Has Modi replaced despondency with hubris?

A thin majority can deliver an electoral victory. But the challenge of delivering on promises looks daunting

ajay

Ajay Singh | November 1, 2014




Election results in India often conceal more than they reveal. Such is the nature of the first-past-the-post system that results are open to many inferences that one may draw, depending on one’s political understanding. The results of the assembly polls in Haryana and Maharashtra, which show continued resurgence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are no exception.

This can be summed up as a victory of astute strategy, combined with exceptional charm of one individual: prime minister Narendra Modi. Conversely, it can also be explained as an absence of a credible alternative to Modi and the BJP across the country. Beyond this oversimplification lies a complex political reality. Haryana and Maharashtra were not so much accessible to the Hindutva forces for political and historical reasons. How did the party fare so well despite such handicaps?

Perhaps the nearest comparison to the BJP’s achievements in both the states was the surprising performance of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi assembly elections only a year ago. Riding on the wave of popular anger against mis-governance and corruption, Arvind Kejriwal captured the popular imagination as an outsider keen to plunge himself into politics, to clean the Augean stables. The phenomenon was short-lived as AAP grossly misread people’s euphoria.

Will the BJP be different? Politics has an uncanny tendency of concealing many imponderables; oversimplification is fraught with hazard. There is little doubt that the BJP’s victory in Maharashtra and Haryana has reaffirmed its unique and dominant position in Indian politics. In terms of geographical expanse, the party occupies nearly half of India. It may consolidate its position in Jharkhand and Bihar, which will go to polls next year. The party is all set to emerge as a strong opposition in West Bengal and make significant inroads into Assam and other northeastern states as well. The BJP’s rise in Tamil Nadu and Kerala is no longer a distant dream.

Modi and the BJP may well stand in splendid isolation and proclaim themselves the masters of all that they survey. It can also be described as Modi and the BJP sitting atop a precarious political perch. Within less than a year, Modi would have a carte blanche, with few parallels in independent India. Having attained a position of unquestioned leadership in the saffron brotherhood, he is unlikely to be hampered by political or institutional resistances in future.

In terms of political messaging and expansion of the BJP, what Modi has attained is no less than a silent revolution. Projecting Gujarat as a role model for development, he successfully tapped into the aspiration of people from the under-developed Hindi heartland. However, it was his image of being incorruptible that captured the imagination of the people of the more developed states of Maharashtra and Haryana. Similarly, he has packaged his personality in different dimensions to respond to popular impulses in the south, the east and the northeast.
Those who have watched Modi grow in political stature can vouch for the fact that he cares a lot about his image. During his 12-year stint as Gujarat’s chief minister, he projected himself as a strong-willed leader capable of dealing with any adversity. At the same time, he kept the state bureaucracy always on the move by organising one event after another to relate to people. His ability to reach out to people made up for any inadequacy on the delivery front. But a larger part of the mystique around his persona was built on his image of a leader beleaguered by the Congress and courts – all for wrong reasons.

Now this sense of victimhood would no longer be associated with Modi.

How would Modi sustain this euphoria among voters who see him as a saviour? This question needs to be understood in the context of political contours that remain unchanged. As of now Modi appears to have emerged as a solo warrior who rages to fight on every front himself. If his out-of-the-box thinking earned him kudos on the diplomatic front, he is equally at ease managing politics on domestic front by running a vigorous personalised campaign in Haryana and Maharashtra.

Though Modi has promised to radically alter the manner in which politics is conducted in the country, his politics follows a familiar pattern. He has employed the same tactics and strategies which are conventionally used by mainstream parties. In some cases, Modi and the BJP seemed to have mastered them and outmaneuvered their rivals.

For instance, the manner in which the religious sect of Dera Sacha Sauda was roped in to support the BJP in Haryana was no different from Sonia Gandhi knocking at the doors of the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid to seek votes of a particular community. Similarly, the appearance of DP Yadav, a gangster and history-sheeter from west UP, on a BJP platform in Haryana along with BJP president Amit Shah was a familiar and conventional political tactic of winning over people on caste lines without bothering about criminality. This is the precise reason why over one-third of BJP candidates in Haryana had defected either from the Congress or Chautala’s Indian National Lok Dal (INLD).

Though the elections in Maharashtra witnessed a high-pitched campaign against criminality and corruption, BJP is now forced to choose for support either Shiv Sena, infamous for running extortion rackets, or Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), accused of rampant corruption in the state. In either case, the promise of a government free of corruption and criminality would prove to be a mere rhetoric employed to win an election. A close scrutiny of the selection of candidates would expose the hollowness of the BJP’s protests against the perpetuation of a dynasty rule. The BJP has drawn enough leaders on the basis of their ancestry in the mid-level leadership, and the party appears as much in grip of dynasty as other parties.

There is little doubt that these issues would remain dormant till the euphoria wears off. But once the stock-taking process kicks in, there will be an increasing focus on delivery. Contrary to the image of his predecessor, Modi comes across as a doer and an energetic prime minister. But this perception needs to be translated on the ground as those entrusted with the task of implementing schemes are the same people who ruined several well-meaning projects in the past. The infrastructure projects are yet to take off while economically critical sectors like coal and gas have witnessed reforms carried out gingerly. The much-touted labour reform is prima facie a token of good intention but not a comprehensive approach to industry-labour relations.

The first five months of the Modi regime were characterised by over-indulgence in high rhetoric, which effectively replaced despondency with hubris. No doubt, this has vastly improved atmospherics, a prerequisite for creating a climate of growth and development. But the countdown for delivery will begin soon. There is a history of governments that failed to rise up to unrealistic expectations, meeting their nemesis sooner than later. Indira Gandhi in 1971 rode on the high tide of popular expectation, while her son Rajiv Gandhi won on a sympathy wave in 1984. Both found their strength frittered away much before their five-year term. More recently, Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh won a second term in 2009 on a wave of high expectation. Yet they became hapless political figures at the end of their second term.

It goes without saying that Modi is much rooted in the ground than these political leaders. He has been exercising extreme caution in every step so far. However, the crux of the matter is that the basic features of the BJP’s politics are not very dissimilar to those of the Congress. Perhaps, it would be apt to call the BJP a new Congress as it has retained all the characteristics of the party in the principal role. It employs all the tactics of statecraft to win elections, never hesitating from using those whose conduct violates established moral and ethical behaviour.

The strength of India’s election system is that it consists of many hidden variables which throw up an alternative at the time of crisis. The parties that run the governments at the centre or the states could hardly be representative of the majority opinion which is divided in various political groups. As of now, the BJP got slightly over 31 percent of polled votes to form the government at the centre. Likewise, even at its peak, the Congress could not reach the 50-percent mark. This is the precise reason that the personality and the government which looked so strong proved to be fragile in adversity.

Modi may prove to be an exception given the fact that he has captured the popular imagination. His image of an unconventional politician will drive the expectation of an out-of-ordinary approach to the issues of politics and governance. So far, Modi has shown a remarkable urgency in diagnosing the chronic malignancy that afflicts governance and polity, though he is yet to create an antidote. Continuing with the same medicine would make things worse.

The story appeared in November 1-15, 2014 issue

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