EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Countdown to the Indian General Elections: What Should We Expect
DATE: 6-7pm, 8th April 2019
VENUE: Henry Jackson Society, Millbank Tower, 21-24 Millbank, Westminster, SW1P 4RS
SPEAKER: Rahul Roy Choudhury, John Elliot, Ashwin Kumarasuary, and Pratik Dattani
EVENT CHAIR: Dr. John Hemmings
John Hemmings: Thank you very much everyone for your patience, it is great to have you all here and I would like to welcome you to the Henry Jackson Society – I’m Dr John Hemmings the Director of the Asia Studies Centre. What a discussion panel we have for you tonight. The largest democratic election in the world, we have five years on from his 2014 victory an interesting view of whether or not Narendra Modi has lived up to his promises. We have a superb panel with us who I will run through quickly so that we can judge whether or not the issues have been dealt with over the past five years and whether they will be.
So I’ll start from this side; John Elliot is a journalist, Delhi based, who has written for the FT, the Economist, New Statesman and a number of other very prestigious journals and brings a lot of experience and knowledge to the India discussions. Rahul Roy Choudhury, an excellent scholar here in London at the IISS as the Director, Senior Fellow, of the South Asia Research Programme and fresh off the aeroplane from New Delhi where he has been running around many of the circles of the people we will be discussing tonight. Ashwin Kumarasuary is both a businessman and has dabbled in politics in India, on the Congress side. Pratak Dattani who has been a great friend to the HJS, and a force behind this event, as the advisor to Bridge India to whom we’re very grateful. So without further ado I believe we’re going to start with John Elliot and then move to Ashwin, then Pratik, and then finally Rahul. John if I can limit you to around eight minutes each.
John Elliot: I have a bad cough everybody so if I cough and splutter more than I talk I apologise. I’m speaking from the experience of more than 25 years in India as a journalist, I came back to live in London last May but I am still heavily engaged with updating a book, which has just been published, which I couldn’t resist but wave around. I’m also writing a blog which is called Riding the Elephant and also attending events like this.
All elections are important but this one is crucial because India is at a turning point. It has to choose between two sharply contrasting futures – a primarily Hindu nation led by Narendra Modi, probably, and the BJP or the tolerant, secular tradition set by Jawaharlal Nehru with the congress and opposition parties. Many argue logically that India should be a Hindu nation, after all Pakistan went off in 1947 and set up a Muslim nation so why shouldn’t India be the Hindu equivalent, which was in fact debated in the 40s until Nehru kicked that into touch. Others fear the consequences for social and communal stability, as we’ve seen the problems in the last two or three years, and do not want the BJP to be in power and certainly not Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. The choice between the two main BJP and Congress groupings is not as simple as that, it is also about the economy and about development. The BJP seems to have, and I haven’t gone through the two manifestos which have just come out in detail, the stronger economic promise for aspirational youth and building a stronger country. Congress has produced a good and sensible manifesto which has offset some of the BJP ideas. The BJP probably also has the most effective leadership, despite extensive criticisms of Narendra Modi, because of the opposition’s lack of coherence and Rahul Ghandi’s track record, or lack of a track record that he himself chose by always refusing to become a minister – he has chosen not to get any serious experience before he became the leader of the party. Voting for Modi and the BJP in 2014 was a gamble for those people who were not committed supporters of the BJP. Their hope, and I’m not a voter but as an observer this is what I thought, is that Modi will bring to government the drive that he has shown as Chief Minister of Gujarat and that he and his party would refrain from the excesses of the RSS in Hindu Nationalism at least to begin with. Modi I thought had a vision ultimately to build a strong Hindu Nationalist India but would want to build an economically strong country of which he could be nationalistically proud before he added the Hindu tag on to it. I wasn’t right. It’s vitally important now to assess in detail what Modi and his government has actually achieved, because the basic question in my view comes down to this – is it worth India risking, if you regard it as a risk – I’m showing my view, becoming a more Hindu nation where minorities suffer and there are more restrictions on freedom of speech and the media and other individual freedoms, in order to have a Modi led government driving economic and structural change. A government that has undermined institutions ranging from the election commission to the supreme court and has assaulted basic freedoms. Or vote against the BJP and just hope that the opposition can get it together were they to form a government.
Assessing the Modi government is, in fact, very difficult because of the over-dramatised launches that he indulged in and the grossly over-exaggerated reports of what they say they’ve achieved. Overall Modi has announced more than 100 schemes of which many have not been as successful as he would have hoped. But his main success in the broad area of the economy is to introduce a badly designed goods and services tax, which is over-complicated, a bankruptcy code which helps to clear out old bankrupt companies, and more formal structures which have begun to reduce the country’s corrupt tangle of systems and regulations. But he has failed to lead change in other areas, especially the creation of new jobs where the figures are highly disputed but there’s definitely a lack of new jobs. A strong, self-confident BJP PM could also have been expected to push ahead with privatising the public sector and changing labour laws but he, intentionally I am told, avoided challenging trade union power – it was a conscious decision not to tackle trade union power so he didn’t do any privatisations and he didn’t tackle the labour laws. He had a botched initiative last year to privatise Air India – botched because the government said they wanted to retain 24% of the equity and the buyer would’ve had to have kept 27,000 highly unionised employees. Having myself reported trade unions and labour relations in this country in the 70s I can’t think of anybody who would want to buy an airline with that sort of load and it makes me wonder whether he never intended to sell it but he wanted to say ‘at least I tried’. I hope that’s not too conspiracy-theoryist. Then there was a disaster, which I’m not going to go into now but we can in questions at the end, of 2016 with demonetisation of 60% of bank notes which did not achieve what he hoped for in terms of cleaning up the economy. However, the government has made progress in some areas such as highway construction, which has hit a record, and power supply though that leads on to electrification of villages which Modi claims as a great success for this government though most of it was done by the previous Congress government. It’s all a bit of fudged figures because in order to get a village listed as electrified you’ve only got to have 10% of the homes with electricity and one or two public buildings – the other 90% can go hang. Perhaps the biggest failure on industry has been the failure to tackle the defence establishment and modernise and bring up to date the production in India of defence equipment, 70% of which is bought from abroad. There are companies in India like Tata and (inaudible) who could do this but Modi hasn’t tackled it. That leads on to Make In India which wasn’t able to happen, it didn’t have any success – foreign direct investment has gone up but job creating manufacturing investment hasn’t happened. He has ignored trade policy and therefore hasn’t seemed to realise that initiatives are needed in an open trade policy to attract investors and open up Indian access to global supply chains. Other start-ups haven’t been a great success but I do want to mention in my half minute which I hope is left, the Toilets & Clean India Campaign which I think personally is the thing that he should be most credited for. Most of my friends in Delhi think I’m talking rubbish, they take me round the countryside and say look at that concrete loo that is being used as a store place or is crumbling, and you can see that all over the place. But I do think that is his bravest initiative because he’s trying to tackle cultural habits, he’s trying to make people behave differently and that is very difficult. Unfortunately, being Modi, he over-egged it at the start and over-stated what could be achieved and is over-claiming what has been achieved. I think I’ve probably got 10 seconds, I’ve skipped four pages and ignored foreign affairs – he has ruined it with Pakistan and done best with China. My view, therefore, is that Narendra Modi has not done what was needed the ‘good times are coming’ promise that he made – policies and initiatives have produced far less than was needed and there has been an attack on institutions. But he still might be the one to vote for.
Ashwin Kumarasuary: Thanks John. I was looking for a plug in and then how to start my remarks and then you gave one. The heart of this election in India is about what sort of country we want to build for the future. India was never a Hindu nation – the forefathers who brought us Indian independence clear rejected the two nation theory and we adopted the secular path. I’m just quoting Nehru “we talk about a secular state in India – some people think it is something opposed to religion, that obviously is not correct. What it means is it’s a state which honours every religion and faith with equal importance and equal opportunities and that is the India we want to build and that is the India we are fighting for.” Indian elections in one sense are a jamboree, celebrating people across the country and democracy itself. But the larger context of bringing people together, is there one narrative in India which will make Modi or Rahul Gandhi win? I don’t think so. If you look at manifestos that have been presented by the two parties, BJP released their manifesto yesterday if I’m correct and Congress did it a week and a half or two weeks back. Just plain reading of the manifestos shows that Congress’ manifesto is about the promise of the future whereas BJP’s is about three points, to summarise; one is uniform civil code, (inaudible), and abrogation of article 370 and I’ve been hearing this since my childhood days and there’s no change in that. Let’s look at the sub-plot, for all the machismo of Modi and frankly speaking he has done something really good, I genuinely believe that every Prime Minister and party that comes to government in India does leave its mark. You can talk about confidence in the new India in terms of setting the agenda and maybe you should give credit to him because he has actually gone out and said ‘let’s talk more about ourselves’. But the flip side is you just can’t keep fibbing and you just need to deliver, and when it comes to delivery, be it the socio-economic factors or the economic factors or purely coming to faith, which is a personal matter for most Indians, the government has failed. That’s where common public is looking at ground issues, be it farm loans or getting a good quality agricultural produce pricing, or looking at water scarcity in India because these are common issues – common issues that don’t get air time by big media houses or even in that sense on social media. I think this particular election will be fought on those basic of issues in India. Difference parts of India have different sub-plots in terms of what their priorities are, south India might think in one particular manner and north India will have a different view. If you look at north-east India it is all about the new citizenship bill that the government is trying to push through, all these go into play. What this election will be is that there are quite a few states which will determine which way the coalition government in India will happen – yes I’m saying it will be a coalition government, not a BJP led government or a Congress one – those states are places like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana and a handful of other seats in different parts of India. These seats together form about 200 seats where both BJP and Congress have absolutely no say in how their electoral fortunes swing, and those seats will determine at least the next five years of India’s future government, whoever leads it. I hope for the sake of Congress and those who want to build a more inclusive India that it will be a Congress-led government but all the pre-poll surveys say it’s still going to be Modi, as John said Modi is the hot favourite.
Coming back to a few things that I want to give away as observations, India is such a diverse place wherein people need to understand that every region has its own mini set of problems and mini set of solutions. As a leader of India if you want to do everything from one centralised position, be it Modi or Amit Shah, that doesn’t work. India needs an inclusive leadership, India needs somebody who listens to problems, and India needs somebody who comes with solutions not somebody who says ‘I’ve got all the solutions for you’ and then doesn’t deliver, whether it is demonetisation, none of the objectives have been fulfilled. He talks about simplified GST but ten years back I remember there was a white paper that talked about a simplified GST – he didn’t listen to it as Chief Minister of Gujarat. He doesn’t listen and I think this is the whole question and the question in front of Indians is do you want a party which listens and comes with solutions or do you want a centralised form of government wherein, frankly speaking, democracy has no roots to it, it’s ‘my way or the high way’. I think I’ll just close my remarks at that.
Pratik Dattani: I want to start with just talking about the media, the state of the media in India. Most of the journalists in India are based in cities, a lot of them are based in Delhi, a lot of them will not really venture out into rural areas and cover issues that matter to 70 or 80% of rural states. That means that apart from Ravish Kumar, who is on NDTV Hindi, almost none of the anchors on big Indian TV channels get into the nitty-gritty of what matters to 75-80% of India, which is basic efficiency and productivity in farmland. The fact that the average farm size in India in the 1960s was 3.7 hectares, five years ago it was 1 hectare so farmers in India are getting worse off over a period of time because of mis-management from successive governments – not this one, not the previous one, but every single one. Partly I think a lot of the media coverage and social media coverage tends to be focussed on the cities, and a lot of the opinion makers tend to be in the cities as well. So if you want a 9pm prime time slot on TV with eight different talking heads they will be the eight nearest people you can gather from a 1km radius, not from across India. So what you see on TV channels tends to be a very biased view of what is going on in the rest of India.
The coverage of the manifestos that we’ve seen this week, Congress’ last week and the BJP’s today, one of the reasons why the manifestos came out so late is that for all intents and purposes election manifestos do not matter in Indian elections. The Indian voter will not look at a 100-page document and say ‘because of this particular policy I will vote for this person or one other party’ – if that were the case then there would be a much higher quality of debate that politicians have, there would be a much higher quality of debate that the media has. But the Indian elections, as it was last time, this time is not really about which party has the best policy for large swathes of India, it’s about how a leader makes the average Indian feel and when you look at the emotion, when you look at that feeling, by far Narendra Modi is still the tallest leader in India. We’ve heard a lot of comments about where his implementation has not been very good, that’s by the by, but the fact that he makes Indians feel much more pride than, say, in 2014 in the middle of inflation being in double digits, massive corruption scandals etc. That, for the average Indian voter, particularly the poorer voters, matters much more. He has had some very good successes, some of them John talked about; GST is not perfect, bankruptcy act has been a good introduction in terms of policy, opening up bank accounts for tens of millions of Indians, and giving LPG cylinders to poor people across India has been very successful.
But the manifesto that came out today from the BJP talked about communal issues, it talked about India’s neighbours, from the top ten themes that were in the manifesto only a couple of them were related to economics, and sound economics at that. One of them was infrastructure development, India is spending much more on that, and the second one was doubling farmer incomes by 2022. No party will be able to double farmer incomes in five years because every single party in the last seventy years has promised this and this has not happened. For a lot of the reasons I mentioned earlier – media doesn’t cover and therefore the average farmer vote doesn’t matter as much as the average city voter. For those of you who know Indian history I would liken Modi and Amit Shah to Chandragupt and his advisor Kautilya – they’re still the most formidable force in Indian politics and for that reason I think in these elections it will still be Modi and the BJP that certainly are the largest party. Whether they win as comfortable a majority as last time, history says it is very difficult for any party to come back a second time with this many seats. Where Modi hasn’t done as well, and this echoes some of what we’ve heard earlier, it depends on where your starting point is. So if you can take what Modi promised in 2014 at face value and you compare it to what he has delivered today, then expectations have not been met. However, for people that you meet in the street particularly in the bottom 20-30% of the population, the thing that really matters to them is that for the first time an Indian Prime Minister could pack out Wembley Stadium, get 60,000 people in freezing temperatures to listen to a speech for an hour, do the same in Madison Square Garden, do the same in the Middle East, in Australia – that kind of more strident nationalistic confidence that India has because of Modi. That’s something, actually, that the opposition parties as good as the policies may be, as earnest as the politicians may be, they just have not been able to match. Last time there were two or three types of Modi voters; one was ‘he’s got the best policies so we should vote for him’, another was ‘if not him then who?’, and the third kind was ‘we buy in to the non-economic but social agenda that he espouses’. This time the election is a bit different but in the opposition camp you have Congress, which won three state elections in December, 11th December it did far far better than anyone expected and still, in the time since then has not been able to capitalise on the significant political capital it had generated at the time. The Coalition of non-BJP parties have not been able to come together to make a grand coalition across India, partly it has been because each party had at that time been united because they were against Modi. When your sole platform is to be against something and not for something it’s very difficult for that to be sustainable and that’s what we found over the last month, whether it’s in UP, even in Karnataka with JDS, those coalitions have been tested and I think the lesson in the next three days before elections start and the next few weeks before the last few phases finish is that the opposition needs to speak with one voice. It needs to be far better coordinated and it needs to set out that agenda of the two visions of India that the earlier speaker mentioned, set out that contrast to the BJP far more clearly and if that’s not done, regardless of whatever happens in the opposition camp, it will be the BJP for a second term.
Rahul Roy Choudhury: Thank you, as John mentioned I returned from Delhi last night after spending a week there talking to contacts of mine in both the BJP and the Congress party. What I thought I would say in the next eight minutes is really a sort of report on their perspectives and my own interpretation of their perspectives. Interestingly for both the BJP and the Congress we went through state by state the prospects of both party’s likelihood of winning or not winning the election.
So let me take the BJP first – when I sat down with the principal BJP contact and went through the states his view was that the BJP would actually win about the same number of seats that they did five years ago, so about 282 seats along with their coalition partners of the NDA would likely increase the numbers. He said this for three reasons; firstly, on the basis of the popularity of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi that this is being seen poll after poll in terms of the leadership of the Prime Minister. But also on the basis, as he made it very clear, that there is simply no alternative national leadership in the country. I think one would agree with that if you look at other political parties. The second reason for his confidence is that he believed strongly, and I would agree with him here again, that the BJP government in the last five years has been able to deliver on key social services to a large part of the electorate and sometimes these social services aren’t as popular to us as they are to those who receive them. In particular, he talked about the opening of 330 million bank accounts in the last five years to cut off the extortionist middle-man in that sense, to benefit women, the provision of cleaner LPG cylinders making a big difference in the kitchen instead of kerosene. Also the construction of toilets, as John said they may not all be effective or not but the construction of toilets has been a huge programme for the government and I would argue successful as well. The third area he mentioned is the national security, that since the last few weeks, particularly with the bold counter retaliation against the Pakistani mainland, that the Indian government carried out against the terror camp of the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the retaliation for the terror attack in Pulwama on 14 February. There has been an upsurge in support and the BJP has been able to leverage this in terms of its strong nationalist policies, policies focussing on counter-terrorism and national security. Indeed, the BJP’s manifesto, which was released yesterday, leads with a section entitled ‘Nation First’, focussing on national security and combatting terrorism. So for these three principal reasons the view from the BJP is that they are likely to be in pole position for the election.
When I met contacts in the Congress party and again we went through the list of 29 states in terms of numbers, which is a formidable exercise in terms of prospective seats, the Congress picture looked quite different. The Congress Party’s view was that it, itself, will get a larger share of the national vote but also seats, which is not surprising considering it is at the lowest number of seats today for decades. The Congress view is that it would get about 100 seats of the 543 seat Lok Sabha. The BJP it believes, the BJP and its allies, it believes will get less than 200 seats in the 543-member assembly. This is particularly important in terms of the regional parties which I will come to later. Now why did he say this, and others also focussed on this? The reason was threefold. Firstly, there are three key states for India’s elections in 2019, the most populous states of; Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Bihar which account for a total of 168 seats, or nearly a third of the Lok Sabha seats. In 2014, five years ago, the BJP had 116 of these seats, over 40% of its total 282 seats. In the view of the Congress Party this tally is likely to be largely reduced – in Uttar Pradesh where the BJP had 171 of 180 seats the Gathbandhan, the political alliance of the two key regional parties the Samajwadi party and the Bahujan Samaj party, is expected to eat in to the BJP’s seats in Uttar Pradesh. In Maharashtra and Bihar also in terms of the seat sharing arrangements we have seen between the BJP and its allies in these two states, the Janata Dal United in Bihar and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra the relationship has been very interesting because the BJP has actually given more seats to its alliance partners for this election than the previous election, leading some to believe that the reason for this is that its own prospects in these states may not be very good. Also the BJP could, according to the Congress version, lose seats in the Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Gujarat where it had won 88 of the 91 seats in 2014 and the reason for this is that after five years it will be very difficult to equal the figure of the seats that it won five years ago. So that was the first reason, that the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Bihar will not be able to get the seats that it won in 2014 for these reasons. The second reason the Congress party give for the BJP not getting enough seats was that the BJP has not been successful in some of the implementation of some of the services that it has brought about. Thirdly that the Balakot ‘political bump’ as it’s called may not be as impactful on national security issues as the BJ P might like it to have been. If this perception is correct, that the BJP wins less than 200 and the Congress and its allies win less than 100 it essentially means there are 243 seats that the regional parties could win. That’s where the regional parties will have a larger role in this election. Whether they are regional parties from West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, from Andhra Pradesh or from others I think in this election we should not discount the growing importance of regional parties, especially in a post-poll combination.
Let me end by saying that my sense is, my interpretation of both these interactions is that the BJP is likely to be the largest party in the next Lok Sabha but possible short of a majority, even with its pre-poll alliance partners. In contrast the Congress is likely to increase numbers but not sufficiently to challenge the BJP and hence the role of regional parties will be key. I’ll end with a caveat that in 2009 I had similar interactions with leaders of the BJP and Congress party and I came out with the conclusion from the meetings that I had that a certain party would get a certain number of seats and would win the election. The result was that he was absolutely right in terms of the particular number of seats that a party got, but got the party wrong. So with that caveat, and it’s a very important caveat, please take whatever I am saying as my own interpretation and assessment of current trends as they are, thank you.
John Hemmings: Great, thank you very much. With that we have about 25 minutes, or actually 20 minutes actually, I think what we’ll do is take three questions at a time because there are quite a few people and it’s an interesting topic, I wonder if I can take those three questions going out to you. If you can just give your name and affiliation and keep your question quite short, I know there is temptation to give statements too but if we could avoid those initially I would be super grateful. If you can also say who your question is directed at, if indeed it is directed at someone.
Questions: 1) While accepting entirely what Pratik says about the mainstream media, I was very struck by the Economic Times poll this weekend which had two different sets of results; one for CEOs who they had polled, and the second was what they called the ‘readers’ poll, so I guess readers are Anglophone middle-class people across India. Way at the top of Modi’s achievements, as considered by CEOs, was infrastructure with Brand India, which I consider to be the Wembley Stadium effect, coming second. For the readers that was reversed, it was Brand India followed by infrastructure but only just, infrastructure was right up there. We haven’t heard much about infrastructure from the panel and I would like to get their reflections on whether that has any weight in this election campaign? 2) It is a question of timescale, since independence Congress has been in power all of these years, Narendra Modi has been in power for five years and everyone expects that he has to deliver A, B, C, D. Everyone expects that he ought to have solved all the problems in five years – that’s rubbish. Secondly, Congress government the Prime Minister has to be from Nehru or Gandhi family – not in this century, where do we live?! So Congress will not come in to power. Just a comment. 3) I am curious to hear a bit more about the media capture that BJP and Modi has done. For starters he has hardly given any interviews over the last five years, the interviews he has given us are heavily scripted to the extent that it is a joke if you actually watch them. Anyone who speaks against the government or against Modi there’s a massive backlash, this kid from Bangla who is now running for the BJP is in the media saying ‘if you’re against Modi you’re against India’, this sort of rhetoric. He started a channel from what I gather without any functions because he runs the government, so he can just launch his own TV network without any permissions or consents. He has genuinely captured the media and the media narrative and that sounds like a massive risk for coming years, so if you can reflect on how you actually tackle that and push back against that without being called anti-national or being sent back to Pakistan?
Ashwin Kumarasuary: You started with Bangalore, I come from Bangladesh so it’s a good place for me to kick off. The point with media is 2014 was a watershed moment in Indian political history as well as media. Indian media is no more independent in that sort of a sense, if you look at most of the electronic media channels they have been controlled by one or two big money strings and they are supporting, whether you like it or not, a particular person and that’s BJP. That highjack of narrative was a well thought out plan that friends of Modi in 2009 launched when Piyush Goyal was the party treasurer. They have been at it constantly, saying that the mainstream media is biased, is pro-Congress and they sort of demoralise a number of these mainstream media and took hold of that message. They also use technology efficiently to build a counter-narrative among the public through WhatsApp and Facebook and if you pump a thousand things that are propaganda they will stick and that’s what has happened. Ever since he came to power the subservient media, I’m saying so with grave responsibility as there are other media people present here, nobody has had the gumption to ask basic questions to BJP. The moment you talk there is a sort of attack by trolls or anybody, maybe your own friends – since people are being attacked constantly nobody wants to raise their own voice but when it comes to elections lets be very clear, Indian voters are not going to get swayed by what happens on the news channels. They will make a decisive change and that decisive change will happen at the constituency levels and that is where the sub-plots that I talked about at every region makes a huge difference.
John Hemmings: John, just as a fellow journalist at the table did you want to have a swing at that?
John Elliot: No, and that’s because I don’t think it’s possible to generalise about the media in India. One of the problems with it is we don’t know – here you know who owns a newspaper, you know what Murdoch owns, you know what he is trying to achieve, which is Sky TV or whatever. In India you don’t know, (inaudible) owns a huge amount and one doesn’t know why he wants it in the same way we do here. There is criticism in the press, there is a lot of negative criticism of the government mostly now on the internet, rather than the wire and the scroll and other things.
There are two infrastructures, there’s the infrastructure that people were talking about in that survey and they I guess are pleased that Modi did sort out very quickly when they did come to power the mess that Congress had left behind with uncompleted infrastructure projects and they really got that moving. The other infrastructure which will affect votes is village roads and electrification and the frustration that only 10% of the village is electrified yet everybody is going around boasting that it has been. Also village roads – I know Madhya Pradesh quite well and village roads which looked brilliant in concrete, built two or three years ago by the BJP, are now crumbling so it works both ways. I think businessmen basically want continuity – I did ask last time I was in India ‘come on businessmen, tell me what you think’ and they all said ‘we want what we’ve got if it’s going to work’ and they don’t care at all about the Liberal issues, most of them.
John Hemmings: We’ll just go to the next round. Just a quick plug, the Asia Studies Centre here did just write a contribution on infrastructure, it is more broadly about the Indo-Pacific but we have a very strong Indian contribution – there are copies outside.
Ashwin Kumarasuary: Before you move on the gentleman made a couple of comments and I thought I would quickly respond. You talked about dynasty politics – in India it’s a democracy, anyone can contest elections and Congress, if you believe in democracy, Congress’ President was chosen through democratic means. Whether we like to believe it or not, that’s the reality of it.
QUESTIONS: 1) Just a few comments and highlights – they are trying to highlight the fact that India is a Hindu nation but we all know in our hearts it’s not. They have done a lot for the Muslim community, the Congress has been talking about doing a lot where in reality nothing has been done. The BJP has really done something and its visible. To your latest comment about Rahul Gandhi being elected democratically, we all know what happened to Shehzad Poonawalla when he applied as someone against Rahul Gandhi, he got kicked out of the party. With regards to the media and everyone saying the media is biased, the fact is that if they have done something in the last five years or five years preceding that they’re really good think tanks, they really got the brains. Where is that from Congress? 54 years Congress ruled the country and in five years if someone can just get them to switch sides what’s wrong? I think that’s what needs to be looked at. 2) What has gone wrong with Congress? I was struck very much by what Rahul Choudhury was saying, that Congress’ private estimates is that the best they think they can do is win 100 seats which would be 17% of the Lok Sahba after five years when they’ve got demonetisation, flawed GSTs, failures of job creation, and a real and abiding sense of crisis in rural areas and they simply are not in the frame. I’ve had a look at the Congress’ manifesto and I think it’s rather impressive, it’s modern, and it’s social democratic. I just wonder if the Congress is reduced again to 100 seats or not more than that, do you think they will find a modern and socially democratic way of electing a new leader? 3) I just wanted to put this in context of the UK and ask the panel to share their thoughts about what the elections would mean for UK/India relations, if it would mean anything at all?
Ashwin Kumarasuary: I think it started off with not actually taking their policies and execution properly to the people. They didn’t communicate well, they didn’t listen properly. In 2009 I remember talking to quite a senior party leader in Congress and saying ‘you need to counter the alternative access to communication channels being created by BJP’ and Congress said ‘you just don’t understand politics’. In 2014 they lost the plot in terms of communicating, they never managed to regain that plot. For every Congress message that goes out on mainstream media or social media there will be thousands of others which go in for BJP. The marketing and the marketing budget for the two parties is startlingly different and that’s where Congress has gone wrong it’s not about leadership – let’s be very honest about it – no one person, or two, or handful of people will make or break the country. It is a team, it is a narrative and in democracy, and in participative democracy, even at the (inaudible) that’s the local village level people take great pride in choosing who the winners have to be so the Indian electorate is not as foolish as people might think. The point about communication is that if you can’t counter it, what BJP is pushing out, you tend to lose votes because of it, that’s the first point. The second point is that, yes there’s an age old 70 years but the party is not done – the party needs to look at what it has done and promote what it has done and also admit some of its failures. It’s happening but not at the pace that people will say ‘these guys are real now’, capturing the imagination of the people needs to happen by going to the people, not to the media houses or social media. It takes time and I think that is going to happen but it’s just a question of how long it’s going to take.
QUESTION: But you ran the country for 54 years, you had all the time…
Ashwin Kumarasuary: That point about 70 years and 54 years – if you’re sitting here and saying India is not deadlocked in 70 years for 54 years I totally disagree with you…
John Hemmings: Forgive me gentlemen you can take that after the event but if we could just get to the other questions…
Pratik Dattani: I’ll just add a couple of things on to that. So both these questions, I want to link back to what Rahul said earlier, he said something very important – that Modi has only had five years. Now this narrative of ‘I need to have power for 10 years because I need to fix what has been wrong in the country for the last 50 years’ the opposition has not been able to counter that narrative, whether it’s right or wrong is immaterial. The opposition has not come up with a credible counter-narrative and that’s why this short, punchy, very simple way of presenting the BJP has worked very well. On media, because it has come up in two or three different questions, in 2014 in press freedom indices in the world India was 134th, it was not just suddenly in the last five years that things have changed in India. It is just that the BJP has been much better at exploiting whatever infrastructure gaps that there were. There is media capture and it is because the way media is regulated and the way media is structured is not in the same way the BBC Trust works here, for example, it is not in the same way that The Guardian or Channel 4 or other media organisations are regulated. So I think that goes to something fundamentally deeper – it’s not that one party has subverted the media and one party is the beacon. It’s that there are infrastructural issues and that one side exploited those better than the other side.
Just on India/UK relations I think over the last five years some of the big successes that we’ve had in terms of the issuance of ‘Masala’ bonds in the London market, for the first time in more than a decade the Indian Prime Minister coming to a Commonwealth heads of government meeting in London last year. These are the kind of things that for India/UK relations to move forward, particularly as the UK needs better and newer partners post-Brexit, these are where continuity in government will help. Modi and the current government have been warm towards Britain. Britain has probably not been one of the top five priorities, like it may have been under previous governments, but certainly India/UK relations can get better.
John Hemmings: Rahul and then John very quickly and then we will do three immediately and then that will be it.
Rahul Roy Choudhury: Let me answer both the questions about why Congress has not been able to maximise its leverage and I think there are three reasons. The first is that I think the current vision of the Congress party is not that they expect to win the 2019 elections but the strategy seems to be to try to ensure that Modi and Amit Shah are not in government. So it may well be a BJP government if it gets a lower numbers of seats but not led my Amit Shah and Modi and the Congress will be happy with that. So it has a minimal strategy but maybe a pragmatic one, the Congress doesn’t expect to come in but make sure that Modi and Amit Shah don’t come in, so that’s the first view. The second, I think it has not been able to effectively focus on the anti-incumbency elements. Yes, there were successes in state elections in the Hindi heartland, but overall there have been key problems with employment and economic issues but Congress has just not been able to maximise the anti-incumbency factor in certain states. The third, I think I would disagree with my fellow panellist as I think there is a serious issue of leadership. I saw the photographs of the Congress working committee meeting and my heart sank, these are guys who have been in power and had a huge popular opposition to them in 2014 and have come back again. I know for a fact that there are winnable candidates who have been trying to get seats for the Congress party in parliamentary elections but have been denied. They are winnable candidates but they are denied because of vested interests that the congress party has. For these three reasons I think that Congress is going to miss an opportunity.
If a BJP government comes in I think it will seek to move forward not on the 2018 visit of Prime Minister Modi here, but on the November 2015 visit where the joint statement looked at building a strong political and security relationship between the two countries. Particularly, I think, a focus on issues of maritime security, cybersecurity, of defence production would help to overcome some of the bilateral difficulties that currently exist between India and the UK, especially on issues of extremism and terrorism. If a Congress of a third party regional government comes in, supported by the Congress Party in terms of number of seats, then I think we will really be starting from ground zero which will make it harder to move forward on the bilateral relationship. But I think the outcome of this depends on how the UK has its own relationship in terms of Brexit and the UK countries.
John Elliot: I agree with Rahul on the point about Congress being motivated to defeat Modi and Shah. I thought when Rahul Gandhi was over here last year speaking at the IISS and other things that he had passion. I thought the new thing then was that he had the passion, he knew why he was the leader of the Congress party, he knew what he wanted to do and that was to remove these two guys from power. He hasn’t been able to translate that into effective leadership in India, he hasn’t been able to get that message across. One family very close to him who I know are in despair about his lack of ability to lead and get things moving. A friend of mine, who is also a passionate Congress supported, emailed me referring to the BJP ‘these elections are already a farce, maybe the last’ because there might be a Presidential system or something or other. That despair is in Congress but nobody can motivate or mobilise it into a realistic opposition to Modi and Shah, the Congress just doesn’t have it. And there is no chance of them changing the leadership system because once you remove the family they’ll all be fighting each other and somebody else. At least they know where they are while the family is at the top.
John Hemmings: So we’ve got four questions and we’re going to go a little bit over if people want to leave but I hope you won’t because our speakers have very kindly agreed to take another round. I did have a very specific group in mind so I’m going to go round them. If you could direct your question at one of the speakers, not all of them, because each person really only has time for one question. Hopefully we won’t double up.
QUESTION: My question to Ashwin, why does the opposition have such a pathological hatred to the Modi/Shah combination, and in 2014 the poll analysis missed by a (inaudible) and if he has the same numbers or similar numbers projection in 2019 as well and let’s say the Modi/Shah combo comes back with a much higher majority, what’s next? NEXT QUESTION: My impression is that the position of women in Indian society has gotten stronger in the last four years, will women’s vote have an important impact on the result? NEXT QUESTION: Would you agree that Rahul Gandhi has refused to join in Mr Modi’s new India by running scared of going to fight two constituencies in Kerala..? NEXT QUESTION: Do you think the BJP government has de-alienated the youth because of institutionalised attacks on certain academic institutions, failure to report job creation data accurately that has reduced faith in the BJP government. With India being a predominantly young country do you think that will affect the elections this time?
John Elliot: Rahul going to Kerala as well as UP is in a long tradition, aspirant Prime Ministers have done it many times before, what’s wrong.
Rahul Roy Choudhury: Let me answer the question on youth. The reason it is important from the figures we have for this election nearly 10% of the electorate will be first-time voters, so about 85 million first time voters. The sense I have, and I may be wrong on this, is there are clearly issues you’ve raised over concerns about employment and jobs but at the same time the BJP, by focussing on the things we mentioned earlier like Brand India and the Prime Minister raising the profile of India abroad, has actually been able to get a large number of the younger people on its side. People who see India in aspirational terms, they have their whole life ahead of them and the idea of a new India etc. My sense is that this new group of people will be more advantageous to the BJP because they’re also people who are more familiar with social media and therefore the BJP can leverage social media to its advantage. On the issue of women, I think the sense is, from reading the press and being in India last year, a larger number of women expect to vote this time than before. We will have to see, a major plus point is poorer women being given LPG cylinders for cooking etc, we will see whether that makes a difference but there are issues of safety of women which have not been as effectively addressed as the BJP said they would.
Ashwin Kumarasuary: Firstly, to your question on why Congress hate Modi/Shah, I think ‘hate’ is a very strong word. I wouldn’t use the word ‘hate’. Fundamentally, Indian politics so far has been one of accommodation, be it political (inaudible), it’s an ideological battle it’s not about individuals getting annoyed and not really engaging. I think Modi broke that stereotype – Modi really didn’t want to engage with the political spectrum, look at parliament – he used to come to parliament and give speeches and then walk out. That’s not how politics was in India looking back. Congress leaders used to engage and interact in order to form policy. There is a sort of disconnect because of Modi as a character, rather than Rahul Gandhi or Congress or the larger opposition parties. It is not hate it is more about ideological warfare from a congress perspective and Rahul Gandhi has said in a number of places ‘this is the fight for the soul of India, not about individuals’.
Nearly 130 seats in south India and it is a place where you can actually put a stop to the Modi government and this is where the regional parties and Congress can play a role. Rahul Gandhi contesting in the south will help cement the coalition forces. I genuinely think it will connect the North/South divide of Indian politics. No matter who wins, Modi or Gandhi, by and large economic and foreign policy to a larger extent will evolve but I don’t see any massive changes, priorities might change here and there.
Pratik Dattani: When Modi came to power ‘Make In India’ was a huge campaign but over the last two years we haven’t heard much of it – the reason has been that there are fundamental reasons why manufacturing in India will not be a higher and higher percentage of GDP. If you have more than 99 employees labour laws are very strict and India is just not a manufacturing led economy in the same way that China can produce things cheaply and of a good quality. So to target ‘Make In India’ at the beginning in order to create jobs was the wrong target to start with and that’s one of the reasons why we haven’t heard so much about that campaign. In the last five years, in fact, manufacturing as a percentage of GDP has fallen at its fastest rate in the last 20 or 30 years in India. That doesn’t mean that Modi hasn’t succeeded, it just means that there are longer term factors which one man or one party can’t do much about. That’s jobs and manufacturing side but then in terms of urban jobs…I often spend half my year in Bangalore and there most people that I know couldn’t care less about politics because as a ‘fresher’ they will earn 20 lakhs doing a coding job and their life from the age of 14 is set. You become a ‘topper’, go to IAT, earn 20 lakhs in your graduate job. Then you move to London or the United States and you never need to be engaged in politics in India or whatever country you’re resident in because you’re insulated from all of that. For that market, and that’s not 99% of India that’s very much 1% of India, whether it’s Modi or someone else doesn’t make much difference. The fact is that the government has not been able to counter Chinese exports to India, which have grown significantly, where you may once have bought Indian you are now buying Chinese because it’s cheaper and better. That has a negative impact on jobs. Technology brings innovation but it also brings disruption in terms of human resources being replaced by technology and I think globalisation, technology, and skill development India has not managed well. Keeping people who are not in the academic route but in the vocational route trained and fit for purpose for the modern workplace. The OECD came out with a report just last year that said by 2030 one of the top growing jobs in the world would be related to drone technology – in India drones are illegal so even if they are made legal next year there will be another 7 or 8 years until universities start teaching drone technology and by that time you’ve missed the boat in terms of those kind of jobs.
John Hemmings: So, ladies and gentlemen, in about three days 900 million people will start the process of going to the polls in the world’s largest democracy. I think here in the UK we’re going to be watching very closely and very attentively indeed. I’m extremely grateful to these gentlemen for coming along and sharing their perspectives and understandings of what’s happening in India now. Certainly I think they deserve a big round of applause.