MODI’S TIGHTROPE WALK GOES ON

The BJP con­trols two-thirds of In­dia’s pop­u­la­tion, ap­pear­ing to have suc­cess­fully forged a coali­tion of up­per, mid­dle-rank­ing and lower castes to ma­nip­u­late the so­cial arith­metic of In­dian elec­tions

New Straits Times - - Opinion - ma­hen­draved07@gmail.com The writer, NST's New Delhi cor­re­spon­dent, is the pres­i­dent of the Com­mon­wealth Jour­nal­ists As­so­ci­a­tion 2016-2018 and a con­sul­tant with ‘Power Pol­i­tics’ monthly mag­a­zine

PRIME Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi has emerged as In­dia’s most pop­u­lar po­lit­i­cal leader in more than three decades af­ter win­ning in Uttar Pradesh (UP), the most pop­u­lous and po­lit­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant state, hav­ing given nine prime min­is­ters.

His charisma matches that of for­mer prime min­is­ter Indira Gandhi of the ri­val Congress Party, who ruled the coun­try for 11 years un­til 1984.

Modi and his sup­port­ers are un­likely to ad­mit to the un­canny re­sem­blance be­tween the two in get­ting con­nected with the peo­ple, us­ing or­a­tory to the hilt, ap­pro­pri­at­ing oth­ers’ sym­bols and slo­gans, and be­rat­ing op­po­nents.

Nor will the Congress like this com­par­i­son. In win­ning a pan-In­dian stature for him­self and for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Modi has trounced Congress, cur­rently headed by Indira’s ail­ing Italy-born daugh­ter-in-law, Sonia.

Grand­son Rahul, despite 13 years in pol­i­tics and par­lia­ment, has failed to make the grade. In­dia’s grand old party is def­i­nitely in dire stress. But, par­ties and ide­olo­gies do not eas­ily dis­ap­pear.

The Congress scored a re­sound­ing win in Pun­jab, thanks to per­sonal pop­u­lar­ity of Amarinder Singh, Ma­hara­jah of the erst­while princely Patiala state, but that is its sole con­so­la­tion prize. It bagged more seats than the BJP in Goa on the Ara­bian Sea and in Manipur, In­dia’s eastern-most state.

But, the BJP won over in­de­pen­dents and win­ners from re­gional par­ties in bid to form new govern­ments.

Like Indira did in the 1970s and 1980s, Modi has won the war of per­cep­tions. He was the mas­cot in the vast bell­weather elec­toral battleground with a stag­ger­ing 200 mil­lion pop­u­la­tion.

Dis­play­ing un­matched stamina amid gov­ern­ment work — like Indira again — he ad­dressed sev­eral ral­lies. His com­bi­na­tion of or­a­tory and ag­gres­sion with hold­ing out prom­ises worked to win a stag­ger­ing 324 seats in a house or 403.

In­dia watch­ers fear the ab­sence of a strong op­po­si­tion needed for democ­racy to sus­tain and grow. For, not just the Congress that had aligned with the rul­ing Sa­ma­jwadi (so­cial­ist) party, the BJP also trounced the Bahu­jan Sa­maj Party of four­times chief min­is­ter Mayawati that cham­pi­ons the cause of Dal­its, the un­touch­ables who form a fifth of UP’s pop­u­la­tion.

In sum, the op­po­si­tion sought to meet Modi’s ag­gres­sion with its own, lev­el­ling per­sonal crit­i­cism. It failed to come up with an al­ter­na­tive nar­ra­tive.

It re­mained di­vided, di­vid­ing what were anti-BJP votes. For in­stance, Mayawati’s vote share has in­deed risen in this elec­tion, but her party won only 17 seats.

More sig­nif­i­cantly, an­other fifth of UP’s pop­u­la­tion, the Mus­lims, ap­pear to have shed their tra­di­tional anti-BJP pat­tern and voted for Modi’s plank of more jobs and ed­u­ca­tion.

This was despite in­ci­dents of sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence al­legedly in­volv­ing cadres of the BJP and its af­fil­i­ate out­fits, and the fact that the BJP did not field a sin­gle Mus­lim can­di­date. The party could have prob­lems find­ing a Mus­lim for a min­is­te­rial post in the new gov­ern­ment.

This is un­prece­dented.

Like the Mus­lims and Dal­its, other groups, each num­ber­ing mil­lions, also ap­pear to have shed iden­tity pol­i­tics in favour of as­pi­ra­tions. The young, who form a huge chunk of the elec­torate, did so in 2012 to vote the so­cial­ists, who had dis­trib­uted lap­tops and promised jobs.

But they have voted for the BJP af­ter Akhilesh Ya­dav’s gov­ern­ment was per­ceived as favour­ing only the Ya­davs and was un­able to en­sure rule of law. Akhilesh’s com­ment at de­feat is symbolic: those he ex­pected to vote for the high­way he con­structed have opted for the “bul­let train”, for which the Modi gov­ern­ment has signed with the Ja­panese.

This round of elec­tions was a ref­er­en­dum of sort on de­mon­eti­sa­tion en­forced last Novem­ber. Modi has won despite sev­eral weeks of suf­fer­ing by peo­ple of all sec­tions and stunt­ing of eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity.

This re­mains one of the many in­ex­pli­ca­bles of this elec­tion. An­a­lysts at­tribute this to the sen­ti­ment that Modi was tar­get­ing hoard­ers of un­ac­counted wealth, those en­gaged in money laun­der­ing and gen­er­at­ing fake cur­rency — “traitors” all. It jelled well with the cur­rent ul­tra-na­tion­al­ist hype.

This hype may con­tinue as Modi pre­pares to re­tain hold over Gu­jarat, his home state and that of his prin­ci­pal po­lit­i­cal strate­gist, BJP pres­i­dent Amit Shah. Polls are due in Novem­ber.

The BJP now con­trols twothirds of In­dia’s pop­u­la­tion. It ap­pears to have suc­cess­fully forged a coali­tion of up­per, mid­dle-rank­ing and lower castes to be able to ma­nip­u­late the so­cial arith­metic of In­dian elec­tions, neu­tral­is­ing many ad­ver­sar­ial forces.

It has also avoided be­ing seen as dol­ing out reck­less pa­tron­age to a caste or group.

Work­ing 18 hours daily, Modi is seen as de­ci­sive — crit­ics say his is a one-man show. It is dif­fer­ent from the Man­mo­han Singh decade that waf­fled for lack of po­lit­i­cal will and co­he­sion, and par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity that Modi en­joys.

Govern­ments have favourites — so has Modi’s. Grant­ing that graft takes time to sur­face, no scam has sur­faced in the last 30 months.

The bal­ance of power in In­dia has de­ci­sively swung in BJP’s favour. It can get a ma­jor­ity in Ra­jya Sabha, Par­lia­ment’s up­per house. That would fa­cil­i­tate leg­is­la­tion de­layed for long, in­clud­ing a na­tion­wide tax ra­tion­al­i­sa­tion regime.

In­dia will have a new pres­i­dent in July and vice-pres­i­dent in Au­gust. They will be Modi’s choices.

The po­lit­i­cal gains have come to Modi when he is half­way through his ten­ure as the premier. He is widely per­ceived as one who could get re-elected to a sec­ond term in 2019.

But, pre­dic­tions can go wrong in In­dia’s di­verse and vast polity. Ra­jiv Gandhi was voted out in 1989, los­ing a huge par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity. A BJP-led gov­ern­ment sur­pris­ingly lost in 2004.

This sum­mer, Modi ap­pears unas­sail­able. Where he could make the dif­fer­ence is his de­ci­sive­ness and his abil­ity — so far — to keep the devel­op­ment agenda safely above con­tentious and di­vi­sive is­sues that the con­ser­va­tives de­mand. He will have to con­tinue to walk the tightrope.

Work­ing 18 hours daily, Modi is seen as de­ci­sive — crit­ics say his is a one­man show. It is dif­fer­ent from the Man­mo­han Singh decade that waf­fled for lack of po­lit­i­cal will and co­he­sion, and par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity that Modi en­joys.

AP PIC

Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi is gar­landed dur­ing a re­cep­tion at the Bharatiya Janata Party head­quar­ters a day af­ter the party’s land­slide vic­to­ries in key state elec­tions in New Delhi re­cently.

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