Narendra Modi continues to be the under the spotlight. Before Bihar, during Bihar and after. But Bihar proved to be a key political pit-stop in contemporary Indian politics. One that should force Modi to take stock – of things that have gone well and those that haven’t in these 18 months. Modi’s mistakes so far have come either from political hubris or from political misjudgment. The clock is ticking…
Indian elections are fascinating. Beyond the political rhetoric, the rallies (or `relaas’ as Modi put it), the intensive campaigning and the exuberant celebrations, elections in India leave a sweet after-taste in the mouth. Be a supporter for a winner or that of a losing combine, none can disagree with the final word of the voter. Grudgingly or otherwise, you accept the collective wisdom of the people. Not that this is unique to India. But what certainly is, is how this collective wisdom surprises the best of political players and pundits alike. Barring some instances, the Indian voter has always made prudent choices; and Bihar was just another one.
I don’t want to delve on the immediate and proximate causes of the Bihar assembly election results or what it portends for the future of BJP and Indian politics; the print and electronic media is abuzz with one analysis after another. I have a different take in the aftermath of the Bihar elections, one that is focussed squarely on Narendra Modi. Why? Because, he continues to be the most intriguing political leader of his time; drawing either unconditional affection from his `bhakts’ or unqualified derision from his opponents – or for that matter both from the media. That he also happens to be the Prime Minister of India as well as the unquestioned authority in his party is but an added qualification.
I am neither a Modi Bhakt who fawns over him nor one from the `secular’ brigade who despises anything Modi-isque. Me and my ilk exist! In case the Modi Bhakts and the Modi-Haters think we don’t. Thank God I don’t have a twitter handle!
Anyway, without taking away anything from the subject of my analysis, I must add that Modi has to his credit several things. (a) Nobody can deny that he exercises strong leadership of his government, quite unlike his predecessor; (b) his thrust on foreign policy has been a refreshing change and which has enhanced India’s position in regional and international geo-politics (c) overall fiscal management (including inflation) is prudent and emphasis on public investment will be growth inducing and (d) there is no stench of corruption in the Central Government (as yet).
Does this seem like I am eulogising his tenure? Well, can’t help it given what we saw the UPA do.
But appreciation should learn to live with criticism; and encomiums with brickbats.
So here’s my take on some of the key mistakes that Modi has made thus far. I count six key mistakes, 3 of which stem from his personal prejudices and 3 from political miscalculations. One must understand there is no neat separation between the two – politics and personal prejudices feed on each other, both as causes and consequences.
Modi has his Political Prejudices
To say that Modi has a strong ego would be to state the obvious. It is perhaps expected that any successful political leader who has grinded through the lowly ranks to be at the helm of the top echelons of party leadership would develop and exhibit a strong belief in oneself. But when during this personal journey the self-belief turns into ego, no one knows. Perhaps, with yes-sir bureaucrats and fawning sycophants all around, the slide is faster. It’s rather inevitable. Indira lost it and so did Rajiv. Lalu felt he was unbeatable till Nitish came along; and Nitish became overambitious and overplayed his cards in the 2014 elections. Jaya and Karunanidhi, Mulayam and Mayawati, Mamata and the left; for that matter, Morarji Desai & Charan Singh or Nehru & Rajendra Prasad. Politics is as much about ideologies as about personal battles and prejudices.
But it’s not the ego or prejudices per se that’s the problem, that’s natural. It’s when political ego or prejudice clouds political judgement that it matters.
Mistake 1: Modi went for Nitish’s jugular too soon.
If you thought that the Bihar election was a political contest, you are either naïve or a sucker. (Now that’s reeking of intellectual egotism, but I will stick by it) Politics is not only a contest of ideologies, but also of personalities. And personalities involve political egos. After the dinner snatch and the subsequent breaking of the JDU-BJP alliance, Nitish was Modi’s bete noire for sure. It was no longer a political battle between the two, it became a personal one. Having hammered Nitish in the Lok Sabha election, one would have thought that Modi’s personal ego would have been satiated to some extent. Instead, he went for the maximum – to try and finish Nitish politically in Bihar. After the Lok Sabha defeat, Nitish licked his wounds, swallowed his pride and called Lalu – the rest is history. Modi’s ego dragged him to the dragon’s den and he lost handsomely. Nitish, and thereby Lalu and Congress, got a new lease of life. The fact that Modi did not even acknowledge the 8 years of togetherness of BJP and JD(U) in Bihar was strange (who advised him??). Modi lost a significant amount of political capital he invested in the battle; and, in the process, helped imbue a similar amount in Nitish, who today has emerged as a credible alternative with, possibly, equally attractive but anti-podal attributes. The next battle will be the 2019 national elections and let’s see who has the last laugh.
Mistake 2: Modi’s visceral hate for the Gandhi dynasty (and vice-versa) has made it into a zero-sum game
There’s of course no love lost between Modi and the Gandhi dynasty. His political upbringing may have been steeped in anti-congressism but it was in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots that their relationship got real personal. Both employed all possible means, fair and foul, to further their respective cases – Sonia to nail Modi and the latter to survive. Survive he did, and the shoe is now on the other foot. `Madam Sonia & Shehzade’ and `Maut ka Saudagar’ are just mirror images of the visceral hate feeling that each harbours for the other. It is this personal revulsion for the Gandhi family that holds back Modi from reaching out to the Gandhis as Prime Minister to further his policy agenda. Instead, he has never resisted from rubbing their noses on the ground after the Congress’ election debacle. Can Modi go beyond his desire to quench his personal thirst and can the Gandhis see beyond their narrow agenda for vengeance after electoral defeat? Your guess is as good as mine. Recent developments suggest a recalibration by Modi, but will Rahul relent?
Mistake 3: What suits me doesn’t suit everyone!
Perhaps the most casual yet the most catastrophic mistake by Modi was wearing the monogrammed suit with his name embroidered on it. I sometimes wonder what it takes for someone to wear his name on his shirt and pant! Rahul wants poverty written on it, but that’s a different point altogether!
This mistake was, perhaps, the clearest exbitionism of Modi’s ego; one that reverberated every time Rahul made the suit-boot barb. It demonstrated the clear disconnect between Modi’s idea of himself and the prevailing people’s idea of Modi. The most ardent supporter of Modi would have winced at this blatant expression of personal ego. Although Modi quickly corrected his mistake, the image of him wearing the suit sticks. He has to do more to undo the damage.
Modi and his politics
Modi’s politics has witnessed a remarkable run at the national box office ever since he was announced as the Prime Ministerial candidate of the NDA in the autumn of 2013. With his advent, BJP’s approach to politics took a distinct muscular turn. The agenda of development had a strong nationalistic streak; the campaigns were personality-centric; the optics huge and high profile; and allies were conspicuously sidelined. Calculated polarisation was tactically used to counter caste combinations or reverse Muslim polarisation. Till Bihar happened, this formula worked well, albeit a blip in Delhi, and the BJP’s footprint grew significantly. The loss in Bihar puts Modi’s doctrine of muscular electoral politics in question.
Mistake 4: Modi’s muscular centrist politics weakens his party in the states.
Modi himself is a beneficiary of an accommodative BJP central leadership that actively nurtured regional leadership like his compatriots in Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Karnataka, Goa, Rajasthan etc. 2014 was certainly a wave election but the Modi wave rode on the goodwill cultivated by his regional counterparts. From the evidence so far, the new BJP under Modi-Shah has effectively relegated regional leaders to the background. To a certain extent, consolidation of his position in the party is justified – after all, he couldn’t have allowed alternate power centres to evolve within his own party. That stated, he might have overdone it to his own detriment. A smarter Modi would have invested political capital in Harshvardhan in Delhi or in Sushil Modi in Bihar. The outcomes may not have been different, but certainly his political standing would have.
Mistake 5: Modi’s Land Bill was right, but the process of pushing it through was not.
I don’t know who advised Modi to go for an ordinance on the Land Bill (or if anyone advise against it), but it was an immense political miscalculation. That he had to finally withdraw it after two promulgations is testament to the fact that this was a critical error. While it helped galvanise the opposition, especially the moribund Congress, searching for an issue, it, perhaps, left a lasting impact on people’s perception about the government, especially the farmers and the rural poor. Modi erred in failing to understand what works through executive diktat and what through the legislative process; adopting the legislative route, and failing, would have been better received (like the GST Bill) than trying to ram through via the ordinance route.
Mistake 6: Last but not least, Modi failed to understand that `exploiting’ communal dissent is different from `manufacturing’ communal dissent.
The electoral template of Modi-Shah is now a well-known one. Development agenda as long as it delivers. When the going gets tough, Hindutva comes in handy. The loony right wing, ably supported by BJP MPs, and the opportunistic opposition ever waiting to reap minority votes, then jump in to create ruckus. It worked well as long as the opposition, particularly the Congress and the regional parties like SP, played the minority card. But `exploiting’ dissent is different from `manufacturing’ dissent. Public sab jaanta hai! If BJP gained from the Muzzafarpur riots, it lost from the Dadri incident. It exploited the former, it manufactured the latter. Where the opposition provides an opportunity for the BJP to exploit, it will do so and succeed. Like in UP. Where the BJP manufactures dissent and is perceived as doing so, it will fail. Like in Bihar. Communal politics is a double-edged sword, PM Modi – play it at your own peril. If it works, the media will call the opposition’s bluff. If it fails, it makes your development agenda that much more susceptible. The choice is yours – development only or development with cow!
So what should Modi do?
Narendra Modi is a phenomenon. He is, perhaps, the only pan-Indian leader now in the Indian political firmament. In his party, he remains the unquestioned authority, the muted rebellions notwithstanding; and he has, to his credit, many achievements. With a weak Congress and a fragmented opposition, he rides like a colossus. He has kept the bureaucracy on a tight lease and freed the corridors of power from corporate dalals. He has used his foreign visits smartly to beef up his image as larger than life.
However, the Bihar electoral debacle brings out some harsh truths for Modi. Had the BJP won, the political pundits would have glossed over these issues. Bihar was a welcome reality check. The political animal that he is, perhaps Modi understands its significance more than anyone else.
- Ego inspires as well as blinds – he should harness the ego carefully and not let personal prejudice cloud his political judgement.
- The tragedy of the Congress was that personal and dynastic preservation came at the cost of the party – Modi should strike a balance between his effort to consolidate power at the centre and nurturing leadership at the regional level.
- Communal politics is T-20 cricket, development politics is Test cricket. Modi should understand that losing a battle or two is no big deal; winning the war is more important. And that means only and only the development agenda.
- With BJP replacing the Congress as new normal in Indian politics, the opportunistic agenda of the opposition of trying to stitch together convenient alliances can only be negated by similar convenient alliances. Coalitions kill coalitions. BJP + BSP? Any takers?
Politics in India, after 2014, has undergone a significant change. And Modi was, and is, at the centre of it – no longer the usual coalitional accommodative politics between a ruling national party cosying up to regional parties and vice-versa to protect one another’s turfs and interests. No wonder the future of many political dynasties are at stake and the likes of Lalu, Mulayam, Pawar, Karunanidhi etc. are sorely missing the Gandhi dynasty at the helm!
And strangely, everyone has become intolerant, or it seems so. The intolerant right was always so; but even the tolerant left brigade has gone ballistic. Similar emotional outbursts, the frothing at the mouths – both these groups are just mirror images of each other. If the right failed to condemn a Mahesh Sharma or Sakshi Maharaj, the left fails to condemn Irfan Habib or for that matter Mani Aiyar. Made for each other! And now Shah Rukh and then Amir Khan. India is certainly in tatters! After all our favourite movie stars say so. I suspect that the intolerance debate is becoming a little too stretched; there’s more froth than soap. But this is the fault line that the opposition will exploit – with a little help from the usual BJP loudmouths.
Modi, as PM, stands today, at a crucially definitive point in Indian politics. The choices he makes will make or unmake India. What matters is whether the choices he makes, political or otherwise, are in the national interest – that they are not coloured by (a) political expediency and (b) personal prejudice. Else, India will pay – dearly.