Many cliches have been used to describe Narendra Modi’s sweeping victory in the 2014 general election. It has been seen as a vote for good governance, a mandate against corruption and a rejection of the Congress and the UPA. It has been called a selection beyond caste and community boundaries, and representative of the growing fatigue with a culture of entitlements.
While all of these are true, they don’t entirely explain the quantum of Modi’s – and the BJP’s – achievement. This is not a mandate for good governance in that it is not a mandate for better delivery of an old order of governance, with higher efficiency and lower corruption. Instead, this is a mandate for a whole new order. It reflects an impatience, an aspiration, a hunger and an ambition in society that has left traditional politics and the fuddy-duddies – even the 40-something fuddy-duddies – of the Congress far, far behind. India has voted in a revolution. This is as close to a Bastille moment as a democracy will allow.
What do people want from Modi?
Frankly, apart from a better life for themselves and their families, jobs and tolerable prices, and the moving away from India’s identity as a land of waiting lists, shortages and short-cuts, most people don’t have identifiable programmes in mind. That general yearning, that dream of going back to a time of high GDP growth and building a middle-class life, is all most people would express by way of a demand. For the specifics, they trust their leaders – as they did Manmohan Singh in 2009 or Indira Gandhi in 1971.
By giving Modi this massive mandate, by making the BJP the first party in 30 years to win a single-party majority in the Lok Sabha, the voter has sanctioned a clean-sheet redesign of not just the Indian economy but the Indian way of doing things. Modi is expected to and is obligated and will be required to bring about dramatic change. He has the space, the political capital and the popular approval to do so.
What does this amount to in terms of policy? The hesitation and diffidence of the past, including of the UPA government, in the fear that a quick move or an innovation would put off one constituency or the other, one community or another identity group, has been proven to be hogwash. By voting for Modi across geographies and social barriers, by giving him a truly national mandate, Indians have asked – even commanded – him, to borrow from Star Trek, ‘to boldly go where no prime minister has gone before’.
He can announce FDI in about every area, he can privatise Air-India on day one, he can overhaul government and merge and de-merge ministries, he can invite technocrats into his council of ministers, he can do anything he wants – India has told him it trusts him. The expectations are overwhelming; they are also scary.
Yet, Modi has no option but to thrust ahead. A gradual, calibrated approach, a belief that there is time to consolidate, that the opposition is weak and the next election is already looking promising, these represent an outmoded thinking. The Congress calculated exactly on such lines in 2009. It celebrated as magazines wrote cover stories of how Rahul Gandhi would win a majority in 2014 and rule for 20 years.
That smug overconfidence cost the Congress heavily and reduced it to dust in five years. Modi, the smartest politician of his generation, cannot afford the same mistake.
Chances are he already knows that.