Even in times so polarised that we fight over the colours of our cricket team’s kit, there is one thing both fans and critics of Narendra Modi agree on: That he is unbeatable. Now, and in any foreseeable future.
First, the BJP loyalists. They think their hold on power is now unshakeable for a quarter of a century. Broadly, that would make it about equal to the Congress rule between 1952-89, broken only by the short period between 1977 and 1979. This is only fair, they say, as the nationalist Right must have the same opportunity to mould India as the secular Left did after Independence.
In five years, they’ve already shown how fragile the old socio-political formulations, especially of hard secularism, are and how easy it is to take away socialism and welfarism from the old Centre-Left — only to execute it better, and convert this efficient delivery to the poor into votes. The project to change the ideological and philosophical colour of gathering academia and intelligentsia is already progressing well.
With repeated majorities, they believe, they will have the time to achieve much of their ideological objectives by 2025, early in Modi’s third term. The remodelling of India into their concept of Hindu Rashtra, they believe, can be achieved in the next six years, within the ambit of the same Constitution, basic character and all. That year also happens to be the 100th anniversary of the founding of the RSS.
Modi loyalists now believe they have established a social contract with India’s poor, much as Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi had done.
They believe they have destroyed the Congress not through Hindu nationalism, but by being better at old-Congressisms: Welfarism, a national security obsession bordering on jingoism, and an almighty personality cult. This new social contract with the poor has made Modi unbeatable, they think.
The best armies can lose wars, but they are tested for their nerve in orderly retreats as much as in heady victories. The Opposition, led by the Congress, is breaking ranks and retreating into self-destruction much like our army in 1962, commanded by cowardly generals who fled first, and bumbling politicians.
The mood is characterised by the Opposition’s sanctimonious outrage at the voters. The Congress believes ‘Modi has won but India has lost’, which the PM brought up in Parliament this week to taunt the Opposition. Allies of the Congress and others fare worse. For example, Karnataka Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy’s outburst at job-seekers: ‘You voted for Modi, ask him for jobs’ is typical of this bankruptcy. And Mayawati blaming her own ally Akhilesh Yadav for her defeat. The BSP chief’s is the most panicky politics now, followed closely by Mamata Banerjee. The Bengal CM’s call to the Congress and Left to join her in a common front against the BJP is morally bankrupt, politically nutty and psephologically unwise. It is as if Mamata has already conceded defeat in the next assembly elections. Others, from the Left to Naveen Patnaik, Jagan Mohan Reddy, KCR and M.K. Stalin, do not count.
It is tempting to buy into the Opposition’s mood — that Modi is unbeatable, particularly with his 95:5 superiority in resources, tightening control over the institutions and an increasingly supplicant media. What can you do if the voters want an elected dictatorship?
Historically, post-Rajiv Gandhi, this has been the approach of the Congress party. It gets so contemptuous of people who reject it overwhelmingly that it doesn’t even go back and ask them why. Yogendra Yadav, in his psephologist avatar, made a startling finding: That the Congress never makes a recovery in a state once its vote share has fallen below 20 per cent there.
It just gets so angry with voters’ “stupidity”, as if to say, OK guys, you don’t deserve us and we don’t need ungrateful people like you. This, the outrage of the spurned feudal, is a reasonable explanation for Rahul Gandhi not showing up in Amethi even five weeks after he lost the loyal family bastion. You can’t be so dismissive unless you’ve concluded that Modi is now unbeatable. So, the opposition to Modi is better left to ‘liberal’ activists, intellectuals and PIL warriors. The challenge of a political reversal, therefore, is diminished into the heady but collegiate idea of ‘resistance’.
If both the Modi backers and opponents are right and he’s permanently unbeatable, the first casualty will be political commentators like us. There will be nothing more to say. The fact is, politics never becomes frozen or static for long. It is mostly cyclical, though the wheel can sometimes take really long to turn, as it did with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
The history of democracies is filled with examples of the self-destruction of both, who declared victory or defeat too early. But there are also many of those who refuse to give up, absorb the shock and lessons of defeat and rebuild — but with patience. The best examples are both Indira’s Congress after the Emergency and then the Advani-Vajpayee BJP.
Indira Gandhi rebuilt herself within two-and-a-half years, via jail and riding an elephant to Belchi. When she saw a weakness in the Janata government, notably national security, she attacked it devastatingly and succeeded.
In 1980, the Janata Party, which included the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, disintegrated in humiliation and Indira Gandhi made a thumping return. But Vajpayee and Advani led their defeated troops into an organised retreat and regrouped into a new party, the BJP. Within four years, it suffered a bigger setback, reduced to two in Rajiv Gandhi’s 1984 landslide. As did the rest of the Opposition.
But Advani and Vajpayee didn’t go into a sulk. They analysed their weaknesses and put their heads down with determination and humility. And, remember, Rajiv had won 414 seats then. Modi still has only 303.
Within three years, that same devastated opposition had reduced Rajiv to a lame duck. Rajiv’s errors helped, but the Opposition, especially the BJP, did a brilliant job inside Parliament and outside, aligning with Congress dissidents and Opposition leaders it had fought with, and worked with activists and the media to unravel Bofors and other scandals.
The real reason it raised itself to power in 1998 was that it found a big idea the Congress and Socialists couldn’t counter: Ram Mandir and new Hindutva. You can detest it, but a big idea was needed as an alternative. It’s taken 35 years, but the BJP is now as dominant as the Congress in the past.
The best way to learn lessons of politics, in victory or defeat, is from evidence from your own times. Modi may have the aura of an irresistible conquistador now but he is human. He isn’t an ‘avatar’ (or ‘autar’ as they’d say in the heartland). Within months of his 2014 landslide, Arvind Kejriwal beat him 67-3 in Delhi, only because his AAP then was a big new idea. Political change of that kind needs radical surgery. Homoeopathy won’t do.
This is the season of cricket, and I will invoke a brilliant Asaduddin Owaisi description for Modi: He walks into Parliament with the nonchalance of a Vivian Richards coming out to bat in supreme contempt of the bowlers. Then there’s the ‘solution’ England found for their Richards problem: Just set a deep, defensive field, let him keep hitting and you block his shots until he gets bored and makes a mistake. Endless patience, self-preservation, waiting for the adversary to make errors is also a strategy. The first pre-requisite, even more than intellect, is a bunch of guts and some fire in the belly.