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Don't Expect Modi To Change!

Last updated on: June 12, 2024 11:43 IST
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'Commentators have said that dealing with allies as equals will make Modi more sensitive.'
'Remember that the people Modi is dealing with are equally autocratic in their own lairs.'

'Further, Modi always has handy the threat of dissolving Parliament and calling for fresh polls.'

'Most of his own party, and certainly his allies and opponents, having blown their budgets of efforts and resources in the just concluded elections, have no stomach for this.'

'They are all greatly looking forward to the loaves and fishes of office on offer.'

'That gives Modi an unbeatable advantage in any push-comes-to-shove situation,' explains Shreekant Sambrani.

IMAGE: Senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders Narendra D Modi, Amit A Shah, Rajnath Singh and J P Nadda at the BJP national headquarters in New Delhi, June 4, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

A personal note to start:

I have keenly observed all the Indian elections since 1972 for Lok Sabha as well as state assemblies.

I have also studied elections in some key countries in the world -- the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, among others.

I have written about them whenever I thought I has something worthwhile to say and found editors who thought so too.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the 2024 Indian general election has been the worst of the lot in terms of its noise, shrillness of tone and the level to which campaigners of all parties without exception have stooped to fling insults, insinuations and just plain vituperation at their opponents, whom they invariably treated as mortal enemies.

Yet in the end, I have questions as to what this extremely long and vicious campaign has achieved -- virtually nothing worth the effort, is the conclusion I am inexorably drawn to.

That covers not just politics, but also its economic consequences and social dynamics.

Therefore, when the editor invited me to write a column, I had not much hesitation to do so, even though in the initial phases of the campaign, I had almost made up my mind not to do so.

I believed this gave me an opportunity to place this election, and by extension, Indian politics, in a longer historical perspective, as well as in the context of the politics of leading democracies.

Length alert: The editor has granted me this privilege of wandering farther afield than is usual in election commentaries and hence this essay is a bit long-winded.

It is in two parts: What appears below is the immediate comment. The second part, which covers wider and longer term issues, appears next week.

I beg the interested readers' indulgence to abide by me.

IMAGE: Modi with Telugu Desam Party President N Chandrababu Naidu and Janata Dal-United President Nitish Kumar during the National Democratic Alliance meeting in New Delhi, June 7, 2024. Photograph: Kind courtesy Bharatiya Janata Party India/X


Plus ca change

In the last couple of days, like all the rest of us, I have pondered what changes do the election results portend.

I have come to the conclusion aptly summarised by an oft-used French phrase: plus ca change plus c'est la meme chose, meaning the more things change, the more they remain the same.

But, I must mention two exceptions to this:

First, even though we heard plenty of Election Commission bashing throughout the campaign, none has been heard since the counting of votes and announcement of result and rightly so.

The electronic voting machines seem not be in anybody's cross-hairs, nor the process of counting itself.

In fact, there should be no disagreement at all with the assertion that the Election Commission's conduct of the entire process was exemplary and above board, bar the small niggle of its reluctance to chastise the prime minister for some of his unwarranted and unsavoury remarks going clearly against the model code of conduct.

Second, Odisha has been hit by what can be realistically called a political tsunami, which washed away the long-serving reign of the ever-so gentlemanly Naveen Patnaik and his Biju Janata Dal.

But then without meaning any disrespect to Odisha and its politics, they were almost always off the mainstream developments of the country.

Therefore, the impact of this regime change would be mostly confined to the state.

IMAGE: Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge addresses the media with INDIA Bloc leaders in New Delhi, June 5, 2024. Photograph: Shrikant Singh/ANI Photo

As for the rest of the country, there is no regime change, although the leaders of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) would have us believe that their unexpectedly large gains are tantamount to a victory!

One respected independent intellectual with some claims to psephology has suggested that since the Bharatiya Janata Party tally is below 240, it is tantamount to a moral defeat.

All contests based on some objective criteria such as verifiable numbers (which would include most sports activities) are judged solely by those criteria and admit no notion of a moral victory.

A Test match win by a single run is just as valid as that by an innings and substantial numbers of runs.

The BJP at 240 will still be the single largest party in the new Lok Sabha and along with its pre-poll partners, the National Democratic Alliance is the clear winner which has the right to form the new government.

It is perhaps fittingly ironic that there is a symmetry between the two blocs.

If the NDA fell short of its aspirational target of 400 seats by about 24 per cent, so did the INDIA group miss its loudly announced 'performance' of 295 by nearly the same proportion, 21 per cent.

The BJP may have lost much electoral ground, but its leader Narendra Modi is backed by the entire NDA and soon after this is uploaded, would have been sworn in as the prime minister for the third consecutive term, a distinction he will share with the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru.

IMAGE: Modi during the NDA Parliamentary meeting in New Delhi, June 7, 2024. Photograph: Kind courtesy Bharatiya Janata Party India/X

Some prominent commentators have argued that competitive politics between two almost equal blocs offer voters a better choice.

Granted that there is a larger number of political formations to choose from after the election, but is it necessarily a better choice?

Aren't most of the new 'winners' those that the voters had rejected in the immediately preceding elections? An analogy: During the license permit raj, we had choice between two cars, the Ambassador and the Fiat.

They brought out new models periodically, but was that an improvement? We were stuck with the same two outdated automobiles, which performed no better for all the minimalist cosmetic changes they underwent occasionally.

Politically, we still have the same models, with no hint of a Maruti even on a distant horizon! Reshuffling the deck of the same politicians, tried (also often tired) and discredited to various extents is no gain for democracy.

What would be the agenda of the new government? Hardly any different from the outgoing one, since the main constituent and the chief policy makers have remained unchanged.

The new entrants to the power equation, Chandrababu Naidu and Nitish Kumar have had no differences worth the name with the previous regime.

Surely, there will be new faces in the ministry. That would have happened anyway, even if the BJP were to rule by itself.

And what about having to deal with allies with their own demands? Remember that in most of Modi 1.0, both Kumar and Naidu were with the NDA.

Modi dealt with them with a rare (for him) touch of finesse.

He can surely recall that, even in a changed situation of his reduced numbers.

IMAGE: Modi with NDA leaders in New Delhi, June 5, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

Commentators have also said that dealing with allies as equals will make Modi more sensitive.

Remember that the people Modi is dealing with are equally autocratic in their own lairs.

Two autocrats negotiating for gain in a non-zero-sum game is not exactly a part of the true democracy playbook.

Further, Modi always has handy the threat of dissolving Parliament and calling for fresh polls.

Most of his own party, and certainly his allies and opponents, having blown their budgets of efforts and resources in the just concluded elections, have no stomach for this.

They are all greatly looking forward to the loaves and fishes of office on offer.

That gives Modi an unbeatable advantage in any push-comes-to-shove situation.

Governance is to be treated at two levels, political and administrative.

Nobody with knowledge of recent parliamentary history can argue that the NDA had it easy getting its legislative agenda through.

And while twice as many on the Opposition benches can make perhaps twice as much noise, their obstruction level will not be significantly higher.

This columnist had said in 2014 before Modi became prime minister that he would find handling the legislature in Delhi significantly different and more difficult than in Gandhinagar.

The Gujarat assembly hardly had any Opposition worth the name and Modi could ensure safe passage of his legislative agenda with a minimum of effort.

In Delhi his strategy has been to largely ignore Parliament except when absolutely necessary and leave the handling of the Opposition to other members of the Cabinet.

I believe he will continue to do so with some of his allies taking on the Opposition when required.

IMAGE: A woman polling official leaves for the polling booth from the Dispersal Centre for the last phase of the Lok Sabha polls in Deoria, Uttar Pradesh. Photograph: ANI Photo

The Indian bureaucracy has survived and flourished all the political changes by the simple expedient of bowing to the politicians in power and carrying on its own initiative, whatever that is, in a true Sir Humphrey Appleby (of the series Yes, Minister) fashion.

It has never really shown any interest in or competence for solving on-ground problems.

It wakes up from its sloth only when a catastrophe strikes.

Notice instance after instance of its criminal negligence in dealing with unauthorised construction or unregulated activities, cutting across regions and political formations in power.

That is the reason why the common population has to resort to petty corruption or influence peddling.

This election, or for that matter, any other, is unlikely bring any change worth the name.

I hasten to add that there are several honourable exceptions of alert and duty-conscious officials, known to me personally, and as they must be, to most readers.

But we are talking here of a general pattern, not exceptions. And that retains its inertia.

IMAGE: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, Samajwadi Party President Akhilesh Yadav, Ajay Rai, INDIA bloc candidate from the Varanasi constituency, at an election rally in Varanasi. Photograph: ANI Photo


Rush to judgment

Indians are terminally addicted to elections and their analyses, this columnist very much included.

We are so desirous of change that we seem to detect patterns every time there are unexpected political results, when none might exist.

We are a nation of Monday-morning quarterbacks, who spout great advice and analyses after the weekend football game has been done and dusted.

In this context, I wish to reproduce below what I had recently written in this space following the state elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh last year, because it is pertinent to the present.

It is now almost axiomatic that the commentariat will discover some new phenomenon in the results of all major elections, even to the state assemblies, that marks a watershed in India's history.

In 2007, when the Bahujan Samaj Party won a clear majority on its own in the Uttar Pradesh assembly, winning 206 out of the 403 seats, a whopping gain of 108, we believed that Bahen Mayawati had indeed arrived.

It was a matter of time before she would shift her base to Raisina Hills and be acknowledged as India's first Dalit woman chief executive.

But she lost the 2012 state assembly election, rather badly at that, falling to 80 seats, and we promptly switched our attention to the victor, the Samajwadi Party under its young leader Akhilesh Yadav.

He had won even more handily than the BSP, with 224 seats, a gain of 127, well beyond anyone's expectations, including his father the patriarch of the party and many squabbling uncles.

Surely, it was time for the youth of the country, educated and with clean records to take charge.

It had no time for autocrats like Mayawati surrounded by a miasma of corruption.

IMAGE: Voters queue to cast their votes for the 7th phase of the Lok Sabha elections at the world's highest polling booth in Tashigang, Lahaul Spiti, June 1, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

Come 2017, and the BJP won an even grander victory, with a tally of 312, count 'em 312, a gain of 267! Unheard of, we said, and yesterday's young leader Akhilesh Yadav was succeeded by a slightly older Yogi Adityanath of the BJP.

We said it was lawlessness under the SP regime that led to the BJP landslide.

And when Yogi repeated his success five years later with 57 fewer seats, we said it was a victory for Hindutva, which trumped anti-incumbency and misgovernance issues.

I have narrated this history to show that what passes for election analysis in India is mostly, not all, Monday-morning quarter-backing, second guessing the voter behaviour afterthe fact.

The myriad opinion and exit polls are also not very different, with the added complication that the so-called psephologists do not even entertain the possibility that many a smart respondent would be giving them the answer that they would like to hear, and not the respondent's true view.

I have done far too many market surveys in my time to trust the integrity of the responses in their totality, but the growing tribe of pollsters in India seems to be suspending disbelief about what their surveyors bring in for them.

I write all this on 6 June, two days after the announcement of the results when we are still in the grip of analysts proposing every manner of explanation and its opposite.

If it is anti-incumbency that did the BJP in, how come Gujarat has been showing no such feeling even after over 30 years of BJP rule?

If it is farmers' ire in the northwest that felled mortal blows on the BJP, how is it that the not quite far off Madhya Pradesh with a much larger agrarian economy gave all its seats to the BJP?

The proud Tamilians resent Hindi-centric BJP but the equally proud Telugus embrace it in increasing numbers.

Squabbling allies cook the BJP's goose in Maharashtra, but the equally fractious allies in Bihar help it sail home.

And when I read our most respected public intellectual write on 5 June, 'But for now, this is the moment to savour the sweet elixir of freedom,' my mind goes back to 2004, when Brinda Karat told an NDTV anchor 'But now, let us savour this sweet moment of success' (or words to that effect) when discussing the 59 seats the Left Front had won, its highest ever tally.

Emotional partisans can afford to be naive, but erudite pundits surely cannot!

Twenty years later, the Left Front numbers are down to a single digit, and that too, thanks to the accommodation provided by the INDIA grouping.

It is evident that every theory and its opposite has some takers but none of them can explain the electoral phenomenon even for the limited region or period.

That suggests only one alternative: There is no theory and most political behaviour in India is random, much like what is known in physics as Brownian movement of suspended particles.

Electoral fortunes swing back and forth in a fashion that is mostly beyond the control of leaders and parties.

In a casino, fortunes are made and lost at the roulette wheel where the needle may come to rest on any number.

Players believe that they have a system to beat the house, but we know no one does.

IMAGE: A BJP supporter welcomes Modi as he arrives at BJP HQ, June 4, 2024. Photograph: Ritik Jain/ANI Photo

The reason is clear. Marketing experts have long been puzzled by what they call brand promiscuity among Indian consumers.

No sellers can take their customer base for granted.

They can be lured away by the smallest of baits, which may not even be real.

Indian voters are equally promiscuous in their electoral behaviour.

How else do you explain that Ayodhya with its snazzy new Ram temple, the toast of all India a few months ago, voted out its BJP candidate?

Or that Modi the Gangaputra won Varanasi by a margin one-third of what it was in 2019?

Or that the hugely election-savvy and articulate Smriti Irani lost Amethi (where she had defeated the long-term incumbent Rahul Gandhi in 2014) to a tongue-tied Congress retainer?

Marketing guru Rama Bijapurkar has the last word: We are like that only!

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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