British Prime Minister David Cameron defied the opinion polls and overcame widespread concerns over five years of political uncertainty to secure a conclusive re-election. The sigh of relief wasn’t merely confined to the United Kingdom where – as is normal in most functional democracies – people think about politics only during election season.
The reassurance was also felt throughout the world. Britain may have lost its Empire and may well have become a mere appendage of the United States but London still retains its pre-eminence as the hub of the international money markets. This tense general election will have done nothing to unsettle that arrangement.
A general election is, however, principally a national or even a local affair. Although the government produced as a result of a democratic mandate may have global consequences, the set of circumstances that lead to people choosing one party or leader over another are to be located within domestic politics. By and large these cannot be replicated in other countries.
The implications are quite clear. The politics that determined the final verdict may be interesting for the buffs and those interested in the UK for its own sake but it is a bit fanciful to suggest that the lessons from Westminster also have some relevance for India.
I raise this issue in the context of various interesting interventions in the social media by Indians who are both partial to Prime Minister Cameron and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They have suggested that Cameron’s victory strategy may hold out valuable lessons for Modi.
On the face of it, there are broad similarities. Like Modi, Cameron too inherited an economy that was in need of urgent repair: the fiscal deficit had spiralled to unmanageable heights, the environment was disadvantageous to entrepreneurship; the skill levels of school-leavers didn’t correspond to the needs of industry; unemployment was high; and the country suffered from enormous regional imbalance. Most important, like in India, the dominant public discourse was centred on welfare entitlements and not on economic growth.
The Coalition Government that Cameron headed from 2010 hadn’t successfully addressed all these problems. However, he had succeeded in achieving a significant improvement in British competitiveness. In a Europe that seems to be caught in a doom and gloom mood, only Germany and the UK were the large economies registering growth. The Cameron government hadn’t succeeded – because of domestic opposition – in balancing the books but it had successfully trimmed some of the excess fat from the welfare state. This curb on welfare entitlements wasn’t popular. There is still insufficient awareness in Britain that the country can’t afford the quantum of freebies and subsidies it was accustomed to in an earlier age. The sacrifices this adjustment process necessarily involved was never popular.
Throughout the election and ranged against a party that promised to bring back the good old days of generous welfare spending, Cameron didn’t deviate from his central message that things were getting better and that Britain would be foolish to squander away the recovery by re-embracing populism. To a very large extent, the dissemination of this message was helped by a media that – unlike its Indian counterpart – put economic policy at the heart of politics. Ironically, the only exception was the BBC, which has never shaken off its deep anti-Conservative and pro-Left bias.
To the extent that following the Cameron example involves Modi never losing sight of the fact that he was elected principally to put the Indian economy back on track and ensure all-round development, the message is relevant.
Despite all attempts by the opposition and its media friends to shift the focus to other issues, Modi’s gaze seems fixed on the economy. Like Cameron, he hasn’t tried to be ultra-radical in the way former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was but has tried to take everyone along, mostly by doing the things Manmohan Singh felt needed to be done but never had the political skills to get done.
There is, however, an important caveat. If Cameron had focused only on his economic agenda, he would have done well but not gained enough seats to form a majority government. The core vote of the Conservatives was undoubtedly based on its good handling of the economy. However, what gave Cameron his clear victory was the incremental vote he secured from people who decided in the final days to not rock the vote – a reason why the opinion polls failed to detect the late swing. In all elections – including in India – it is this incremental vote that makes the critical difference.
How to secure the incremental vote is the essence of successful electoral politics. Cameron did it by invoking a twin set of fears. First, he preyed on the fears of those who were alarmed by the prospect of a secessionist regional party in Scotland twisting the tail of a Labour Party that depended on it for its survival. Secondly, he capitalised on the fears of those who were the beneficiaries of the modest growth over the five years by invoking the imagery of the horrible 1970s when Britain’s decline seemed terminal.
Cameron could have exploited the widespread British concern over immigration – an issue that belonged to the far-Right UKIP. He chose to not to do it because he was mindful that social cosmopolitanism and the reality of a multiracial Britain were part of the larger societal consensus. He did not want the Conservatives to be painted as the ‘nasty party.’
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