Monday, October 27, 2014

Modi's popularity & power are re-inforced. How will he use them to conquer the challenges facing him?

Now that the festival of lights and fireworks is behind us (with a bonus ban on Chinese crackers), we can return to our customary festival of political fireworks. The excitement produced by the Assembly election results is yet to die down although Maharashtra has a semblance of unity after tortuous oneupmanship games. It was yet another Narendra Modi triumph, no doubt about that. For the rest, what we see is a maze of interpretations, explanations and anticipations. Ploughing through this labyrinth, we can see at least six lines of thought. Take your pick.

The era of coalitions is over and so is the relevance of regional parties, say BJP circles emboldened by the party going solo and doing well. But this is a premature claim. In Maharashtra a tactical understanding amounting to a coalition became necessary so that the BJP could proceed towards forming a government. Haryana got an all-BJP government, but a completely local party, the INLD, won enough seats to become the main opposition. This in spite of the INLD being a decrepit party steeped in corruption and with its top leaders in jail.

Ideology has nothing to do with the rise of the BJP or the fall of the other parties. The BJP did well because of people's disgust with the dynastic Congress and the popular oratory of Narendra Modi that offered the promise of a change. The strong Modi personality towered over the feebleness of Sonia Gandhi and her son. Rahul Gandhi's proven incompetence is finally provoking several Congressmen to criticise the leadership openly.

Modi is the winner rather than the BJP. The party won spectacularly in the elections in which he campaigned, and fared badly in the state byelections in which he did not campaign. No one in the BJP can win votes the way Modi can. This uniqueness must be seen in tandem with Modi's tendency to to be the pivot around which power revolves. Even cabinet ministers do not take decisions on their own or speak out of turn. This can be a good thing from the governance angle, but it is in the tradition of the banyan tree under which no grass grows.

The Modi style of control worked well in Gujarat, but can it be equally effective in the bewilderingly diverse landmass that is India? The dissensions within the party over the Maharashtra chief minster's post were an indication of power lust afflicting BJP leaders as much as other party leaders. Eventually of course Narendra Modi's word prevails. How is this different from Sonia Gandhi's word prevailing over infighting Congressmen?

There is general agreement that the Congress is finished and will remain finished for a while. It will remain finished because it still does not try to escape from the curse of dynastic control. The current thinking is that Priyanka Gandhi will save the party. She won't. She might in fact bring further ignominy to the party with her husband entangled in scandals that can turn, to put it mildly, inconvenient. This does not mean that the BJP can achieve what it calls a Congress-eradicated India. That means in effect an opposition-eradicated India which would be disastrous. Besides, the old party has, especially at the younger levels, a great deal of talent, clean and capable. Someday somehow they will have to come out of the dynastic stranglehold and make something of themselves -- and of their party and their country.

Perhaps the most important sentiment that has emerged is hope. There is a perceptible feeling that Modi has re-invented himself yet again and is trying genuinely to become acceptable to all. He is known to isolate the hardliners in his own party if they interfere with his policy ideas. But then hardliners are an easy problem compared to corruption. Modi's corruption-free image is his greatest asset, but his party has been anything but corruption-free. The initial willingness to make a deal in Maharashtra with the NCP, a den of corruption at the top, was indicative of a tolerant attitude to the corrupt for political bargaining.

Modi can afford to rise above such short-term tactics because he has a popularity rating higher than that of any living politician in the country. The question is, will he use it to conquer the challenge of corruption? Modi has more power than any Prime Minister before him, not excluding Indira Gandhi and he has the will to use it. The question is, will he use it to conquer the politics of polarisation? The nation waits.