By M D Nalapat
If the ongoing Assembly results prove disappointing for the BJP, there will be a significant impact at the Central level.
After having worked for decades to see the back of the British in India, it was not expected of those in whose hands the country found itself that they would so completely embrace the constructs left behind by the Raj. Whether it be the Constitution of India, in which the influence of British-era edicts is visible, or the eerily unchanged legal and administrative framework of governance, there was a continuity that mocked those who had expected a complete makeover once 15 August 1947 dawned. Seven decades on, it would be reasonable to wonder whether the fealty to the British colonial model shown by India’s freedom fighters was indeed the better course for this country to take, or whether there needed to be changes designed to ensure a better representation of the citizenry than occur in contests where the winner often secures less than 20% of the total of voters. Given the need to ensure the election of those not tied to narrow segments of the electorate, it may have been better for the framers of the Constitution to have decreed a two-part electoral process, with the first two contenders in the first round battling against each other in the second, so that the winning candidate represents a much bigger cross-section of the voters than may be the case under the undiluted Westminster system adopted in India. In the administration, rather than continue the Imperial Civil Service under a new name, it may have been preferable to institute a more flexible system in which accountability was high, much higher than now, when hardly a few of those in the IAS get removed from service for unsatisfactory service.
Indeed, if an examination were conducted of the “confidential reports” of IAS officers, almost all of them would be “outstanding”, the worst being merely “good”. It is a mystery as to why India is still so much of a laggard, despite having such an “outstanding” civil service, which seems most expert in inserting itself into every high level crevice of government. The Indian Police Service (IPS) is not far behind, having, for example, displaced the military from leadership and control of the “paramilitary” formations set up since the 1950s, and which should therefore get renamed as “para police” formations.
Although Narendra Modi was expected to change several of these practices and procedures, thus far the Prime Minister has moved with caution, except on demonetisation, where on 8 November 2016 he took a step that bears comparison only to the adoption by India of the Soviet economic model by Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1950s. The election results that will be out on 11 March will be a test of the political impact of the demonetisation of Rs 1,000 and (old) Rs 500 notes, as this is a measure that has affected every citizen. Should Modi be correct in assuming the step to be a winner, his party would win in Uttarakhand, Manipur, Goa and Uttar Pradesh and even narrowly in Punjab. However, should the measure be viewed as toxic by the voter, the BJP may be far short of a majority in UP, lose its majorities in Goa and Punjab, and cede Manipur and Uttarakhand to the Congress Party. In the latter, Chief Minister Harish Rawat has donned the robes of the “anti-incumbent”, warning voters that a BJP victory would ensure the return of Vijay Bahuguna as CM. In other words, the incumbent is seeking to cash in on anti-incumbency sentiment, the archetypical “incumbent” being not the present CM himself, but former Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna, memories of whose tenure as CM are still strong in the minds of Uttarakhand voters. While caste, community and ideology still play a role in deciding electoral fortunes, the 8 November 2016 withdrawal of 86% of India’s currency is the issue that will decide the fate of the BJP in either of two ways. Give the party a massive win, should the measure be popular the way the BJP believes it to be. Or cause an electoral disaster, the way even its former backer Nitish Kumar regards it as being likely to. Importantly, the effects of demonetisation will continue into the 2019 Lok Sabha election cycle, so the 11 March results may be seen as a foretaste of what is in store less than three years from now. Should Bihar CM Nitish Kumar be correct in his assessment that the 8 November measure is a disaster, and the state Assembly election results prove disappointing for the BJP, there will be a significant impact at the Central level. For a start, opposition parties would be emboldened to ensure that an anti-BJP individual be elected as the next President of India. After its defeat, the BJP will find it difficult to get more allies on its side, so as to ensure that the candidate chosen by Prime Minister Modi gets sworn in as the next President of India. Even BJP-friendly politicians such as Navin Patnaik of Orissa or Tamil Nadu’s O. Panneerselvam may find it impossible to back the BJP candidate rather than that of the rest of the opposition, following a 11 March wipeout of the ruling party, should this be the consequence of the anti-cash move announced by the Prime Minister three months back.
Narendra Modi has shed his business-friendly persona and has metamorphosed into a scourge of the rich, publicly vowing to ensure that the wealthy spend sleepless nights under his dispensation. Income tax raids and arrests are likely to multiply. However, India in 2017 is very different from 1972, as these days, what counts to the voter is a change in circumstances. In other words, a well-paying job, should employment not rise substantially, anti-rich rhetoric and gestures are unlikely to reverse a mood of disillusionment. Prime Minister Modi needs to be active in changing not simply the size and colour of a currency note, but the very chemistry of governance in the country, a task that would be made much more difficult by a setback in UP.