Out of My Mind: Transition times

It is within possibility that Modi may transform the nature of Indian politics, for the better and not for the worse as liberals fear.

Written by Meghnad Desai | Updated: May 18, 2014 9:00:22 am

Amid much uncertainty (writing this the day before the ‘Big Count’), there is one great certainty. There is a profound transition taking place in Indian political life. Take the BJP. The party is going through a generation change and a well-disguised ideological transformation. Modi may be many things people may like or dislike, but he has sidelined a generation of BJP leaders who were there through the lean days of the Eighties and tended the party through the Nineties. This generation won and then threw away power in 2004. It failed to renew the party in 2009. Now its time is up.

Politics is not a kind business. The rejection of the older generation, albeit clothed  in words of respect, will be ruthless. The Congress had this moment of transition in 1969 when Indira Gandhi split the party to throw out the older leaders who thought they could rule from behind the throne. That gruesome episode changed the Congress into a personal and, then in 1984, a dynastic party.

The Congress is now paying the price for that transition as it finds itself saddled with a clueless heir apparent. It can neither get rid of the dynasty, nor can it dare to suggest to Rahul Gandhi that he should take a course in public speaking or work harder than he has done so far.

The party faces the prospect of spending five years in opposition with a leader who has an aversion to attending or speaking in Parliament.

Rahul was elected to  Parliament and, luckily for him, the Congress won power in 2004. He has had the luxury of being able to come and go as he pleases since the UPA had the numbers. In opposition, the required discipline will be hard. No escaping abroad for two days as he has just recently done. Being in the opposition will test Rahul and show if he has the political stamina to lead his party for five years in the wilderness. One can only hope that he will not listen to the small army of sycophants who will tell him that it was not his fault that the Congress lost. He has to introspect if he wants to be a serious politician.

Narendra Modi has a different problem of managing the transition. He is a complete contrast to Rahul. He has had to do all the hard work himself to get to the top. He used to be the young man everyone patronised and took for granted, the man quietly standing in a corner while the bigwigs met. He observed, made his own list of friends and detractors. He acknowledges L K Advani as a mentor, but Modi is the ultimate self-made leader. Unlike Ekalavya, he would not give his thumb to his guru but he wanted to defeat Arjuna.

For someone like him, the hard task is to acknowledge that he has reached the top. Now he has to help people, listen to them and harness their energy. He will have to include his potential rivals within his Cabinet to show that he is secure in his success. Independent India’s first Cabinet had, besides Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Abul Kalam Azad, with Rajendra Prasad as President. Over time, Nehru became dominant. A Cabinet of near equals has been unusual since then. In US politics, this is often the ideal way of forming a Cabinet. President Barack Obama emulated Abraham Lincoln’s model, which he learnt about from Doris Goodwin’s  A Team of Rivals.

It is within possibility that Modi may transform the nature of Indian politics, for the better and not for the worse as liberals fear. He remains marked by the 2002 riots which happened within months of his taking over as Chief Minister of Gujarat. He has tried to shed this image and work on governance. Along the way, he has refashioned the BJP’s vote-winning formula away from its heavy reliance on upper-caste Hindu votes to include OBCs and Dalits. Muslims are yet uncertain whether it is the Modi of 2002, as the Congress insists, or the Modi of governance and ‘One India’ whom they see.

Modi has to leave his hard climb with all the bitter memories behind. He is at the top and can be the statesman India needs and expects. He needs to keep the hardcore of the Parivar firmly in check and forget the time he felt like Ekalavya. He can be Karna, the noblest Kaunteya of them all. After all, Karna was defeated due to unfair tactics used by the ‘good’ guys. Electoral politics enjoin the use of fair methods. Karna can yet win.

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