BJP not sought to continue a “Naamdar” as the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, and had the just passed Constitution amendment bill on reservation to “forward” castes been introduced before the Madhya Pradesh Assembly polls, the BJP may have prevailed over the Congress Party in both states. As matters stand, while Chhattisgarh is likely to see a strong Lok Sabha showing by the Congress Party, the BJP is likely to get less than half the seats it had won in 2014 from MP and Rajasthan. Should the Shiv Sena separate from the BJP in Maharashtra, and the Vijay Rupani government keep its present form in Gujarat, the Opposition is likely to get more parliamentary seats than the BJP in both states. The more Rahul Gandhi has been able to fashion Congress policy and tactics different from those witnessed during the UPA era, the tougher it will prove for the BJP to hold the Congress Party to a double digit Lok Sabha tally. Going by present trends, the difference between the Congress and BJP Lok Sabha tally is likely to be below 50 seats, in a context where it would be far easier for Rahul Gandhi than for Modi-Shah-Jaitley (the triumvirate that has dominated politics and the economy since 26 May 2014) to persuade a sufficient number of others to join them in the formation of a majority government. It needs to be added that Nitin Gadkari, were the BJP tally to fall below 220, would be able to move about 60 Opposition MPs more to the BJP corner than the party’s ruling triumvirate. If the BJP’s tally falls below 220, its MPs may have to choose between sitting in the opposition under Modi or returning to government under Nitin Gadkari.
The BJP must have calculated that the Congress Party and others such as the BSP and the SP would follow a reflexive policy of opposition and vote against the Constitution amendment bill in the Rajya Sabha. Instead, Rahul, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav showed dexterity in backing the government’s move, thereby substantially reducing the political benefits of the legislation to the BJP. Had Modi-Shah-Jaitley used the Joint Session route to get passed other measures (such as a ban on Triple Talaq or the construction of the Ram Temple), the BJP may have been able to better convince voters that it was capable of actually fulfilling the promises made to the electorate. Instead, by acting since 2014 as though little could be done until the party had a substantial majority in both Houses of Parliament as well as three-fourths of state Assemblies, the BJP has disappointed those who expected results and not excuses in performance. Should the coming Budget Session get creatively used to ensure a more rational taxation and regulatory regime than the present toxic mishmash, such moves too are likely to see not obstruction but support from much of the Opposition, but overall can slow down a BJP slide. The subtext of the 2019 mandate will be the same as for 2014: Not continuity but change. The more voters believe change is real under the party’s regime, the higher the BJP tally will be. Promises will no longer work, unlike the way they did in the previous election.