Vituperative politics is India’s ‘New Normal’ (Sunday Guardian)
Union Minister of Finance, Corporate Affairs and Information & Broadcasting Arun Jaitley, whose network of friends and admirers, especially in the media, is unrivalled, has adopted the path taken by L.K. Advani, that of using the blogosphere to express his views on a range of subjects. Jaitley’s lament about political debate in India having become too adversarial for his taste has been widely reproduced in the press. But here the media is concerned, a splash of “mirch masala” seems the ideal ingredient to whet public appetites for a news report or a commentary in a world where advertisers put their money where the readers and viewers are, with a few exceptions caused by pioneer status within the industry. An anodyne comment is likely to quickly get smothered by more astringent remarks, while a gladiatorial atmosphere within the ranks of the politically powerful is better conducive to the public interest than a collegial discussion of the weather among a group of senior citizens, important though such musings may be in the attempted creation of a climate of civility of the sort favoured by the Election Commission of India, whose numerous incarnations have been consistent in their distaste of the freewheeling verbal cut and thrust which forms the staple of television sound-bites in a hyper-competitive market.
The red lines marked out in verbal contests by those nostalgic for the old days of civilised discourse (assuming such a period existed) are being crossed with abandon these days, and sometimes to an extent where even proponents of free speech may wince, as when the Chief Minister of Delhi used an unusually unflattering adjective to describe the Prime Minister of India. However, the reality is that such a “gloves are off” situation is here to stay. Despite continuous commentary on the “ineffectiveness” of the Modi government, the PM’s political rivals are aware that his rule has the capacity to be transformational, upending seven decades of what may be termed the Nehruvian Consensus.
Incrementally, usually without publicity, Narendra Modi is transforming the chemistry of administration, as well as strengthening those elements in the social fabric who have been in the shade since Sardar Patel passed away and left the governance of India firmly in the grip of Nehru. Being a democrat, in the hagiography of Amartya Sen, Sunil Khinani and other publicists for India’s first Prime Minister, the occupant of the former residence of the British Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army implemented exactly those policies which personally appealed to him, without even a pretence of consultation with the overwhelming majority within the Congress Party, who disagreed with many of the policies of Jawaharlal Nehru. Both foreign and economic policies were framed in the way they were in the USSR under Josef Stalin, implemented according to the prejudices and predilections of a single individual. The result was a cascade of lost opportunities and a rate of growth so low that to this day, more than 300 million citizens of India go to sleep hungry each night, and the creation of a structure built on governmental discretion and privilege based on a deep mistrust of the citizen of India being adult enough to take his own decisions and be trusted with discretion.
Even more than the policy measures taken thus far by Prime Minister Modi (and it must be said that they have been most innovative in the field of foreign policy and less so in matters of economics and education), the very gifting of a majority to a party led by Narendra Modi indicated that there had been a seminal change in the chemistry of the people, such that later analysts will divide time zones into Pre-Modi and post-Modi’s assumption of the nation’s most powerful office on 26 May 2014. Even should the BJP continue with its litany of mishaps and thereby lose its Lok Sabha majority in 2019, the change illustrated by Modi is irreversible. However, its depth and its spread would be far quicker and greater were Modi to win for his party a second term. It is the fear of such a transformation that is driving politicians across the nation into concentrating their attention on a single individual, the Prime Minister.
There is no reason for surprise at the ferocity with which Arvind Kejriwal, Rahul Gandhi and to a lesser degree others such as Nitish Kumar are pillorying Narendra Modi. They sense that the 2019 contest will be a battle between those who favour Modi and those who oppose him, and both Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi seek to win the prize of the Number One Modi Baiter (NOMB), thereby attracting those voters with negative feelings about the PM and the party he leads. Vituperation is likely to be the New Normal in politics in India, no matter how uncomfortable sensitive individuals may be about such a trend, and it must be said that judging by the public record, the BJP is giving as good as it is getting, although a ruling party usually gets far less public sympathy than a group in the opposition. The fact that the BJP has morphed from Opposition to Ruling does not seem to have entered the consciousness of its many spokespersons, who are more into “attack” mode than into “explain” mode.
Although his rivals accuse him of “doing too little”, they know that the opposite is the case, that he is doing too much for their ease, and therefore, should he ensure victory for the BJP in 2019 as well, a third term in 2024 (as was the case in Gujarat) is very probable. Hence efforts will be continuous to derail him latest by 2019, but if possible earlier. Despite the roils and rumbles, Modi has changed Gujarat, and a second term — or an unobstructed first term — may change India in a direction far removed from the Nehruvian Consensus. Which is why PM Modi is likely to witness the same intensity of personal attack as did CM Modi. Those in his team who claim that an era of conciliation and cooperation with Modi’s political rivals is feasible are wrong. The gloves are off, and will be as long as Narendra Modi remains Prime Minister of India.