Book: Transforming India: Challenges To The World’s Largest Democracy
Author: Sumantra Bose
Publisher: Picador India
Author Sumantra Bose is back with his sixth book Transforming India — Challenges to the World’s Largest Democracy. A professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, Bose says regional parties will play a pivotal role in the formation of a coherent federal government at the Centre in 2014. His new book illuminates the roots, significance and challenges of this bottom-up federalisation. Edited excerpts of an interview with Manisha Pande.
You mention in your book that for our democracy to cope with India’s many challenges, regional political leaders will have to adopt a national perspective. Do you see that happening soon?
The powerful regional leaders of the new Indian polity have not fully realised the importance of their brand of politics. They largely remain focussed on their respective states. This is understandable, but because India has emerged as a de-centred democracy, the challenge now is to make federalism work. I think the 2014 election will be pivotal because, unless I am wrong, the BJP and Congress are likely to win much less than half of the Lok Sabha (LS). This means that the regional parties put together will win significantly over half of the LS. So some of the more weighty regional leaders will have to face up to the fact that their responsibilities extend beyond their states to the formation of a coherent and functional federal government at the Centre.
We’ve had a very interesting election in Delhi with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) emerging as a third entrant, fashioning itself as a party that looks beyond identity politics and is rooted in widespread disillusionment with the political class. Where do you see them fitting in?
When Kanshi Ram formed the BSP [Bahujan Samaj Party] back in 1984, he intended it to be a nation-wide party for the assertion of Dalit rights and identity. By the 1990s, it pretty much ended up being a regional party of Uttar Pradesh. Likewise, AAP was born out of the anti-corruption movement but I won’t be surprised if it evolves into a de facto regional party of Delhi (with some spillover effect in adjoining semi-urban areas of UP and Haryana) because that movement [India Against Corruption] was not just urban but also very Delhi-centric. It is true that AAP is different. But Delhi has become a diverse city-state over the last 10 years so any political party, new or old, can’t just appeal to a particular identity or social groups.
Unlike Mumbai where you can appeal to the “marathi manoos”?
Yes, a MNS can be viable in Mumbai but something like that won’t work in Delhi. AAP is more of a citizenship-based party that promotes active, virtuous citizenship. But that is really a response by AAP’s founders to Delhi’s specific political landscape. In fact, if you look at the established regional leaders, the one thing common between figures as diverse as Narendra Modi, Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee is that they have all realised that unlike twenty or even ten years ago, today it won’t suffice to appeal to just communal or caste or ethnic or linguistic identities and enmities, nor to simply rely on old political divides such as the CPM-Trinamool rivalry in West Bengal. Slowly but surely, the electorate across the country is becoming much more discerning on issues of governance-- competence and performance in delivery of services, welfare and development. The most successful regional leaders have realised that the future of regionalist politics depends less on identity groups and more and more on their ability to fulfill needs and aspirations.
It’s interesting that you bring up Modi with other regional leaders because the BJP is projecting him as a national leader with the hope to swing votes in its favour in 2014. There’s a lot of talk of the so-called Modi wave.
I don’t think it will work, and the hype around Modi may end up as a damp squib. The reasons for this are manifold and mutually reinforcing. First, Modi’s personal limitations. He is too controversial and divisive a figure, in sharp contrast to Vajpayee. Second, the territorial limitations of his party’s base. BJP is marginal in nearly all the states of southern and eastern India, and faces strong challengers in the form of regional parties in key states of northern India. For example, in UP the BJP would have to more than double its share of the vote from the 15 percent it got it in the 2012 state election in order to get a windfall of 50+ LS seats, something very unlikely to materialize. In Bihar, it will have to compete with two significant regional parties, RJD and JD-U.
Third, the social limitations of Modi’s appeal: his enthusiasts are concentrated among relatively affluent sections of urban India (and, of course, among India’s corporate elite), but India is still a predominantly rural country where the poor, and not the Twitterati, comprise the majority. Fourth, the regionalised political landscape of India, which is a Himalaya-like barrier to Modi’s ambitions.
You say that the era of nation-wide leaders is over but current political debates are centred on Modi vs Rahul Gandhi...
Framing the 2014 contest as “Modi v/s Rahul Gandhi” reveals more about the superficiality of media coverage than it does about the political realities of India. The myopic ‘Modi and Rahul’ focus may intensify as the results of the state elections are out. It’s important to remember, however, that Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh are among the relative handful of states (7 out of 28) which have substantially ‘bipolar’ BJP-Congress polities. These 7 states together elect just 101 of the 543 LS members. Moreover, the key to the BJP victories in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh has been credible, popular leaders in these states, Shivraj Chouhan being the most notable example. Any ‘Modi effect’ has been secondary at best. As for Rahul Gandhi, I don’t think I need to bore people by elaborating on his limitations.