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As the Narendra Modi ministry gets going, the industry of deciphering every move made by the new PM is flourishing. Having won the election for the party, Modi certainly has real power now, which many a prime minister from the recent past did not have. Indicative of this is the report (“A first: PMO empowers itself on ‘all important policy issues’”, IE, May, 28) that in allocating portfolios, the prime minister has allocated to himself “all important policy issues”. While we will have to wait to find out how this operates in practice, it adds to the challenge of making sense of the Modi phenomenon. It might be instructive to go back into India’s democratic history and compare Modi with Indira Gandhi. Such a comparison may give us some clues to understanding the rise of the new leadership and its likely trajectory.
First, the transformation of an election into a plebiscite over one leader was the key strategy adopted by Indira Gandhi in 1971. Similarly, Modi transformed an adverse political context into an asset and ensured that this election was a plebiscite on him. Like her, he made a virtue of the fact that everyone else was opposed to him. He used that context adroitly to place him at the centre by getting himself declared the prime ministerial candidate of his party. That move scandalised his opponents outside the BJP so much that everyone started criticising him, facilitating unprecedented publicity and media exposure, in turn. Though he did not overplay the point, this adversity allowed Modi to present an image of someone cornered by opponents. While everyone was busy criticising Modi, he went ahead with slogans and banners that practically announced the arrival of a new messiah.
Second, listening to Modi’s speeches, one could not mistake the aggressive — even injured — tone. After winning the Gujarat assembly elections in 2012 and subsequently addressing students at a Delhi college, Modi’s speeches were less argumentative, more exhortative and cajoling. But once he sensed that the Congress party was on the back foot, he shifted to a more aggressive stance. His tone became more acerbic. He coined the moniker of “shehzada” for Rahul Gandhi, thereby referring not only to the hereditary element but also reminding audiences of the unstated charge of Muslim appeasement by the Congress. The swift transformation into an aggressive and confrontational mode of argument helped in building the image of a strong, determined leader ready to fight and remain in battle-mode all the time.
Third, like Indira Gandhi, Modi bypassed the party. The details are, of course, dissimilar: Indira Gandhi had to fight a drawn-out battle with those who then controlled the Congress and thought she would remain indebted to them for having installed her as prime minister. She, in fact, did not mind forcing a split in the party. Modi did not have to go to that extent. Having lost two parliamentary elections in a row, the BJP was all too keen to have a strong leader take the reins for the parliamentary elections. This made Modi’s task easier. But the real similarity lies elsewhere. Both sought to appeal to voters directly, over the heads of their respective party organisations. And their appeals sent the same message — a vote for the party candidate is a vote to the leader. So, both in 1971 and 2014, voters were asked not to elect their “representatives” but only the loyalists of the leader.
Fourth, this strategy inevitably brought them in confrontation with the old guard in the party and they both bulldozed the dissidence within.
In Indira Gandhi’s case, the battle was far too bitter because she was new to the office of prime minister. In Modi’s case, the battle was caused mainly because he was new to Delhi’s politics. But the old guard in his party was not able to put up much resistance and had to mostly acquiesce to the wishes of Modi supporters. The differences of scale apart, the core issue was identical — those who did not support the new phenomenon had to make way, rather than share party power.
Fifth, how did Indira Gandhi justify the plebiscitary mode of politics? She blamed the personalisation of the electoral battle with her famous statement: opponents say Indira hatao; I say garibi hatao. Garibi hatao, then, was the slogan, the dream, the goal. In her whirlwind tours of the country (before the era of television and holograms), Indira Gandhi intimated that she was there to change the language and substance of politics. She was carving out huge expectations. Till 1971, she had little to show for herself. But that did not deter her from framing the politics of dreams and expectations. Exactly in the same manner, Modi’s campaign hinged on shaping expectations of a strong and prosperous India.
Just as the removal of poverty was a goal that had moral legitimacy and an obvious social sanctity, Modi’s narrative of “development” enjoys considerable legitimacy in post-1991 India. The new India of today is evidently impatient with alibis and excited about growth in the global context; even growth without much concern for equity has acquired a certain moral legitimacy and economic justification. Just as the removal of poverty had a compulsive moral attraction for the India of the 1970s, growth and development have a compulsive instrumental attraction in today’s India. This context turns the political game of raising huge popular expectations into a winning strategy.
The main difference between the personalistic and populist politics of these two leaders is probably in the composition of their core constituencies. Indira Gandhi’s constituency was principally oppressed, inarticulate and from unprivileged social sections — Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims. Four decades down the line, most social sections in India are fairly mobilised and awakened. But more particularly, Modi’s core constituency is definitely very articulate. It consists of two somewhat diverse but mostly interconnected sections — the aspirational middle class, which reads in the rhetoric of development an expansion of opportunities and the realisation of its aspired economic advance, and the entrenched middle class, which expects the cultural discourse to be reframed. The former will judge the leader on the basis of material advance and the latter will judge him on the basis of how he redefines the contours of India’s nationhood. Both classes have heightened expectations and a strong sense of the moral justification of their demands from the polity. The durability of the plebiscite that Modi has won will depend on how skilfully he satisfies and balances these expectations.
The writer teaches political science at the University of Pune