Leading policy wonks offer their post-mortem on Indian elections at D.C. forum

Panelists at a forum hosted by the India Project at Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., May 24. From left, Tanvi Madan of the Brookings Institution; Eswar Prasad of Brookings, Alyssa Ayres of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, provide their respective takes on India’s elections.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — It was mea culpas all around as some of D.C.’s leading policy wonks on Indian and South Asian politics sat down at a forum hosted by the India Project at Brookings Institution to offer their post-mortem on the Indian elections a day after the results were officially announced.

Tanvi Madan, senior Fellow and director of the India Project had Brookings, who was the moderator, said Modi’s victory and the massive second coming of the BJP can only be best described with “and Indianism –that it was a thumping victory.”

Milan Vaishnav, senior Fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who arguably is the foremost researcher and analyst of India’s domestic politics and its political economy, delving into issues of corruption and governance, acknowledged, “One has to be humble at moments like this, when we just witnessed such a political earthquake in India.”

He said, “If lightning struck in 2014, not just that lightning has struck again in 2019, but that climate change has occurred and the whole ground has shifted.”

Vaishnav said, “Many of us predicted a BJP victory, but very few predicted a victory of this magnitude, and so, we got to ask ourselves, how did we miss something of this size.

“Now, fair enough, many within the BJP didn’t predict that the victory was going to be quite as large as it was.”

Vaishnav admitted, “A lot of people, including myself, ahead of this election said that there are a lot of economic indicators that this could be a rocky ride for Modi — you have an unemployment issue, you have a slow-down in growth, you have historically low farm prices, you have rural wage stagnation. There were a number of things you could point to.

“But the most interesting thing about the campaign is that jobs actually became less salient as the campaign went along,” he said, and that according to the surveys of the Center for Developing Societies, “unemployment which was the biggest problem, actually declined from March 2019, a month before the campaign started.”

Vaishnav noted that “more than 21 percent who said that unemployment was the significant issue, by the end of the campaign had actually declined by about 10 percent points.”

Also, economic issues “at large broadly, which was also in the 35-percentage range declined by 12 percentage points by the end of the election.”

Vaishnav recalled that in an article he had written earlier, he had argued that “voters were looking for an excuse to vote Modi in,” had caught him a lot of flak “and a lot of people took issue with this word ‘excuse’ saying we don’t need an excuse, we have a lot of reasons to vote for Modi.

“The idea is that because people valued his leadership even though there are these economic woes in the country, they viewed him as the best person suited to address those economic woes.”

Vaishnav said that “people identified that they really wanted Modi and found empirical ways for supporting or made the case who they wanted to vote for or why they wanted to vote for him.”

Eswar Prasad, senior Fellow. Global Economy and Development at Brookings, declared, “Let me be clear, I did not see this coming, but clearly I am in very distinguished company and so, I feel comfortable about that.”

He said, “The unanswered question is what is the message the voters were sending—was it that despite the economic challenges, Modi was the best person to push forward the economic agenda. Or, was it a more nationalistic approach to politics that has dominated the outcomes, or was it not just nationalism but also sectarianism that fed into it.”

Prasad argued that “what is equally important is, not what message was being sent but what message is going to be read by Mr. Modi and his party.’

He said the burning question now was “whether they will seize the mandate to push forward the social and nationalistic agenda or a message to push forward the economic agenda.”

Alyssa Ayres, senior Fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council of Foreign Relations, said, “We don’t have a good sense of what was the mandate, given that national security was such a large moment in the campaign process.”

She wondered if voters “were voting for what took place with Pakistan,” in the aftermath of the Pulwama terrorist attacks,” but argued that it was a no-brainer “that voters in India saw, heard, and believed that they have a leader in Prime Minister Modi—that they were voting for a leader who will stand up to terrorists from Pakistan.”

Ayres also said she believed “there is a sense from some people in the United States that Mr. Modi is a reformer and this is a mandate for reforms and likely to see a sweeping series of steps for economic reform.

“But I am not so sure that people thought this was what they were voting for and also I am not sure that when I say reform and you say reform and people in India say reform, I am not sure that we are talking about the same thing,” she said.

Ayres noted that “many people in India may interpret his development projects as reform—keeping the country clean, building toilets, making sure that all of Indian voters have access to toilets.”

Madan also acknowledging that “while the prime minister’s reelection was expected, the scale of this victory has come as a surprise. “I can’t help but think that for leaders in the neighborhood watching this election—the scale of the mandate—cannot but help make an impression on these leaders,” she said.

Madan said these were leaders like President Ji Chin in China as well as Donald Trump, “who incidentally before he was President was in India in 2014 just after the election and had called Prime Minister Modi as “a winner.’”

But she predicted “what we are going to see now over the next few weeks and months and in the next few years, is whether that actually translates into a tangible relationship.”

“It is interesting,” she pointed out, “for example, in Sri Lanka, the parties that are out of power that hadn’t been so India friendly, so to speak, we’ve seen both major leaders come out and effusively praise Prime Minister Modi and also make their way back to office.”

Madan said that “on the U.S. side, “There are some big decisions that will need to be made on the defense side particularly on defense procurement. There are deals that have been waiting to be signed till after the election. On the trade front too, talks have been postponed.”

But she reiterated, “I do believe the scale of the victory will make an impression on President Trump.”

As to where the Congress Party goes now and what lessons will they learn, Vaishnav said, “The Congress Party, isn’t a party given to true and deep self-reflection and introspection.”

Vaishnav said, “Dynastic succession is great insofar as it allows for easy transition planning from one leader to another. It’s not so great when you get down to the gene pool to someone who really doesn’t have the stuff and then you are at a roadblock.

“Most people would say that Rahul Gandhi — and the polls bear this out — became a more persistent, more effective, more diligent,” he said. “But the gap still remains quite substantial between him and Mr. Modi and I think one of the big mistakes of the Congress tactically was to train all of their guns on Modi.”

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