Can Modi turn the tide?

His surplus legitimacy is eroding. The Bihar elections offer an opportunity to douse the fire.

Written by Ashutosh Varshney | Published:August 4, 2015 12:12 am
janata dal united, narendra modi, modi dna comment, nitish kumar, jdu modi, jdu mla complaint, jdu complaint against modi, bihar latest news, nation latest news Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Last year, towering like a colossus, Prime Minister Narendra Modi could do no wrong, announcing programmes and winning admiration for speech after speech, from Varanasi to the Red Fort to Madison Square Garden. The tide has now turned. Why? Can it turn back in his favour again?

In all democracies, an election victory, if extraordinary, provides surplus legitimacy to a party or leader. But more often than not, the surplus vanishes before long, and normal politics returns. Indira Gandhi lost her surplus within two years of her massive 1971 victory and Rajiv Gandhi his in less than two years after December 1984. Modi’s surplus has eroded in less than a year and a quarter. In Delhi, after 1947, only Jawaharlal Nehru enjoyed long periods of undiminished legitimacy. On the whole, the end of political honeymoons is a common problem in most democracies.

Legitimacy erosion also follows a similar pattern. The dreamy, or visionary, quality of the moment of victory morphs into the regular humdrum of politics, in which the ethical fibre weakens, deals are struck, tall leaders begin to look small, campaigns to save the indefensible are launched and newspaper commentary bemoans the decline of morality in political life. TV was not terribly important in earlier times and social media was absent. The discourse on both amplifies the cacophony.

India is also witnessing yet another feature typical of democracies: election victories alone, however spectacular, cannot sustain political legitimacy. While a polity is not exactly a moral order, an irreducible minimum of ethical conduct by the ruling party is necessary for the survival of legitimacy and ease of governance. Even when people view politicians as hopelessly compromised, many want to see decorous conduct in political life.

We know that a lot of politicians do not join politics to elevate the level of the discourse, or to further national interest. They do it for personal fame, recognition and, in many cases, if not all, for material enhancement. This leads to a paradox: the demand for ethical leaders normally exceeds the supply.

Moreover, even when some leaders maintain their ethical core, either the colleagues around them, driven by inappropriate conduct, trigger a downward journey for the whole government, or the adversarial nature of democratic politics erects roadblocks. Barack Obama won two massive election victories and has undoubtedly kept the ethical kernel of his politics alive, but each time he has found the political going tough not too long after his election.

Admittedly, the Obama comparison can only go so far. Modi’s victory last year was quite Obama-like, but he is not functioning in a presidential system. In a US-style presidential polity, the leader of the executive and the Houses of the legislature are both directly elected, creating a serious possibility of logjams if the president’s party does not control the legislature, which is often true. In a presidential system, the legislature can close down the government by not passing the budget. Over the last 20 years, the US government has been shut down at least twice.

In the parliamentary system that India has, a government shutdown does not take place because the party that controls the government also dominates the legislature. But parliamentary disruptions, as opposed to government shutdowns, are more likely, especially if the opposition feels that the party in power will use dominance in the legislature to block its demands. The BJP shut Parliament down a few times during Congress rule. The Congress is exacting revenge now.

While the argument above is institutional, I should emphasise that India’s parliamentary democracy is not the cause of the current imbroglio. Rather, the problem is rooted in the decline of Modi’s surplus legitimacy, which the institutional framework has simply aggravated.

The key issue is Modi’s long silence on the view of state power that his colleagues display in their behaviour. Like Congress politicians, BJP political leaders also believe that state power can and should be used to help friends and/ or family. On the whole, the concept of conflict of interest does not exist in Indian politics. As a private citizen, Sushma Swaraj could have helped a highly controversial family friend, who is also a client of her lawyer husband and daughter. But if she does so as India’s external affairs minister, using her public office to persuade a foreign government, it can only raise serious arguments about a conflict of interest. The issue may not be legal, but it is certainly about political ethics. Public lives inevitably require strict standards of conduct. The tragedy is that Swaraj, along with Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the three BJP leaders most heavily targeted by the opposition, are among the ablest in a party that has a deficit of talent in modern governance.

Modi’s legitimacy, of course, has been declining for some time. His silence on “ghar wapsi” upset those who voted for him on the promise of economic development and governance, not on the “reconversion” of Muslims and Christians back to Hinduism. Then came the stunning defeat in the Delhi assembly elections. Soon thereafter, the land acquisition bill revived a previously doomed Rahul Gandhi for he could label Modi as anti-farmer and anti-poor. No prime minister of India can afford an anti-farmer image for long, for two-thirds of the vote is still in the countryside. Modi’s remarkable external successes could not adequately counter the declining legitimacy, for foreign policy still does not shape political discourse the way religion and rural issues do.

The loss of surplus legitimacy, of course, does not mean an absence of legitimacy. Nor is the decline irreversible. The forthcoming Bihar elections offer Modi an opportunity. If he wins big, the recent fires can be doused. If he loses, his problems will be substantially greater, which can still be surmounted if a great economic turnaround takes place, or a national security crisis lifts him above the routine humdrum of politics.

But, meanwhile, normal politics has returned. The adversarial shrill will become louder in politics. Pragmatic bargains might have to be struck, at least in policy domains that require legislative approval.

The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, where he also directs the India Initiative at the Watson Institute. He is a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’.

For all the latest India News, download Indian Express App now

  1. H
    HASMUKH
    Aug 5, 2015 at 12:48 am
    Modi Govt is in troubles, not mainly for outsiders but those for inside matters . IT seems to be failure mostly on all primary fronts, that is, sanitation, education, city vehicle traffic, supply of pure water, law and order ,dearness, and of course, corruption issues. Instead it is dreaming for far-reaching long objectives like Bullet train ,Digital India ,Smart cities ,Make in India and what not .This govt needs to establish its credibility and trust first and then talk about other comforts and luxuries and less priority matters.
    Reply
    1. M
      Manoj
      Aug 4, 2015 at 5:38 am
      I think India will benefit if there is Presidential type of democracy. Indian parliamentary system, which is a carbon copy of British, is not working. Going to polls every 5 yrs, which are rigged by candidates, voters who take money and vote, goons contesting polls is getting out-of-hand. After all that non-sense, there will be a handpicked PM or CM by a family. Instead of stupidity, India should try Prsidential type, just like in US. If my memory serves correctly, back in 1982, Mrs. I i, started debate whether India should adopt Presz style democracy. Now, i fee, if she made that change, india would not have gone throgh so many govts at center.
      Reply
      1. Z
        Zina
        Aug 4, 2015 at 4:27 am
        Professor, How would you rate Congress Party's total rejection of the Parliamentary system of debate and procedure? They do not engage in debate and they do not engage in democracy within the country and within the party. They have done this with the imposition of Emergency and imposition of the family. The public gains nothing when an issue is not debated vociferously. They are exacting revenge as you say but their conduct is then not an improvement as an opposition. It is stifling democracy.
        Reply
        1. S
          SK
          Aug 4, 2015 at 9:00 am
          Clearly the author is bias and is trying to belittle Modi. After 30 years of many party rule India gave him the majority. It is not because he is a good speaker but India wanted a change and brought down dynasty like a house of cards. Nehru was not darling throughout , even with controlled press by his party people were asking for his resignation. He brought defeat to the country and still did not resign, like Sonia &son did not resign after such a shamefully crushing defeat. In any party there are some bad apples. There has been no scam so far like the UPA times. How unreasonable is to ask resignations first and debate later. This shows desperation of not only congress party but w opposition leaders who are worried about their survival. In Bihar united dal and RJD are uniting because they have read the writings on the wall. Modi is trying to bring development while opposition is trying to drag him back.
          Reply
          1. B
            baba thugdev
            Aug 4, 2015 at 10:24 am
            it is going to be tough for Modi to win in Bihar but he is hoping that Yadav vote will vote for them this time as well and all his strategy seems to be based on this. One weakness Lalu has that his Yadav vote bank has shifted to BJP last time but considering BJP's current composition of his monistry it is extremely upper Ca$te dominated (20 out of 28 minister are UC with 8 Brammhinns) and Lalu will exploit this and if he is abel to pursuade Yadavs to vote for him and Nitish BJP will be decimated and that will be the beginning of end of the Modi government.
            Reply
            1. B
              BK Bhardwaj
              Aug 4, 2015 at 5:14 pm
              Modiji has been let down by his ministers, his agenda of development has suffered irreversible damage, lets hope he draws strength in Bihar and then drops the tainted ministers for the development of the country.
              Reply
              1. M
                Madhava rao
                Aug 4, 2015 at 6:28 pm
                I think the article is a well researched opinion. No one knows as to what is going on in the mind of P.M. Modi. The B.J.P may fail to get a majority in the Bihar elections. The present Govt. has to make urgent gains in the economic front to bring back surplus legitamacy.
                Reply
                1. D
                  Deepesh A
                  Aug 4, 2015 at 7:59 am
                  It is clear that the author is biased and trying to drive home something that doesn't exists. The people of this country can see through the strategy of the opposition which is obstructionism and targeting the ablest leaders of the ruling party. They know they will get the support of the media which would take this up like the wolves in a pack waiting for a hare. That hungry the media is for TRPs. The game is on...
                  Reply
                  1. D
                    Dr. Sonali
                    Aug 4, 2015 at 4:35 pm
                    Words. Words. Words.!! Any insights? Any alternate solutions?
                    Reply
                    1. G
                      G.Srinivasan
                      Aug 4, 2015 at 9:08 pm
                      It is the best time to p all the bills without any opposition. Come on Mr Modi p the bills. Let the crooks sit outside in Dharna. They don't deserve Parliment.
                      Reply
                      1. G
                        G.Srinivasan
                        Aug 4, 2015 at 7:36 pm
                        Sushma and Raje issues are non-issues blown out of proportion by the media. Neither are they illegal nor any wrong doing done. Vypam is a big scandal involving everybody including the governor and congressmen. Probe is on and the most por CM has been forthright. Where is the problem?
                        Reply
                        1. G
                          G.Srinivasan
                          Aug 4, 2015 at 11:56 am
                          People of Bihar will vote for BJP and that is the trend seen in the civic polls. Nitish joining hands with Lalu is a cardinal sin committed by him. People cannot digest this for sure. Congress is not at all in the picture. With Amit Shah's organisational skill, BJP will make a clean sweep. It will improve their position in RS.
                          Reply
                          1. H
                            Harish Advani
                            Aug 4, 2015 at 5:30 pm
                            How could one expect a logical comment from a self confessed THUG,except an emotional RANT!.
                            Reply
                            1. H
                              hegdes
                              Aug 5, 2015 at 7:12 am
                              again Modi has to speak on 'ghar wapsi', fake church attacks, rape of a nun by Bangaladeshi, on IPL and Vyapam scams - all of it was happening before Modi took over. But he has to speak on all of those. so much so, some started blaming Modi for Monsoon delay or Mumbai flooding. But he only talks about issues of national level like OROP or problems of Drugs or Child labor or land bill or Children education or Swachh Bharat. But will not talk about issues which MSM or Opposition wants him to talk. That requires conviction and clarity in thought, which only Modi has.
                              Reply
                              1. A
                                Ajay C
                                Aug 4, 2015 at 6:11 pm
                                The agenda for development was only a cover for BJP agenda implementation which cannot work for long without being exposed. In last one year, Modiji has not been able to come up with one original idea, all are borrowed from Manmohan be it Insurance, Aadhar, NREGA, GST etc. If we wanted the same policies, then Manmohan was better choice being a educated person.
                                Reply
                                1. T
                                  Tellitasitis
                                  Aug 4, 2015 at 8:07 am
                                  BJP and like the previous NDA government displays delusions of invincibility. One victory over Congress and it thought India is Shining as it went into polls under Vajpayee and lost. This time, it has made a big promise of development and an incorruptible government and it is finding it hard to deliver. With Modi keeping all powers with himself and his chosen babus, and listening to an even smaller number of party functionaries, he has exposed himself to bigger shocks than he can bear. Of course, the electorate that voted him to power may wait for a little longer if he manages to wrest Bihar from Nitish and company, but if he doesn't, he faces the same fate of the first NDA government.
                                  Reply
                                  1. S
                                    sunny
                                    Aug 4, 2015 at 7:47 pm
                                    A good article. Modijis hands were tied by his own people may be similar to Manmohan Singh. Only difference is that Modij got mive public support but has not delivered as promised, Manmohan Sing is not having any people support and he has to dance to the tune of various party resulting scam after scam
                                    Reply
                                    1. J
                                      jay komerath
                                      Aug 4, 2015 at 8:52 pm
                                      The Biggest problem for the PM is the congress.They do not cooperate,and stand to block all the good things he is trying to do.The party of Nehru is still peeved at the loss,but this is not the way to get back to power
                                      Reply
                                      1. J
                                        Jyoti Ranjan
                                        Aug 5, 2015 at 1:56 pm
                                        It is the misfortune that we have a crabs in pot democracy. Most who are in politics are for own name & fame and think a little for our country or common man. If they cannot stand united on critical and vulnerable issues how can keep our country united. The blame games are meant for public eye wash and keeping us as fools forever.
                                        Reply
                                        1. K
                                          KK
                                          Aug 4, 2015 at 3:24 pm
                                          If BJP comes roaring back in Bihar elections, then the tide will indeed be turned. It took one election (Delhi) to turn the tide against Modi. It will take another one for him to gain back the upper hand.
                                          Reply
                                          1. P
                                            Pradeep Narayanan
                                            Aug 4, 2015 at 10:56 am
                                            Remember seeing an article by this author in the run up to 2014 LS elections, where he predicated Modi will not be able to turn the fortunes for BJP, particularly in UP. He was proved wrong. The pundits are not capable of carrying out an objective analysis due to their hatred of Modi.
                                            Reply
                                            1. Load More Comments