National Interest: After May 16

The rise of Modi marks the shifting of the largest tectonic plate. He is the first non-Dynasty leader to acquire this domineering stature, the only non-Brahmin and also the first never to have been in the Congress party.

Written by Shekhar Gupta | Updated: April 12, 2014 9:06 am

One of the deadliest truisms in our business of reading election trends is, never trust journalists with their predictions. But when all journalists agree on the outcome of an election, take it easy. You know for sure that exactly the opposite will happen.

We would only hope this doesn’t extend to psephologists as well. Because if it did, you might end up looking very stupid by 11 am on May 16. I shall, therefore, be a coward and confine myself to drawing upon the opinion poll data to predict (yes, predict) lasting shifts in Indian politics. So significant, long-lasting and intense that we could describe them as tectonic. We also know tectonic shifts define the movement of seven such plates that constitute the earth. Let us now play political geologists and read the seismic signals.

First, whatever his tally finally, Narenda Modi would have risen as India’s preeminent political personality. This is a first and here is why. Think of any juncture since 1947, and the most powerful political leader was always from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. I know you are speed-reading the history of 67 years in your minds, and I can  anticipate your doubts. The period from Nehru’s death in May 1964 to Shastri’s in January 1966.

The September 1965 war built Shastri into a genuine national icon. But everybody knew even then who the real star of the Congress was. Indira Gandhi may have been just a junior minister for information and broadcasting, but she was always the heir apparent and Shastri a caretaker. In any case, this “break” was for less than 18 months. Second, Indira’s defeat in 1977 after the Emergency and the rise of the Janata Party.


Yet, who was the most powerful political figure in India then? Jayaprakash Narayan was in rapid decline by then, physically and politically. The rest in the ruling Janata Party were squabbling subedars, not generals.

Indira Gandhi, in comparison, was a political field marshal. The third, and probably more arguable, would be the first half of the Narasimha Rao reign. Even then, as Arjun Singh’s intrigues and later open rebellion showed us, the real power was to return inevitably to Sonia Gandhi.

Rao defied it but paid for this foolhardiness. He was sent to the doghouse to fight his cases alone, and then denied, in death, the elementary dignity of a stop at the AICC headquarters for his funeral van and a cremation spot along the Yamuna in Delhi. You want evidence of how brutally it was done, check out my friend and former colleague Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister: The making and unmaking of Manmohan Singh (pp 72-73). Atal Bihari Vajpayee ruled for six years, but never owned his party as Sonia did.

THAT is why the rise of Modi marks the shifting of the largest tectonic plate. He is the first non-Dynasty leader to acquire this domineering stature, the only non-Brahmin and also the first never to have been in the Congress party. He could rule India on his own strength and definitely own his party as well. How totally, you can see in how the BJP has thrown out Jaswant Singh and now his son Manvendra. This is not the way the BJP functioned in the past.

Even when Uma Bharti was expelled from the party in December 2005, the top leadership continued to humour her, presuming she would return inevitably, whatever the provocation from her.


In a Walk the Talk interview for NDTV 24×7 at Hoshangabad along the Narmada, she pointed at a bloated animal carcass floating in the water and compared the BJP with it: dead, but floating because of putrefaction. And yet, one of the most brilliant coincidences of my journalistic life once put me in the perfect place, the corridor of Parliament, as Vajpayee caught Umaji walking in from the other direction and asked why she had  stopped visiting his home.

“Kaise aaoongi, Atalji, aapne toh party se nikaal diya,” she said.

“Arre bhai, party karyalaya se nishkasit kiya hai na, ghar se toh nahin, ab aaiye aap,” said the great charmer.

No such things will likely happen now. There may not be a third coming for Jaswant Singh, unless he goes down on his knees in public in return for a distant Raj Bhawan with a well-stocked library. So here is the second coming shift in our politics: the BJP acquiring its own high command. It may actually do some good if it brings discipline in its cabinet (should it come to power) and keeps the grand viziers of Nagpur and the Luddites of Allahabad University at bay. It can also become authoritarian and rob the BJP of its internal democracy. But this, really, is something for the BJP to debate. The era of running internal party battles through leaks versus tweets in the BJP is now over.

The third comes prefixed with an “if”. So if a BJP-led NDA government comes to power this May, it will have a very different kind of cabinet arrangement. Nobody can predict who the key ministers will be as Modi will make his own choices, not distracted by history or hustled by the present. This will be a Modi cabinet. He will look for talent — and loyalty — wherever he finds it.


The concept of hierarchy will be redefined in India’s most enduring gerontocracy. A Modi cabinet will have place neither for Jairam Ramesh’s kind of youthful defiance nor for the Jaipal Reddy/A.K. Antony school of stodgy do-nothingness. If we get a Modi government in May, this will not be a change as uneventful as the ascent of Vajpayee, when there was more continuity than change. Be prepared for a bureaucratic, political and even social and intellectual twister: the lists of invitees to state banquets will change.

The fourth: If Modi’s political style is that of a CEO, he has already succeeded in relaunching his party as the new Congress, only way to the right. It has many more allies, will not only batter the Congress in the entire Hindi heartland (including Bihar) but, also, if opinion polls are generally right, poll more votes than the Congress in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Orissa. That will reduce the Congress party’s national preeminence to Kerala.

WHAT about the remaining three? First of these will be the most dramatic decline of the Congress in our history. A poll of all the major polls places the Congress firmly below its all-time low of 114 in 1999. It cannot find any new partners and some of the old ones may bolt. It is the first time since 1967, for example, that the Congress is fighting without an ally in Tamil Nadu and will score a zero. The party’s situation will be worse than the numbers will indicate.

For the first time, the party will have no non-Dynasty scapegoat.  Of course, if it remains true to its tradition, it will set up another Antony Committee to look into the disaster, as it did in 1996, and once again it could conveniently blame Manmohan Singh. But it won’t wash. By staying out of the campaign — or not protesting that he is kept out — and having been silent for a full five years, the outgoing prime minister has out-Antonied the real Antony. Vajpayee and Advani rebuilt the BJP from two seats in December 1984. Does Rahul Gandhi have it in him? Does the Congress have the ideological cohesion of the BJP? Both will be tested. The BJP stayed out of power for 10 years, but discovered a new leader and a new agenda. The Congress will have serious limitations there.

The sixth shift will also mostly affect the Congress, and it will be ideological. Evidence from across the country suggests that the Aam Aadmi Party is catching the fancy of the Muslims and the urban underclass, including the Dalits. This will devastate the Congress. This is also tectonic because it will reset the ideological divide in Indian politics from old secular versus communal, particularly if Modi can ensure Muslims do not come to harm under his rule, and chances are that he will. He will know that one communal riot under his watch will be one too many, worth too many I-told-you-sos.

If the minimalistic politics of seeking Muslim votes by merely promising them physical survival dies, many of them will flock to Arvind Kejriwal. This will also shake out many of the entrenched secular parties from their bunkers: most importantly, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s SP and Nitish Kumar’s JD(U). Kejriwal may or may not get many seats, but he will sound more convincingly pro-poor, secular and certainly cleaner than the Congress.
He could emerge as the central figure of future anti-BJP secular alliances.

And finally, the seventh. The election of 2014 could mark a terminal decline of the Left Front. The left ideology will survive. But possibly in the AAP. In most states outside of Kerala and West Bengal, the AAP has already taken away old and loyal left voters. By bringing Soni Sori in the election in Chhattisgarh, it has also reached out to the extreme left in our Maoist centre-east. This is the first sign of the current set of Naxalites checking out the political mainstream. Every Indian should welcome it.


It is also an opportunity the Left lost out of sheer laziness and arrogance. In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee has taken over its space by sounding more left than it, by looking like a more reliable protector of the Muslims and, at the same time, decimating the Maoists. Either way, the Left risks being reduced to a TV studio party, particularly as the seats it wins in Kerala will be largely seen as a swan song gift from V. S. Achuthanandan at 90.

Could you have asked for more upheaval from a single general election? Would you call this change anything but tectonic?

(You may also like to read ‘If Modi wins on Sunday’, National Interest, December 22, 2007)

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