Two nightmares foretold

If Modi leads the ruling alliance in 2014,he will have to deal with decentralisation in national politics and centralisation in state politics.

Written by James Manor | Published: December 11, 2013 12:42:57 am

If Modi leads the ruling alliance in 2014,he will have to deal with decentralisation in national politics and centralisation in state politics.

Despite the astounding showing of the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi,the recent state elections make it somewhat more likely that Narendra Modi will be the next prime minister. Only somewhat,however. Major impediments remain,not least the allergy of many potential allies to Modi himself. But if he succeeds,two structural changes in Indian politics will present him with twin nightmares.

Nightmare number one is the decentralisation in national politics. Since 1989,when it became impossible for any single party to gain a Lok Sabha majority,massive powers have flowed away from the once-dominant prime minister’s office to other institutions in New Delhi,and to governments and parties at the state level. So power has been greatly decentralised,and new processes have emerged that often enable those at the state level to get their way.

And yet,Modi is an arch-centraliser who systematically destroys such processes to get his way. This is why he has been likened to Indira Gandhi by Pratap Bhanu Mehta and other commentators. He will try to undo the post-1989 changes and reassert the PMO’s dominance.

At the very least,this would trigger almighty battles that prevent his government from achieving much. That would destroy one of his main claims to power,his reputation as a doughty doer of great deeds. At worst,with far less than half of the Lok Sabha seats controlled by the BJP,it could wreck his government within a year or two. His famously forceful ways would bear most of the blame,a virtue turned to vice.

However,if he tries to avoid this by moderating his aggressive behaviour,he would squander his key appeal to many voters: his reputation as a dynamic man of action.

Nightmare number two is centralisation in state politics,in the hands of cantankerous narcissists. A major change at the state level in recent years has gone largely unnoticed. Many chief ministers have radically centralised power in their own hands,and their egos have swelled accordingly.

This change is explained by several things,but financial “contributions” directly to them from industrialists — especially in extractive industries — have been crucial. Chief ministers use these vast funds to buy and intimidate underlings,so that MLAs and even ministers are largely deprived of influence.

To govern,Modi will have to deal with several of these towering figures. To make his task far worse,several of them are utterly wilful,impossible narcissists. Those few dominant chief ministers who are not impossible — notably Nitish Kumar — will refuse to back a Modi government.

Consider the cast of characters he will need to deal with,whether to draw them into a ruling alliance or to gain their support from outside. Readers are familiar with Mamata Banerjee’s erratic ways,her extravagant persecution complex and her habit of lashing out at the media,her own security detail and politicians (like,for example,a Prime Minister Modi) who seek to court her. Mayawati may win enough seats in Uttar Pradesh to lend important support to a new Modi government,but will she? And for how long when she discovers that he is bent on reasserting prime ministerial dominance?

J. Jayalalithaa,an arch-narcissist,tends to communicate with her ministers through a few police officers and one female aide. She lacks patience,as the seven cabinet reshuffles since 2011 indicate. Jealousy would also play a role,since she currently hopes to be prime minister herself. Would she react against a forceful Prime Minister Modi? Is the Pope Catholic?

Naveen Patnaik is an aesthete who governs in splendid isolation and brooks no disagreement. He cares so little about his ministers that he cannot even communicate verbally with most of them since he has not condescended to learn Oriya. They discover their policies when their secretaries pass them the news from the chief minister’s office. And for good measure,he capriciously cuts a couple of them down every few months. He has already parted ways with the BJP once,so even if he supports a Modi government,he could walk out when the new prime minister becomes too assertive,as he must do to meet mass expectations.

Jaganmohan Reddy will probably win enough seats in a truncated Seemandhra to be another coalition partner. He will centralise power as ruthlessly as his late father and view bargaining with contempt. He lacks the scruples to hold back in deference to his Muslim constituents. The word deference — to them,but also to a Prime Minister Modi — is not in his vocabulary.

So,Modi will be an unyielding narcissist among unyielding narcissists. That is no recipe for survival in power. If the BJP wants a government that it leads to endure,it needs a congenial prime minister who understands the need for bargaining. When herding cats,forceful actions and loud demands never work.

The party will need a different leader,but it is too late for that. If it wins enough seats to lead a ruling alliance — still a big “if” — Modi will have his way. And his way will lead that new government into these nightmares and an early,embarrassing demise.

The writer is a professor in the School of Advanced Study,University of London.

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