In the third of our series on the Indian elections 2014, the veteran BBC India correspondent and celebrated author Sir Mark Tully KBE speaks with Asia House Web Editor Naomi Canton, analysing how the world’s biggest general election might unfold in the next few weeks.
Sir Mark gave the exclusive interview during a trip to the UK for the 2014 FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival. Born in Kolkata in British India in 1935, he worked for the BBC for 30 years before resigning in 1994. He was the Bureau Chief in Delhi for 22 years during which time he covered the Bhopal Gas Tragedy in 1984; the assassination of Indira Gandhi the same year and the anti-Sikh riots that followed in which thousands of innocent Sikhs were killed; the assassination of Indira’s son Rajiv Gandhi in 1991; and the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by Hindu nationalists in 1992 which sparked some of the worst communal rioting in India since Partition. He has written numerous books on India and continues to reside in Delhi.
What will India be like under BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi if he wins the general election? Can he bring about change?
I think that India is not a country that is very easy to change. I think there will be a lot of constraints on Modi. He is trying to give the impression that he is a magician with a wand coming into power who will bring about change but there will be resistance to him, even within his own party. We are already seeing signs of that. There are already people saying he is not behaving in a democratic way within his own party and there will be some resistance in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) (a grass-roots influential Hindu nationalist organisation that supports the BJP, the main opposition party in India) because traditionally they have been against the promotion of personalities.
Although the RSS are advocating him at the moment there will be resistance from the bureaucracy and he will have to deal with the different state ministers – it’s a different ball game being prime minister to being a state minister. (Modi is currently Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat.) It’s going to be reasonably problematic for him. I would say India is a difficult country to change unless he does so in a really thoughtful manner and that would have to include altering and reforming the institutions of the country. You can’t issue orders from the top without the institutional structure to carry out those orders and report back to you. During India’s Emergency (1975-1977) Indira Gandhi behaved in an autocratic manner regarding family planning and so on and it got out of control and led to her defeat in 1977.
Is Modi’s support restricted to certain regions of India or social classes?
I can’t really answer that. BJP traditionally does not have support in the whole of Eastern India, I mean east of Bihar.
I cannot tell at the moment to what extent Modi is a middle-class media phenomenon and I don’t know how much support he has in rural India – it’s very difficult to tell. There is so much media attention on him. It’s difficult to tell at this stage and there is lots of media exaggeration.
We don’t know what will happen.
Jammu has a BJP base but Kashmir does not. Yes, there is BJP support in Karnataka but not in Kerala or Tamil Nadu (except probably Chennai) and not much in Andhra Pradesh. Support is strong in Delhi and Mumbai. It’s a middle-class phenomenon. Modi has become a real vote puller in those places.
Do the urban poor support Modi?
If you look at what happened in Delhi, such people ended up voting for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Modi’s rallies in Delhi were not successful when it came to the Delhi Legislative Assembly elections held in December 2013. We don’t know about the rural poor.
If you go to somewhere like Uttar Pradesh the politicians themselves still say that voting will be done on a caste basis – that means to some extent regional parties will benefit and Congress will benefit even though Congress might be very weak. I recently met the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Akhilesh Yadav who is not BJP who said the only difference Modi can make is to activate the BJP cadres.
You devoted an entire chapter to vote banks in your latest book, India: The Road Ahead (2011).
Yes, this is when people vote according to caste or a religion. The BJP does appeal to certain extreme elements in the Hindu faith. The Congress says these people are dangerous and damaging India and their appeal in that way is not secular.
In Uttar Pradesh every party makes an attempt to get the Muslim vote. (Editor’s Note: Muslims form the largest religious minority in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Muslims comprise over 20 per cent of the electorate in more than two dozen western UP seats. In eastern UP, their vote is crucial in 12 seats. With as many as 80 Lok Sabha seats, UP remains key to any party aiming to capture power in Delhi. )
Critics say vote banks are divisive as they are along caste/religious grounds and that they perpetuate the caste system.
Is the practice of cash-for-votes also an issue in Indian elections?
Yes. Some politicians give away money, liquor and blankets. In some cases where slums have come up illegally they offer to protect the residents of the slums, but the Election Commission of India has been successful in improving this and preventing this.
Is there a chance of a Third Front?
It’s very difficult to tell but if the BJP does not win quite a bit over 200 seats in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of the Parliament of India), there will be a very strong move to have some sort of Government of regional parties. Congress will want to keep Modi out at any price and Congress would be prepared not to take part in a regional party-led Government but would support it from the outside and many people in Congress feel that a period in Opposition would do them some good.
Unless BJP get well over 200 seats I think it will be a Third Front.
Neither BJP nor Congress has a substantial alliance so it depends on all these different parties. I can’t see that Modi and his immediate allies (Shiv Sena and Akali Dal) will get more than 220 seats but if they can ally with people like Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram then they will be able to lead.
One of the theories is that the BJP might be prepared to ditch Modi to attract allies but the whole competition has all been about Modi as prime minister so I think it will be very difficult for them to do that.
No one thinks Congress will win the election. But then that was the case in 2004. We all thought it was over for Congress and then they were back in power. There were special circumstances. They did particularly well in Andhra Pradesh and they had a very important alliance in Tamil Nadu but this time round it seems like they won’t get an ally in Tamil Nadu so the prospects for Congress are very dim but we will have to wait till the final outcome.
Why has the Indian National Congress party done so badly?
The Government has got a very poor image of corruption, there has been a lack of action and it has got an image for making a mess of the economy as well, plus the leadership of Rahul Gandhi has not been successful in winning votes. There is another very fundamental problem and that is that there is a tradition in Congress that they do not have strong leaders in the states because they might be rivals to the central leadership. In this Parliament we have had strong state leaders (eg Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram, leader of the AIADMK) but it is very difficult to find one state in which Congress have one strong state leader.
Is the AAP a credible party that could win votes in the Indian 2014 general elections?
No one thought they would be credible in Delhi but they did win seats in the 2013 Delhi State Assembly elections and they have strong support in Delhi among the lower middle-classes (such as auto rickshaw drivers). The problem is we don’t know enough about them. There is nothing to go on except Delhi. Whether they have the resources and very importantly the organisational structure to do the same outside Delhi is the question. I personally feel they could well win one or two seats in quite a few cities and towns where they put up charismatic leaders.
If they won 20 seats then they could be a powerful players in the negotiations if a coalition government has to be formed. One of the important problems about forming a Third Front government is that lots of regional parties are bitter rivals for example in Uttar Pradesh, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati and Samajwadi Party (SP) president Mulayam Singh Yadav, the backward caste leader, are bitter rivals.
Is it true that the business community in India backs Modi?
The business community in India tend to back all the parties. They give money to any party they think has a chance because they want to retain their hold and influence but it is clear there is a lot of money going to the BJP and a lot is coming from Indians abroad.
Some people say that Modi is all about development and not about social welfare.
What he would seem to be wanting to do is to spend Government money on infrastructure and to try to get investment going by doing that; but actually what is needed also is more money for education and health and he will find it very difficult not to continue with the existing social support like the rural employment guarantee schemes unless he radically improves the tax collection system so he could find himself in a bind; either the fiscal deficit will widen or he will have to cut down on social spending which would be very unpopular in the long run.
You are basically saying there is not enough money in India to carry out all the changes that Modi promises.
Let’s talk about the Indian economy now we are on to it. What has caused India’s recent sluggish growth?
Part of the problem is the fiscal deficit. Part of the problem is a lack of confidence, by that I mean investors not having confidence; another problem is things like power and there is an acute shortage of coal for power; mining projects have not gone ahead and there are real hold-ups over land clearances. The Government is under political pressures because the people getting evicted go to the opposition politicians and then there is the whole question of the environment.
There needs to be clear environmental rules that are implemented and where people do lose their homes, then you have to be capable of rehousing them in a proper manner.
It is very political because of the anti-corruption measures taken like the RTI Act and the political pressures from the press who are constantly looking for new corruption scandals, so there has been a climate of fear created in the bureaucracy. The head of the bureaucracy in India said it’s no longer possible to make an honest mistake.
You mean bureaucrats fear a witch hunt against them with regards to any decision they take?
Yes. There has been a slow-down in the decision-making process and then of course a general downturn in the global economy, which has had some impact, even though India is not dependent on trade like China. With the elections coming up and Modi being a prime ministerial candidate there has been a revival of confidence that has led to more money coming in, but this is just money coming into the stock exchange and not long-term investments in infrastructure which takes much more time.
So what has put off foreign investors?
Well, a major mistake this last Government made was to introduce retrospective tax.
No one wants to invest only to be told five years later that we have changed the law and therefore you have to pay more tax. Look at all the furore over FDI (foreign direct investment) in multi-brand retail. As far as I can see, despite all the demonstrations against it when the Government decided to allow it, there has not been a flow of investment into India. In part it’s because of the complications of doing anything in India and of getting clearances. In part it’s because not all states are agreeing to it. It’s not as attractive as retailers may have first thought.
What is the solution to India’s economic woes?
India will go through its ups and downs until it improves its problem of governance. Through governance you can deal with problems of corruption and the rule of law is anyway part of governance.
To read Mark Tully’s views on our annual Literature Festival, which he opened in 2007, his childhood in India, changing values in India and what he feels the biggest threat to India is click here.
Asia House is carrying a series of stories on the Indian general election 2014, the biggest election ever held in the world. It continues in nine phases until 12 May. To read more stories click here.
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