The new populism, inclusive of a higher profile in foreign affairs, defence purchases, infrastructure development, farming sops, might well stretch the country’s finances.

 

Everything we hear is an ­opinion, not a fact

Everything we see is a ­perspective, not the truth

—Marcus Aurelius

 

What is the name of the winning political game? Is it a mass of sincere sounding promises that get the votes, many of which have no hope of seeing the light of day? Or silly winks for no apparent reason? But then, allegedly possessing the riches of the ages from graft probably helps to see the humour. Money, and living well, is the best revenge.

On the very public winks though, is there an ancient Hindu concept at play here? Nonplussed, are we being reminded about Maya? Is that rictus a tragicomic smile at fate? Are we being told that if we listen very carefully we will be able to hear the Gods laughing at us? Is the portentous train of life and living verily an illusion?

Hinduism appears, at times, to say so. Probably, because death is inevitable. And because it puts paid to all our aspirations, sorrows, energy, beauty, enjoyments—all the razzle-dazzle, the pomp and splendour.

Is this the true intent behind the “Clown Prince”, India’s own Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Parsi Pierrot who will never be Prime Minister, choosing to wink at climactic moments? If so, however disastrous the public perception, 49-year-old Rahul Gandhi is no Pappu. Someone with the detachment to wink at the make-believe is a weighty philosopher. Alas, coming into his fourth generation inheritance, he may not be that much of a politician. But perhaps we can let this craftsman blame his tools just a little.

Great success, let us note, does not necessarily kill the philosopher within. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, albeit the last of the five emperors that maintained the unbroken Pax Romana, was certainly one. He was a stoic, because he could look into the future. Most of his own reign was spent freezing in the cold, standing on ramparts, but marked by successful military conflict.

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah could see an Aurelius parallel here if they wanted to. Conquest, consolidation, and perpetual election mode are similar. But are they too busy establishing Bharat everywhere that counts in the political firmament? Nobody made it easy for them. And now, having won a second consecutive term, can it all be sustained into another and another ad infinitum? Can the great victor of Uttar Pradesh, newly appointed working president J.P. Nadda, pull out just as many rabbits out of that proverbial hat? Will NDA rule for the next 50 years as Shah once prophesied?

Is Rahul Gandhi, the butt of a thousand, perhaps unfair jokes, a stoic? After all, his brief time at the top has been marked by some success too. He won Punjab convincingly, snatched Karnataka from the jaws of defeat, and swept three Hindi heartland states simultaneously. Of the latter, two were taken narrowly, but one by storming the citadel. It looked like tranquil bath-time, with all the ducks in a row, just a few months ago, with the general elections promising more to come.

So why the pointed winks at fate, both before and after triumph and tragedy? He hugged the Prime Minister in a security breaching gesture, after railing at him with a spurious set-piece on Rafale. And then, he winked at Scindia, who has now lost his seat of Guna.

Was Gandhi saying: enjoy it while you can, Prime Minister? He has, after all, spent his whole life in the proximity of power.

After a bizarre campaign marked by little besides insulting slogans, lightweight advisers and dashing about the country promising the moon and stars, Rahul Gandhi lost big. But then, the fractious Mahagatbandhan lost even bigger.

In retrospect, Gandhi trusted too much in the crunching of self-serving big data and the illusions it threw up. The results shocked him. He was expecting between 160 and upwards of 180 seats for Congress. He resigned. He closeted himself in his house. He flew off to London to lick his wounds. Then he returned just in time, a fourth time parliamentarian, to take his oath as the MP from Wayanad. Out in the hot summer sun, beside one of the Lok Sabha’s solid red stone portals, he grinned and winked again, directly into the camera of an Indian Express photographer. Gandhi won’t be leading the Congress in the Lok Sabha. It probably bores him. But it looks like he’s gone back to reshuffling and reorganising his disintegrating deck as president still. All the states in the Congress fold currently are on the slippery slope.

Joining the NDA is very tempting for all those who want to defect. It has a near two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha. It has swept the Northeast and decisively breached the East. It is strong in the North and beginning to compromise parts of the South.

Punjab state could be lost to Congress once the elderly Captain Amarinder Singh exits. Karnataka is barely hanging in by the skin of its teeth. The BJP is actively trying to prise away Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and perhaps Chhattisgarh too. Congress MLAs are deserting the party in Goa. Jammu & Kashmir is being reengineered. There are no future wins in prospect for the opposition. Not in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana. Chandrababu Naidu has lost in Andhra Pradesh and his successor Jagan Mohan Reddy is cosying up to the BJP. Mamata Banerjee is under immense pressure. Stalin’s DMK in Tamil Nadu is a holdout for the moment. The question is, for how long?

TRS in Telangana has slipped quite badly in the Lok Sabha elections. As has Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, and Naveen Patnaik in Odisha. SP and BSP are in no position to pose a challenge.

The new initiatives of the NDA, such as piped water to all villages will consolidate its hold on the poor. Particularly if more is done for health and education. But there is a growing worry that the Modi government, like Indira Gandhi’s before it, is forming a path to win elections, irrespective of the parlous state of the economy.

There is no political pressure. None that can contain the NDA from a majority in the Rajya Sabha and a legislative flight path, that too by 2021. The danger is to the broader economy, concerned with jobs and decent GDP growth. Big business and its money are at Modi’s feet, and the rest, even if unhappy, cannot hurt the voting. The middle-class, as usual, is piggy-in-the- middle.

This new populism, inclusive of a higher profile in foreign affairs, defence purchases, infrastructure development, farming sops, might well stretch the country’s finances. India is borrowing hand over fist to fuel this and bad debts are still burgeoning.

Will India grow its economy to $5 trillion by 2024? It will need 12% growth between now and then for the $2.8 trillion present economy. And the ambition is to go on to $10 trillion by 2030! Are these aspirations those famous jumlas, just more winks at fate from the other side of the aisle?

A great increase like this can indeed change everything. It had better, because we will soon be the most populous country on earth. A double-digit growth is more urgent for a poorer and underserviced country like India when compared to a heavily built and stacked China in 2019. Such growth can come quickly only from immense foreign direct investment. There are many countries willing to invest. But they will do so only on terms that are highly beneficial to them.

When China opened up under Deng Xiaoping, it did so by unfettering domestic controls. America used it to tear down the USSR’s Iron Curtain and create an economic boom for both countries. It gave China double-digit growth for 30 years.

India must overrule the shibboleths of the past. We must give the world access without compromising our security. Give it also the benefits of modernizing, manufacturing and exporting from a relatively low-cost country.

A dominant political presence affords a historic opportunity. Winning elections is an enabler, but growing the economy is a solemn duty to the future.

 

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