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Partners dispensable in Modi-Shah construct if they do not bring additional votes

In the Modi-Shah construct, if partners do not bring additional votes, they are dispensable. However old or loyal, either they become supplicants, or die.

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In a National Interest published in the winter of 2007 (‘If Modi wins on Sunday’*), I had anticipated the implications for national politics and the BJP’s and Narendra Modi’s future if he won a second election as Gujarat chief minister. I flaunt it unabashedly now obviously because I believe I got a bunch of things right. It is in the fairness of things therefore that I now also highlight what I did not get right, or was not able to anticipate, despite sticking my neck out with somewhat uncharacteristic recklessness.

I had said then that a repeat victory in Gujarat would make Modi’s rise as the pre-eminent BJP leader irresistible, Rahul Gandhi’s challenger for national power, even that his short-sleeved kurtas would become a national fashion statement – okay, I did miss out on that colourful waistcoat entirely. But that is not what this elaborate confession is about.

That column also said Modi’s rise would put BJP’s NDA allies under severe pressure and those like Nitish Kumar who still claim to be secular would break away. That turned out right. But I had never imagined that all the partners would be under stress, including those with no need or expectation of the Muslim vote. That is precisely how the Modi manner and method is unfolding now. The Bhajan Lal dynasty’s tiny Haryana Janhit Congress has been dumped without a sorry, see-you-later or thank you. Shiv Sena has now been shown its place. Shiromani Akali Dal waits for its turn, twisting in the wind, as Modi and Amit Shah go about conquering state after state in a campaign that would remind the faithful of ancient Ashwamedh Yagnas. The objective then was to be proclaimed an all-conquering chakravarti, unchallenged ruler of the world. With some liberties now for the sake of contemporaneity, you could say Modi seems to emerge as the new Indira Gandhi.

It will be tempting, particularly for the cult of Modi Bhakts, to see parallels with Sardar Patel instead. But 1947 was a different India, Congress a monopoly concern and the old princes mostly unpopular. The manner in which Modi has gone about “cleansing” his own party of any likely challenge, and then destroying not just the Opposition but even his own allies, makes a comparison with post-1969 (when she split her Congress)

Modi has upended one of the central postulates of coalition politics. That each coalition has some ‘essential’ allies. For BJP,these were Shiv Sena and Akali Dal. Modi has now junked one,the other is waiting.

Indira Gandhi more apt. Modi is not smilingly inclusive like Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Definitely not a charming romantic like Jawaharlal Nehru. He doesn’t need to be wily or scheming for survival like P.V. Narasimha Rao. He is emerging as a leader pretty much in his original image and style, but one area where you can safely compare him with Indira Gandhi is his audacity, the will to play high stakes, risk everything. Maharashtra, after Haryana, is good evidence. This audacity is what I had failed to foresee in his 2007 rise.

In the process, Modi has upended one of the central postulates of our coalition politics. That each coalition has some “essential” allies while many others then gravitate towards the winning side, their ideologies being totally fungible with power. Essential allies, on the other hand, are those with nowhere to go but their natural home. For BJP, these were Shiv Sena and Akali Dal, two parties not even remotely claiming to be secular. Modi has now junked one without the offer of a face-saver, even some kind of a political VRS. The other, Akali Dal, is waiting.

This reverses the politics that grew from the 1989 self-destruction of Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress. Run your eye over how it evolved. First, V.P. Singh’s minority coalition was installed in power with BJP and the Left propping it from outside. Remember, this was when the two were sworn enemies and did not want to be seen talking. L.K. Advani revealed to me much later in an interview that a discreet contact was set up whereby industrialist Viren Shah would organise quiet dinner meetings at his home for Advani and Jyoti Basu. Next, the H.D. Deve Gowda-I.K. Gujral United Front, though in minority, was kept in power by the Congress and Left supporting it from inside (CPI) and outside (the rest). If the objective that united rivals earlier was to keep Congress and Dynasty out of power, now it was to deny New Delhi to “communal” BJP. To that extent, the key tectonic plates of national politics had shifted, from uniting others against Congress, to BJP. This continued into 2004 and onwards as the communal/secular divide provided an ideological underpinning to rival coalitions. Modi and Shah have now changed this. Their calculations are sound, if cynical, that these allies only add to NDA’s kitty a few more votes of the faithful. Those BJP can target directly under Modi. If partners, however old or loyal, do not bring any additional votes, they are dispensable. There is no compulsion to put up with their nakhras. In any case, where will Sena and Akali Dal go? So either they become supplicants, or die. Coalition dharma was an idea that UPA gave such a bad name to, it was time it was buried. This is a fundamental shift.

It raises intriguing questions. The most important, what is the Modi-Shah plan on minorities? Have they consciously chosen a muscularly majoritarian model now? Or do they think they can reach out to minorities also by themselves and unite them under one flag even if it is dyed-in-saffron?

Further, have they concluded already that Congress is dead and buried and incapable of resurrection or finding common cause with smaller parties and caste-based heartland dynasties now at a lost end? And if so, what are the implications of this politics, first for governance as BJP still needs both estranged friends and permanent enemies to get by with legislative business in the Rajya Sabha, and then electorally, because this contradicts the way NDA politics towards minorities had evolved lately. In two state elections, two unusual developments had signalled a welcome trend. First in Punjab, Akali Dal, the most unambiguously religious party in India, submitting to the temporal power of the Sikh equivalent of the Vatican, the Akal Takht at Golden Temple, and with a party constitution mandating that only a baptised Sikh can be its president, had more Hindu MLAs elected on its ticket in 2012 than Congress or BJP.

This was a complete and, to those of us who had watched the terrorist-separatist mayhem of 1983-93 closely, welcome filling up of the old Hindu-Sikh fault line. Next, in a mirror image, BJP had more Christians elected on its ticket in Goa than Congress, again breaking an old wall. How Manohar Parrikar subsequently kept his counsel and did not succumb to the Sangh’s pressure for enforcing a cow slaughter ban in a state where the large Christian community is beef-eating is an insufficiently documented story of his foresight. Where this features in the Modi-Shah construct going ahead, we’d rather not anticipate yet.

Two tales of coalition dharma, pre-UPA: At the risk of giving away the sting in the tail, let me say upfront that the first is a good story, and the second not quite so but more fun. Which you would expect, given that the first involves Vajpayee and the second Balasaheb Thackeray.

There was a point in NDA’s early days, with the Akali-BJP combine having come to power in Punjab (1997), when some disconcerting activity began. Bhindranwale’s posters appeared in the Golden Temple complex, there were small rallies and speeches in his praise, the threat of building a memorial for him and other “martyrs” of Operation Bluestar in the temple complex. It did seem to some of us that Parkash Singh Badal and his Akalis, if not complicit, were looking the other way. Sure enough, I started to raise questions, even asking why BJP should not pull out of the coalition. Until I got a call to go see Vajpayee, still in opposition.

He gave me an audience, or rather a short speech, in front of Advani and Madan Lal Khurana, who mostly let him talk. For decades, said Vajpayee, Sikhs and Hindus had a strained relationship in Punjab, and that led to separatism. Now if Akalis and BJP, and by implication Hindus and Sikhs, had joined hands in one coalition, should we strengthen it, or break it? “Aap apne column ko kehte hain National Interest, Shekharji, phir bataiye hamein kya hai rashtra hit mein.” (You call your column National Interest, so tell me what is better for India.) He said he shared my concerns, but the BJP-Akali alliance was in the larger national interest and we needed to be patient. Problems like these would be sorted out, he said: “What is Khuranaji’s charm for.” Khurana was the BJP’s permanent envoy to the Akali Dal. That was one idea of coalition dharma.

The other came up when I persistently asked Balasaheb in a 2007 interview on his 80th birthday why he had got Suresh Prabhu sacked from the Vajpayee cabinet. He tried to evade it, but finally let go. His party, he said, needed money like any other. And Prabhu said he was able to collect nothing from the power ministry. Balasaheb said he asked Prabhu if his ministry was a slice of lemon which his predecessor had fully squeezed already? Then Pramod Mahajan came to him for peace-making, and Balasaheb asked him if Prabhu could be right.

He said Pramod laughed and said if any central minister claimed it was impossible to make money, he was either lying and stealing, or incompetent. Now you decide for which reason I got “that man slashed, slashed”, Balasaheb told me in rage that looked so touchingly righteous. Developments last week, Prabhu’s entry in the Cabinet and in BJP, complete that tale. If coalition dharma would mean living with such blackmail as well, probably Modi and Shah have a case for their new politics.

This article was originally published on 24 November, 2014.

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  1. Wooooowww…was completely flumoxxed to see the article written in 2014. I completely thought it was in 2020. The far-sightedness of Shekhar Gupta is truly brilliant…

  2. This column ages well, like wine. However, it could not have foreseen six years ago that political dominion would remain unsupported by outstanding achievements in governance and development. Allies who seemed dispensable like Kleenex might be missed when numbers begin to fall short.

  3. Sir, your definition of secular is Anti Hindu and at worst Anti India. YouR days of glory are over. Honestly for someone who use to use Indian English system to throw his weight around to be made so irrelevant. How difficult would that be … I can picture you after 2024; sharing again that I was wrong and we (elite ) missed Hindustan mood… till then crib and cry.

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