Looking beyond Modi’s waning magic

modi

In India’s personalized electoral politics, it needs to be graciously acknowledged that the Modi Magic factor still rules supreme from the coastal lines of Gujarat to the snow-bound rugged hills of Himachal Pradesh, whatever might be the nature of people’s anger and grudges over their social and economic discomforts.

In Himachal, the anti-incumbency factor was working decisively against the Congress’s 83-year-old CM face of Virbhadra Singh amidst charges of corruption and inept governance. He, therefore, could not have reversed the hill state’s tradition of dethroning incumbents.

Even otherwise, the ‘Crown Prince’ Rahul Gandhi of the 133-year-old Congress had virtually given up Himachal, as a “lost case” well before the battle of ballots. The only consolation the party could draw was the defeat of the BJP’s 73-year-old potential CM face of Prem Kumar Dhumal. This however, does not spoil the flavour of the saffron party’s victory.

The total electoral concentration of Rahul Gandhi, who took over as Congress President on December 16, was on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home turf of Gujarat. And it turned out to be a fierce duel between Gujarat’s ‘Master Magician’ Modi and ‘Pappu’ Rahul derisively dubbed initially by his BJP “admirers”! After the December 18 historic verdict in which the Congress has put its best show since 1985, Rahul has definitely emerged an alternative national leader for the biggest electoral show of 2019.

What would make the 2019 battle highly competitive is clear from the fact that Prime Minister Modi no longer looks invincible. He had to fight hard for the party’s wafer-thin majority in his saffron bastion of 22 years. To get 99 seats in the 182-seat Gujarat Assembly, this is the BJP’s lowest winning tally since 1975, thereby denying it the psychological zone of comfort of the three-digit victory. But then, a victory is a victory. I & B Minister Smriti Irani has rightly put it, “Jo jeeta wohi Sikandar”.

Be that as it may. What is crucial for our “magician Sikandar” is to look, reflect and think afresh on how and where he and his party are showing signs of drift. There is also a growing anger among young voters against Narendra Modi’s policies and postures in his vibrant home turf.

Young voters of Gujarat, headed by “caste cowboys” Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor (OBC) and Jignesh Mevani (Dalit), have raised some critical questions over the much-triumphed Gujarat model of development. They have clearly signaled resentment over stagnant employment scene and slow-to-moderate lop-sided growth. Even clearly visible have been signs of farmers’ distress in critical areas of cotton and peanuts in the state.

The question of GST and demonetization also cannot be made as personal prestige issues by Prime Minister Modi. Small and medium sized manufacturers and traders have a lot to talk about these issues, even beyond the borders of Gujarat.

The answer to all the economic ills is surely Vikas. But the range and dimension of Vikas and reforms have to be in tune with ground realities rather than matters of theoretical arguments.

Prime Minister Modi also needs to have a critical look at his contents and style of campaigning, if he wishes to repeat or improve upon his 2014 success.

In the traditional Indian yardstick, a leader is expected to speak truthfully and without any distortions to his people, whatever might be the nature of provocations. The BJP’s tallest of all leaders as of today – Narendrabhai Modi – went off tangent while campaigning fiercely for his party during the Gujarat poll campaign.

I do not wish to go into his electoral compulsions. My point is simple: A top leader at the helm of national affairs is not expected to cross the Lakshman rekha in public conduct, even while campaigning for his party. For, at stake is his credibility as Prime Minister which must not be compromised.

Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar’s “neech” remark was of course shocking and in bad taste. He has been known for his off-the-cuff remark, showing the class he belongs to. Prime Minister Modi is not supposed to bring himself to the level of Mani’s “neech culture”.

Manishankar

It, however, must be said to the credit of Rahul Gandhi that the party subsequently suspended Mani Shankar Aiyar. He also reacted in a dignified manner and talked about his high respect for the dignity of the Prime Minister’s Office.

The “neech syndrome” apart, what has particularly disturbed me most is the way the Prime Minister played with facts regarding Mani Shankar Aiyar’s informal dinner on December 6 which was attended by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Vice-President Hamid Ansari, former Army Chief Deepak Kapoor, former foreign secretary Salman Haidar, senior ex diplomats, journalists, former Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri and Pakistan High Commissioner to India Sohail Mahmood.

At an election rally in Gujarat on December 10, the Prime Minister made a specific reference to this dinner get-together, called it a “secret meeting” and alleged Pakistan’s hand of “conspiracy” to sabotage the BJP’s  prospect of winning the Gujarat elections.
The logic of Modi’s interpretation is intriguing. Finance Minister Arun Jaitely dubbed the dinner meeting as a “misadventure” and worrisome that violated the “national position” concerning regard to talks with Pakistan as specified.

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There is nothing like an agreed all-party national position on a dialogue with Islamabad. ‘No-talks’ may be the official position for the present, though the dialogue goalpost officially keeps shifting every now and then.

In any case, Aiyar’s was a private dinner at which some Pakistani and Indian dignitaries were present. There was nothing wrong if they exchanged their views on the prevailing bilateral deadlock.

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Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, known for his personal integrity and honesty, had reasons to be terribly upset and hurt at what he called Modi’s “falsehood and canards”. In an uncharacteristic attack, he rightly asked Modi to “show the maturity and gravitas expected of the high office he holds” and apologise for his “ill thought transgression” to restore the dignity of the office he occupies.

It needs to be appreciated that the reigning leadership plays a crucial role in the building of the Nation-State. A visionary leadership can help build a congenial atmosphere for healthy political discourses and put a stop to the process of “deformed democracy” acquiring overtones of what Edgar Owens refers to in his book “The Future of Freedom” as “false democracy”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a great admirer of Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore. I shall quote from a book edited by Chan Heng Chee  – Obaid ul Haq in which S Rajaranam in his contribution “The prophetic and political” writes:
“… the greatest achievement of Prime Minister Lee is not the physical transformation of the mind and character of the average Singaporean.. Today more than ever before, the apologetic immigrant has acquired a sense of his worth; has taken roots”.

The “mind and character” of the people of India cannot be built on distorted facts, “falsehood and canards”. Nor can politicking and petty political games played by our political elite help to cover up the cleavages in our society. The challenge here lies in building the right kind of political and social environment to build a self-reliant and self-sustaining Indian citizen.

While we are good at championing high values and norms, we are equally poor at following them. This brings me to my last point on how low-grade public discourses are vitiating the atmosphere of our electoral democracy.

It is indeed regrettable that Indian politics in recent years has not only acquired violent communal overtones but has become awfully dirty. We saw such dirty spectacles regarding Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Padmavati and cow vigilantism.

Law and order matters must not be allowed to be “privatized” as seen in areas of public health and education to the disadvantage of the poor, the have-nots and the middle class.
With more than 70 per cent of the population still struggling to survive, the ruling class must not discard the state’s “welfare face” to take care of the disprivileged and underprivileged sections of Indian society! Even in the Gujarat verdict, the warning signal from the youth on systems privatised education and health are quite ominous.

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