Back to a coalition government in 2019?

The whispers have started: “If not Narendra Modi, then who?” Columnists have started warning us that if we fail to elect Narendra Modi back to power with an absolute majority, we could be in for a spell of “unsettled politics”. Should this alarm us? Not quite. On the contrary, if the Narendra Modi government is toppled in 2019, it will be a great moment for our democracy. A government that has little to show in terms of concrete achievements, and that pulled every trick in the book to damage constitutional values does not deserve a second chance. This is not a prediction, but an argument.

It is time to revisit the basic fallacies in the Modi-story. The Modi-story was one manufactured as much by the electronic media, as by the ‘enthusiastic cadre’ of the party working tirelessly on the ground and on social media. It should have been amply clear to anyone who really cared that what Narendra Modi really offered was essentially a xenophobic vision for India, garnished by tokenistic sound-bytes on development and Mahatma Gandhi.

Positioning the debate in 2014 as one between a state-led model of development through entitlements and private sector-led model of fast growth has been laid bare for everyone to see. First of all, there are sectors where the state’s presence is non-negotiable, such as social safety nets, basic health and elementary education. In these sectors, an unwilling state has dragged its feet on both policymaking and implementation, with disastrous results. Meanwhile, the state has expanded its reach to hitherto unparalleled levels through Aadhaar. Individual liberty has been curbed on several fronts. “Minimum government” is a joke.

With Rafale, GSPC and Vyapam, no one should harbour any illusions any longer of Narendra Modi being above corruption. This should have never been a surprise, given that in the much-hyped Gujarat Model, extractive private-enterprises were promoted at the expense of people and the environment. But this, along with the blatant use of social media to promote false propaganda both on the economy and society, belies any claims that one may make of the BJP being a mascot of ‘good governance’.

In the five years that this government would have been in power, we would have regressed on all fronts while the fruits of this power have been accumulated by the RSS and its affiliates. In the last four years, the economy has been run to the ground, and if things don’t look as bad as they might have, we have only low oil prices to thank. This should worry even those who couldn’t care less about the current establishment’s insidious social and cultural agenda.

No wonder then, the scare-mongering has started. India apparently doesn’t deserve a coalition government. Those that argue this are basically claiming that a country as diverse as ours deserves a homogenous single-narrative government. Bizarrely, supporters of the current government are loathe to even acknowledge the successes of the previous BJP-led government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The Prime Minister’s own intemperate remarks recently in Parliament have left no one in doubt that the ruling party is desperate.

While economic performance tends to be cyclical, the vicious campaign of hate and the normalisation of violence seen in the last four years have no parallel. That this cannot take place without active sanction of the state is a foregone conclusion. What the government has attempted to do is to cultivate a level of plausible deniability around the actions that it silently patronises. Thus, we see to this day, the government accepts no responsibility for the actions of its ideological affiliates, instead terming them as the ‘irresponsible fringe’. This remains a handy polarisation tool, one can makes an appearance prior to every election of any significance.

It is also important ask now – what have we lost in this era of a dominant one-party rule at the Centre? Did we get a ‘strong’ government? The hallmark of this government running with an absolute majority in Parliament has been the deification of a single leader. An authoritarian leader may harbour fantasies of being a saviour of 1.3 billion people – but as we have witnessed so far, this is as unreal as it can get. This is also why the Prime Minister has been heard falling back on state governments and previous central governments to share the blame for big and painful reforms such as the Goods and Services tax.

No democracy needs an almighty leader, and contrary to hype, this has not yielded sound far-sighted economic policy. On the other hand, it has exposed the pitfalls of a empowering a narrow power structure that is unwilling to seek out credible counsel. It has also revealed for all to see, the danger of bringing leaders to power whose hunger for political power and self-aggrandisement is all-consuming, even at the expense of core constitutional institutions. Worst of all, the embodiment of communalism in the top leadership (and the wider RSS-sponsored eco-system) has inspired many an act of violence and terrorism. Is this the absolute majority dividend we ought to be grateful for?

Would a coalition government have done better? It is obviously hard to tell, but competing pressures from coalition constituents would have put a lid on the brazenness that we have seen play out in public life. Also, a ‘strong government’ is one that secures a wide consensus and represents all sections of the population. The general elections of 2019 would be the time to demand accountability. India deserves better, and we should not let ourselves be distracted by alarmists who are raising the bogey of unsettled coalition politics.

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First published on DailyO (the headline was their’s, not mine)

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