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An Evening with the Prime Minister

I recently attended the grand Indian diaspora event in Singapore with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In today’s 24×7 media and internet connected world, I have, like many of you, been glued to the rhetoric and efforts of this man. Listening to him live just makes it so much more real, unleashing raw emotions, aspirations and patriotism. It also unleashed a flurry of thoughts that I aim to capture in this article – not so much on what transpired, but why it did.

 

The Man

Needless to say it was an electric atmosphere, with 18,000 Indians chanting and screaming themselves hoarse. The fact that we have come to take this for granted from him is anything but ordinary, not just for a political leader, but for any celebrity. My thoughts, however, dwell on why this man evokes such ecstatic responses from diverse demographics.

PM Modi’s oratory is widely acknowledged, even by his harshest critics, as exemplary, and the live experience only reinforces that impression. You realise that not once, in an hour long speech, does he ever refer to any notes or prompts. Yet, at the end of a day packed with diplomatic engagements, he is able to engage an 18,000-strong crowd on climate change, hygiene, culture, business, foreign policy and railways. Ever in his element, he conveys his messages through a combination of storytelling, passion and rhetorical devices. With his analogies and flair for storytelling, you find yourself nodding in agreement because the human behaviour he speaks of is so relatable to our everyday lives, even as he calls us to change the way we live to transform society. With his raw passion, you can’t help but admire the energy and patriotism in a 65 year old who works 18-20 hours a day dealing with complex issues in a complex country. With his rhetoric, he effortlessly mixes humour with serious themes to make messages memorable.

But the man is so much more than just lip service. As he boldly declared, there is not a single accusation of corruption on his government after 18 months in power. He keeps repeating this in every speech, but it never gets redundant because it rings so true. He is effectively sticking his neck out and challenging the public, the opposition and the media to prove a single instance of corruption against his government, now or in the future. How’s that for accountability? This is mind boggling in a country renowned for corruption at all levels of government and bureaucracy. Being in my mid-twenties, I have followed Indian politics for barely a decade, so I can’t even imagine the feeling for people from other generations, some of whom have probably bemoaned the corrupt system since India’s independence in 1947! This is but one of many fields where the current government has been refreshingly progressive – from bureaucratic efficiency and technology investments to infrastructure development and foreign affairs, the policies seem deliberate and strong steps in the right direction.

Thus, it is his passion (in motivation), sincerity (in intention) and authenticity (in action), that makes hundreds of millions of us invest our emotions and hopes in his leadership. For a nation, long suppressed by a vicious cycle of a dysfunctional polity and a ‘chalta hai’ public attitude, here is a leader acting with a refreshingly new approach and issuing a rallying cry to change our mindsets to make this transformation truly people-driven.

 

The Emotions

Like many NRIs, I frequently think about how to make India a better country. Our passions constrained by circumstance and distance, we NRIs have a tendency to get quite emotional about India. And team Modi sure knows how to tug at the heartstrings of our community! From the cultural performances before the speech (including Maa Tujhe Salaam, of course!) to slick, professional, feel-good videos urging you to contribute to government initiatives, it is an emotional experience. The Indian diaspora craves any connection to the motherland, and this is probably the first government to recognise value in actively engaging us.

Memorably, he summarised his foreign policy in one neat statement: “Na hum aankh jukhaa kar ke baat karenge, na hi hum aankh dikhaa kar ke baat karenge, hum duniya se aankh milaa kar ke baat karenge, baraabari se baat karenge” (Translation: In the international stage when dealing with other countries, we will not look down submissively, we will not stare aggressively, but we will make our eyes meet as equals). This may sound like simple rhetoric, but its socio-political impact may be underrated.

Many reading this article have faced the ignominy of foreigners preaching about how backward, unclean and corrupt India is. Despite the fact that it is a one-sided view ignoring unique strengths of our society, we know they are right about the flaws in the country. Even after the typically fierce “but India has a great history” retort, we look down embarrassed and helpless. Decades of this experience has manifested itself as a subconscious submissiveness in our international engagements, as a nation and as individuals. But here we have a leader, who is not pursuing meaningless jingoism, but attempting to correct the flaws and lift the collective confidence of his people to succeed in an inter-connected world. Isn’t that the classic definition of leadership?

But leaders need to be backed by strong teams. In this, PM Modi is clear, that his team is not merely his cabinet or his MPs, but is team India. His efforts at inspiring people’s contributions to government strategies are novel. For almost every initiative, from the Clean India campaign to even easing the fiscal deficit (#giveitup), he seeks the common man’s participation.

He ended his speech with a clarion call that we should stop singing paeans about our historical accomplishments as a prelude to a hypothetical great future, but rather take inspiration from the past, change our mindset, put in the hard work and collaborate towards achieving a better future.

It is on this note that I walked out that day – with immense optimism, hope and a deep desire to contribute to the transformation of India in whatever way I can.

The views expressed in this article are personal and do not in any way represent the views of any organization.

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Back to the Basics: The Game of Elections

The election is a game for the politicians. It is a competition for them which they have to win. But lets not get mistaken, it is a game for us too: We have to use our one vote to ensure the best possible outcome according to our perspective. This responsibility does not end at choosing who you want the winner to be and voting for him, but requires you to generate a ranking of the candidates in order of preference and calculate who your vote should go to backwards.

Those familiar with economics will recognize my attempt at explaining the basics of Game Theory. But to understand the need for this we must first understand how elections take place in India and what are the implications.

I am sure all of us are aware of the absolute basics: The country is divided into 543 constituencies which are suppose to be roughly equal in terms of their population. Each of these constituencies elects a representative. This representative need not even achieve a simple majority (i.e. 50%); as long as he has more votes than any other single candidate he will be given the seat in the Parliament. For example, if there are 3 people running from a constituency and the vote share is divided in the ratio 25%, 35% and 40%, the candidate with 40% will be declared the winner. This is called First-past-the-post voting (FPTP).

What does such a mechanism imply? It can result in skewed representation. For example in the 2012 UP state elections SP (Samajwadi Party) received 29.3% of vote share and were allocated 226 seats in the assembly out of 403, where as BSP (Bahujan Samay Party), who received 25.9% of the vote share were allocated only 80 seats. This happened because the SP won several seats against the BSP over a very small margin. Thus while BSP received considerable votes overall, they were thwarted in individual battles and thus annihilated in the war in the world of FPTP.

This may seem like an unfair mechanism, specially when compared to the proportional representation method. But that is a debate for another blog post. What I would like to discuss is what the voter should do.

up-elections

Let us imagine that the people who voted for BJP would rather have BSP if their only other option was SP. Their strategy should be obvious: Instead of voting for BJP, who anyway did not have a chance of coming to power, they should have voted for their next best choice which was BSP. If we assume that in each constituencies the vote share was identical to the state level data, then with the transfer of BJPs 15% to BSP, the party would be propelled to number one status with almost 41% of the vote share. Thus the BJP supporters might not get their first choice, but at least they would not be stuck with their 3rd or 4th one.

This example is obviously simplified using several assumptions, but the principle remains the same. At the central election level this effect can be observed with Modi being portrayed as the PM candidate for BJP. While Congress’ abysmal performance has lost them support, voters who fear Modi more will fall back to Congress which is the only credible force to stop BJP. The same applies to people who fear another five-year reign of Congress: Recognizing this possibility they will leave their regional parties and flock to Modi (also discussed in Back to the Basics: Polarising Mr Modi).

The FPTP system often has the effect of bringing the war down to two parties. Understanding the system is important or your vote may actually count for nothing.

Back to the Basics: Polarising Mr. Modi

The India Today group has been running opinion polls before general elections for several years now and their track record is surprisingly not that shabby.

They conducted the first of such polls for the 2014 General Elections with a dummy variable: Modi as PM candidate. The results were significant but far from surprising.

When Modi was not projected as the PM candidate by BJP the seats allocations were: 179 for BJP; 132 for Congress; and 232 for the 3rd front. On the other hand when Modi was projected as the PM candidate both the number of seats to BJP and Congress increased. The benefit, however, was greater for BJP: 41 more seats to BJP; 23 more seats to Congress; and 64 less seats to the 3rd front.

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The logic behind this is very straightforward: Modi polarises the electorate. Majority muslims fear his rise to power and vote for Congress instead of their local party. Even though they might hate Congress, they are willing to put up with them as long as Modi does not achieve the PM mantel. The others vote for Modi because of his track record in governance and the image he has been able to cultivate for himself as a man of action and not just of words. After UPA IIs deplorable performance, many people yearn for a strong leader which they see in Modi. For this they are willing to neglect their local/regional loyalties and vote of BJP.

Nitish Kumar’s strategy: Back fired?

Nitish Kumar, the current, popular Chief Minister of Bihar, recently broke his alliance with BJP over their insistence of portraying Modi as the Prime Ministerial candidate. He had hope that he would be able to blackmail BJP, being its chief ally, into not having Modi as the PM candidate. However, according to the survey, this turned out to be good news for BJP. If JDU (Mr Kumar’s party) were to remain in alliance with BJP, the Bihar votes would remain with them. However, the preference for Modi is so great that the voters will ditch their loyalties to JDU and vote of BJP diminishing JDU’s power considerably.

The fact is: People either hate him or love him. The ones that hate him are willing to settle for anyone but him, and the ones that love him simply will not compromise.

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