There is something disarming about a known partisan admitting that he is one as he analyses a parliamentary election, which unlike any previous one, barring perhaps the mid-term polls of 1971, was fought almost completely along personality projections. And the dominant trend in almost all analyses since the election has been to project Narendra Modi as larger than life and his rivals almost diminished by his very presence. Veteran journalist Harish Khare, however, goes against the grain.
Modi might at times appear mesmerised by his own persona, but not Khare, who analyses his subject’s achievements, accomplishments, acumen and shrewdness to come up with a compelling critique. For one, it comes from a man who was media adviser to Manmohan Singh for a good part of his term and hence privy to how governance works in the country.
Politics in the contemporary phase has been informed by unprecedented disillusionment, cultural and social angst, and the expectations of a nation that have changed so noticeably over the eventful past decade. The Indian voter in 2014 was charged with the responsibility of making a decisive choice between an increasingly jaded and outmoded Congress and an energetic and eager-to-please BJP. S/he categorically chose the latter, perhaps unaware that this move could presage the way for extreme polarisation and its attendant pitfalls. In retrospect, as Khare’s notes graphically illustrate, the electorate was rejecting the Congress rather than voting for an alternative.
The assiduously built cult around Modi reflects how the corporate sector unhesitatingly plumped for one central choice rather than distributing its wares among different contenders, and how the religious Right has come to stay as a phenomenon in the country’s politics. If Rajdeep Sardesai, in his take on the phenomenon a couple of months ago, tried to mix his several reservations about Modi with the general thrust in his favour, Khare does not attempt that kind of critique. He is instead intent on seeing the victor as a gainer from the political follies of the main opponent, and makes no attempt to try and hide his disappointment with the Congress and Rahul Gandhi. The Congress ‘forgot’ the few positive gains that accrued from the policies followed by the UPA before a terminal policy paralysis imprisoned it, even as Modi wasted no time in making himself the central issue in the electoral sweepstakes that clearly stumped the grand old party, tried as it did to hark back to the 2002 Gujarat riots and the illusory nature of the Gujarat model of development. Not since Indira Gandhi had Indian politics seen such a steady diminution of ‘issues’ in the face of a personality cult, and the Opposition’s combined failure clearly enabled Modi to accomplish this.
Khare says that in 2014, India went back to 1984. That was the year when the electorate invested Rajiv Gandhi with an unprecedented victory, which led Khare to then comment in the New York Times that “a conservative Hindu revolution had swept India”. There is some merit in that argument, since that election, too, was fought on the polarisation that had gripped the polity in the period from Operation Bluestar to Indira Gandhi’s assassination. In 2014, says Khare, Modi reclaimed, brilliantly and imaginatively, that “rightwing constituency”, tickling its visceral mistrust of those outside the majority fold.
There are no easy answers as to how a deeply controversial and divisive political leader could so decisively entice the electorate in his favour, but the results are there for all to see. By the middle of the upa’s second term, the Congress had forgotten its own moorings, and what was even more obvious, had no leader who could capture the popular imagination. Perhaps, but that is only in hindsight, Rahul could have taken the reins after his combative beginning post Jaipur and Niyamgiri, but that was clearly not what the party or its leadership was prepared to risk. Khare suggests that a course correction, even at a late stage, could have helped the grand old party, but that was not to be and Modi turned out to be the obvious beneficiary of that failure.