They say: Scratch a politician and you will uncover a warren’s nest of self-serving lies. Scratch an Indian politician and you are kept guessing about what will emerge from his/her mouth. The only certainty is political expediency. Narendra Modi is, of course, a master at this art, but his recent transformation has left many scratching their heads in befuddlement.
Let’s rewind to 2014
For sure, rampant corruption was a major factor in the Congress being relegated to near oblivion. However, Modi masterfully parlayed this transgression – common to most Indian politicians – into an unforgivable crime that demanded the maximum punishment. His overpowering oratory cleverly obfuscated the reality that the hands of many of his own party men were hardly pure as the driven snow.
Congress was the bogeyman that Indian voters could thrash in a display of righteous indignation. Having achieved his thumping victory, Modi realized that he needed to quickly divert the public’s attention from the issue of corruption, lest it started inconveniently probing into the misdemeanors of the BJP itself. He hit upon the plank of development. His brilliant slogan “sabka saath, sabka vikas” caught the imagination of the public and propelled him into demi-god status. More importantly, his professed vision of an industrialized and technologically resurgent India – coupled with “Make in India” and “ease of doing business” – not only galvanized Indian industrialists and corporations, but resulted in foreign direct investment flowing into the country. The BJP’s coffers were close to overflowing and money, after all, is the engine that drives political power.
NaMo v/s RaGa
The Congress, meanwhile, was shell-shocked and remained in a stupor for the next three years. No, stupor is perhaps the wrong word. The party flailed about aimlessly and ineffectively, while its presumptive leader, Rahul Gandhi, gave all the appearance of a reluctant debutante. He took off on long trips – to seek nirvana, he said. Even when constrained to at least give the appearance of providing an opposition, his sole strategy was to attack Modi relentlessly. This evoked, more than anything else, laughter among the general population. The Congress scion incrementally proved that he was simply no match for a seasoned tactician like Modi. Modi realized that he had no need to protect his flank and could do pretty much as he pleased.
Things then were going swimmingly for Modi. As the unchallenged leader, he could set his own agenda at his own pace. He set himself burnishing his image by playing the role of a world statesman. His trips to foreign capitals became so frequent, as to become almost monotonous. Television routinely showed him being greeted by rapturous crowd of homesick Indians; and foreign leaders fawning over him. The savvy heads of state quickly cottoned on to the fact that with its increasing GDP and impressive growth rate, India was a chicken ripe for the plucking, where they could unload billions of dollars’ worth of armaments and other goodies. And if they had to puff up Modi’s ego in the bargain, it was a small price to pay. At home, Modi had no serious political challenger worth the name. He could afford to leave politics to his minions; and act as the exalted leader above it all. In short, Modi looked well on course to be Prime Minister, if not for life, then for the foreseeable future.
Matters appeared to unravel towards the middle of 2017. Firstly, Rahul baba seemed to be coming of age and taking his ordained position of Congress supremo seriously. His attacks on Modi continued to backfire, but he could no longer be ignored or dismissed. More ominously for Modi and the BJP, his idea of a “mahagathbandhan” was gaining traction. Political parties that had nothing in common began to be convinced that the only hope of unseating Modi was by means of a coordinated and combined assault. This began to show results when the hitherto invincible BJP – despite the “Modi factor “- lost a couple of elections at the state and local levels. Suddenly the 2019 election was no longer the slam dunk it seemed to be just a few months previously.
Taking Safe Route by Returning to Your Roots
Faced with the possibility of defeat, however remote, Modi reverted to his roots. He had great experience of the rough and tumble of Indian politics, augmented by the Rashtriya Sevak Sangh (RSS) indoctrination. It became evident to him that the development message was not resonating like it had previously; particularly since he had not been able to deliver on some of his tall promises. Remember bringing back black money stashed abroad and putting Rs.15 lakhs in the pocket of every Indian? Something more basic was required – something that would galvanize the passions of the majority community (majority equals more votes). His RSS leanings quite logically led him to Hindutva and the promise of a Hindu Rashtra.
Modi was shrewd enough to keep his own hands clean, so as to avoid accusations of subverting the secular ethos of India. However, he gave tacit approval to his underlings, like Yogi Adityanath, to pander to Hindu sentiments by enacting laws like beef ban and criminalizing cow slaughter. The not so subtle message behind these messages that primarily affected the lifestyle of Muslims was that the government no longer cared. The BJP did not need the Muslim vote bank, as long as they could enthuse a substantial portion of 80% of the population to support it. As is usual with repressive measures, this encouraged vigilantism that continues to this day. The mere rumour of beef being stored in a house, or a cow carcass being discovered, was sufficient justification for rampaging mobs to attack the alleged perpetrators. They were and are being encouraged by a lukewarm response from the police, many of whom sympathize with the attackers. After a few months of silence, Modi felt constrained to make the right noises by declaring that this type of hooliganism would not be tolerated. However, no concrete deterrent measures were ever put in place.
Mandir Vahi Banayenge!
As if this wasn’t sufficient pandering, Modi and the BJP revived the dormant Ram Mandir issue. Building a magnificent Ram temple became a rallying cry for not only faith, but national pride. Not surprisingly, like-minded political parties like the Shiv Sena – who normally delighted in provoking the BJP – hitched their wagon to the Ram train. The BJP’s electoral strategy was becoming clear. Hindutva was now the express to 2019; development had been relegated to the status of a slow train.
Come 2018, a more dramatic transformation was observed in domestic Modi himself. His speeches, particularly at political rallies, became pure old school. He demonized his political opponents, reserving special scorn and ridicule for the Congress. Rahul Gandhi was, of course, an easy target. In speech after speech, Modi revives the old chestnut of dynastic rule; and how India would have now been a land of milk and honey if the first Prime Minister had not been Nehru, but his new-found idol Sardar Patel. He did erect a horrendously expensive and gigantic statue of the great man, remember?
The Trials and Tribulations of 2019
So, is Modi starting to worry? His public persona continues to exhibit the same bravado as before, but perhaps the possibility, however remote, of losing power in the next few months is beginning to dawn on him. The feasibility of India’s diverse and fractious political parties coming together for the sole purpose of ousting the BJP remains fanciful, but it could happen. Even if it did, it is unlikely that such an unholy alliance would survive more than a year or two; and Modi could be back in the saddle. Still, for a leader who considers himself invincible, it would be bitter medicine. More ominously, a defeat in 2019 would bust the myth of Modi being indispensable; and other BJP leaders could start jockeying for the top spot.
My guess is that, despite the outward bravado, Modi is a troubled man these days. Perhaps the strain of maintaining his world statesman persona abroad and, at the same time, indulging in muck-raking politics at home is starting to get to him. As his speeches become more strident, his aura is becoming cloudier. If the public becomes disillusioned and begins to regard him as just another typical politician, it may not bode well for him or his party. All in all, it promises to be an exciting general election.
Firoze Hirjikaka is a retired civil engineer and freelance writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org