From paternalistic governance to an undisguised personality cult, Indian politics has had a huge paradigm shift. The anointment of the ‘Supreme Leader’ has been swift and dramatic, and not everybody has been comfortable with the sheer ease with which the transition has taken place. This has to be internalised in depth rather than accepted uncritically, and to Rajdeep Sardesai’s credit, he has tried to do so in 2014: The Election That Changed India.
What follows is a racy narrative that goes beyond recording immediate political history to also reflect on what ails India’s woefully shallow electronic and print media. The story traces the rise of Narendra Modi and the decline of the Congress in graphic terms. According to Sardesai, Modi understood the “changing demographics” of India — a “younger, aspirational and upwardly mobile society”. He also ran an energetic, focussed and expensive campaign, helped all along by an unquestioning media, a listless rival who seemed too easily reconciled to defeat, a scam-tainted and terribly discredited ruling party and a pervasive disgust with the ways things were going.
Sardesai’s book revolves around Modi as the author painstakingly recreates the making of an individual who does not “forgive or forget easily” and “has a long memory and bears grudges against those who he believed had harmed him”. He calls Modi a bundle of energy, a great orator, an authoritarian a la Indira Gandhi and a strategic thinker.
“Like a true Gujarati, he calculates the cost and benefit of each move,” writes Sardesai, who paints an unflattering portrait of Modi’s governance during the 2002 Gujarat riots. The author believes that the Gujarat government under Modi was “utterly incompetent because it was aware that the Godhra violence could set off a cycle of vengeance and yet did not do enough to stop it”. Modi is shown as having been governed by the communal-fascist street logic of the Praveen Togadias, whom he could not rein in.
Sardesai mentions a chilling incident soon after the riots when things appeared to be back to normal. One night, he was returning after recording an interview with Modi, when, not far from the CM’s house, his car was stopped by a mob that wanted all occupants to drop their trousers to check if there were Muslims among them. Sardesai’s parents had got him circumcised in childhood for hygiene’s sake and the driver, too, was Muslim. This was trouble. When entreaties didn’t work, Sardesai flashed his press card and showed the mob the interview he had just recorded. Only then did they let them pass.
Cut to the 2014 General Election, which the BJP managed to turn into a truly presidential race, allowing Modi to set the pace and agenda and dramatically highlight the failure of his rivals. Sardesai writes that the media, especially the TV news channels, “lost its capacity to seriously interrogate the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate’s leadership credentials”. The fabled “Gujarat model” was never tested on the ground. What Modi said was believed uncritically, and this was no surprise because the media “did become part of the Modi propaganda machine”. It is difficult to foresee any change in that, given the corporate sector’s lavish patronage of the Supreme Leader.
On Rahul Gandhi, Sardesai has received conflicting reports. Some people have told him that he is indecisive and distant, while others have said he is well-meaning and attentive. That’s why, unlike some who have called him a dud, he stops short of calling him incompetent. But the fact that Rahul has displayed an utter lack of imagination is too obvious to be glossed over. Sardesai’s advice to the Congress is pretty straightforward: there is no predetermined cycle in politics, so don’t wait for Modi to trip; go out to the field and rebuild the party organisation from scratch.
The reader will find interesting cameos of several players in the political marketplace. The manner in which the controversial Amit Shah has emerged on the scene has been sharply brought out. Mamata Banerjee, J Jayalalithaa and Mayawati have also been analysed in their given context. The decline of the Congress, the existential woes of the Left and the internal dynamics of the Sangh Parivar have been discussed at some length in what quite clearly has been the most satisfactory analysis of the contemporary political scene by far. For those not enamoured of both the Supreme Leader and the model he represents, it is a welcome addition to the existing, very thin, corpus.
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