Brexit blowback: Three lessons for Modi from David Cameron’s leadership failure

Look, that’s how you screw up.
Look, that’s how you screw up.
Image: Reuters/Facundo Arrizabalaga/Pool
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From David Cameron’s Brexit fiasco, there are vital lessons for Narendra Modi.

The British prime minister and his Indian counterpart are not quite the same persons, but they do share a few traits.

Both are brash new leaders, younger than the average politician in their respective countries. They brought their conservative parties to power after a long hiatus. The two are confident and cock-sure that luck and destiny are on their side. Their rise has been unstoppable, hence, no risk is too big for them.

Except when the gamble goes awry, like it just did for Cameron.

The 49-year-old British leader wouldn’t have called the Brexit referendum if he saw himself losing. Till the very end, he thought victory was his. Just like the Scottish referendum in 2014. “I will win this easily and it will put to bed the Scottish referendum question for 20 years. The same goes for Europe,” Cameron had said before the Scottish vote.

It is such hubris that led Cameron, and Britain, into the Brexit disaster. For, there’s always a point at which the risk-taking leader enters the foolhardy territory.

Cameron has had his comeuppance, Modi could learn from it.

Lesson one: Be careful about co-opting the fringe

Cameron thought the promise of a referendum on the European Union could help him co-opt the Eurosceptic leaders of his conservative party for the 2015 general elections. The idea was to prevent them from switching over to the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

Commentators now say he overestimated the UKIP threat and, in the process, ended up helping Euroscepticism culminate in Brexit.

Modi, meanwhile, is playing with fire by maintaining silence over the rabid Hindutva proponents on the loose in the country, and by giving someone like Subramanian Swamy a parliamentary platform.

Since 2014, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)—the ideological fountainhead of the Bharatiya Janata Party—has proved adept at hijacking the headlines from Modi, using tools such as conversion of Muslims to Hinduism, Hindu-Muslim marriages, and beef eating.

Modi, though, reckons he can overshadow the RSS agenda with his public relations. Cameron, for one, spent seven years as a public relations executive before plunging into politics.

Lesson two: Don’t gamble too much

Like Modi, Cameron did exceedingly well, and luck always seemed to be on his side.

In 2010, he became the first leader to get the conservatives into office since 1992. This was done in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. In 2010, he became Britain’s youngest prime minister since 1812. In 2015, he brought the Conservatives back into power with a majority of their own.

For leaders who start seeing success as natural destiny, risk-taking becomes second nature. Modi, who has virtually seen no failure since 2002, is also a master risk-taker. Yet, from Cameron’s Brexit fiasco, Modi might want to learn the lesson of not taking big risks that can boomerang.

Modi thought he had charmed the world into giving India membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, only to be rebuffed by China. He thought China can be neutralised by getting closer to the US; China strengthened its relations with Pakistan. The Indian prime minister has faced serious setbacks in Pakistan and Nepal, too.

Modi thought he had become a national hero, so just his name can win him polls—then he lost Delhi and Bihar after having made them purely about himself. Modi thought he was loved enough to wear a suit with his own name all over it. He was forced to auction it.

In wanting to go faster, higher, and stronger, and leaving behind a legacy, Modi runs the risk of gambling too big, and ending up in a mess, like Cameron did.

Lesson three: It’s the money in the poor voter’s pocket

As a modern conservative leader, Cameron was a social and political democrat. In India, his politics would be called “centrist.” In power, most politicians begin to look like that. Modi, too, moderated himself a bit.

What’s common to Cameron and Modi’s economic visions is the cutting down of welfare expenditure. In Britain, six years of such austerity hurt voters, who felt that globalisation hadn’t benefited them. Welfare cuts were like salt on their wounds.

Modi’s government, on its part, has weakened MGNREGA, the rural employment programme, and reduced emphasis on social welfare schemes in general. The focus has been on empowerment (insurance, bank accounts) rather than what right-wing economists call “doles.”

The Jan Dhan Yojana accounts don’t see money coming in from the government, as voters would like. Not even for those in drought-hit areas. As Make in India fails to create jobs in large numbers, people may begin to wonder what’s the big deal about the government saving a few crores on cooking gas subsidy?

Britain’s Leave campaign was able to make voters feel that integration with Europe, which brought in immigrants and strict regulation, had caused their economic woes. This was not true. For, it turns out that regions with the biggest Leave votes were also the most economically dependent on EU.

The story may have been different if Cameron had been kinder with welfare cuts.

Some 52% Britons may not be as xenophobic and nationalistic as the Leave campaign suggested. The Left, even Liberal voters, are said to have voted Leave because of economic disenchantment. Rural England and Wales largely voted for Leave, unlike the rich capital London. As one voter told a Guardian columnist, “If you’ve got money, you vote in… if you haven’t got money, you vote out.”

In other words, the referendum question before British voters was the same as what the Congress party asked of the India Shining campaign of the BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 2004: Aam aadmi ko kya mila? What did the common man get?

Cameron’s Remain plea was met by “what are we gaining from the EU? We only seem to be losing jobs and autonomy.”

In the end, it’s the money in the pocket that counts.

Modi may face similar questions in 2019. Opening bank accounts for the poor may not be a sufficient answer. It’s the money in the account that we are talking about.

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