Indian politics is dominated by one man — Narendra Modi. I should correct that and perhaps concede that it is in fact one and a half men, Modi and Amit Shah, who dominate the political landscape.
The latest C-Voter ‘Mood of the Nation’ survey confirms the Prime Minister’s unassailable power. On the second anniversary of his second mandate, while presiding over mass deaths due to the Covid pandemic and the omnishambles that is India’s vaccination policy, Modi has only received a polite rap on his knuckles. Dropping a few percentage points from the previous survey, Modi today still commands a whopping 60 per cent of approval ratings.
Modi’s personality prevailing even over the party system has led to the destruction of any viable opposition today. The astonishing fact remains that the politics of over 136 crore people is swayed by one man and name. Elections too — assembly or national – over the past seven years appear now as periodic plebiscites on Modi.
The rise of the leader, personality, or person in Indian democracy has come at the cost of the political party. Democracy and especially parliamentary democracy’s vehicle of power and representation has always been the political party.
Calling this the arrival of ‘presidential’ politics in a parliamentary system explains nothing. America as the world’s biggest presidential system is entirely dependent on two parties. If anything, Joe Biden’s victory has resurrected the powers of the party system in American democracy.
It is easy to bemoan the demise of the powers of the political party and blame it on the seductions of social media in particular. Doing so, however, would be a mistake. Undoubtedly, social media has amplified and even speeded up if not the irrelevance of the party then certainly its impotence. The key issue is that one face or personality not only prevails over the institutional organ of the party system and Parliament by extension, but also now entirely determines Indian democracy.
Goodbye party? Modi and Indira’s rise to power
Modi rose as a national leader by overwhelming his own party’s structures. In climbing above and shifting aside stalwarts like L.K. Advani and others who had led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from being a fringe force in India’s democracy to a national party in two short decades, Modi had, in fact, suborned the party to himself. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the foot-soldiers of the Hindutva family, initially gained from this. As the oldest institution in the Sangh Parivar, the formidable volunteer army of the RSS finally entered mainstream Indian politics with an emissary appointed in Modi’s cabinet. Seven years later, it is unclear who runs whom at this point. Safe to say, Modi remains the best bet even for the RSS, a body otherwise known to shun and despise personality cults.
Modi was, however, only treading old ground. He had, in fact, copied Indira Gandhi’s playbook. When the Congress bosses dismissed her political ambitions and bid for leadership, Indira Gandhi destroyed the old party’s structures and rose to power. Bypassing the party, Indira Gandhi remoulded her own persona as the persona of the nation. ‘Indira is India and India is Indira’ may have been penned by a sycophant, but it became one of the most famous slogans in the history of India’s democracy. Strikingly, the slogan captured a major watershed in the life of the political party and arguably announced its terminal fate.
The violent end of Indira’s era, nevertheless, coincided with the rise of multi-party democracy in India.
Yet, then, as now, it has been one national party with several minor parties and the rare big regional party that makes up India’s democratic mathematics. Prior to Modi’s majoritarian mandate, coalitions that were primarily a combination of small and big family firms, often embodying caste interests or breakaway regional blocs from the Congress, created winning mandates for both the BJP and the Congress-led governments.
Recent assembly election results only confirm this phenomenon anew whereby the BJP is likely to face regional challenges, like it has in Bengal and Punjab, even as Modi remains in pole position.
Two ideas of India and two national parties?
In the rise of personality over the party, the Congress has now much more to lose than the BJP. For a start, any contest between the swayamsevak Modi and the so-called shahzada will always only have one winner. Democracy is a politics of no kings, and the prince, however sincere, humble and on point, will, by definition, be cast aside in favour of everyman Modi.
If Modi learned from Indira Gandhi in facing down his own party, then it is time for the Congress to learn from the BJP. There is no mistaking that Indians identify with Modi. But it will be a bigger mistake to construe that all Modi stands for is his humble origins.
It is time to accept what intellectuals close to the BJP have now been claiming for a while. Namely, that there is not just one idea of India. The viscerally alive cliché of ‘idea of India’ goes back to Jawaharlal Nehru who anointed India as more than a place and as a vision that conveyed India’s strength and freedom arising from its plurality.
In countering this idea and by staging the ‘Hindu first’ policy, Modi embodies Hindutva, above all else. Modi is the face of Hindutva first and foremost, and the humility of his origins is but an accident of birth.
There are indeed two ideas of India. Indian democracy is not a contest between Modi and a yet-to-be-discovered face of opposition. It is a contest against Hindutva that has found its image in Modi. It has taken the RSS and Hindutva nearly a century to rule India. Modi is thus making up for lost time and is fast prosecuting policies that will recast India in Hindutva’s mould.
On the other hand, history is now a burden for the Congress even as it is identified as the crucible of India’s freedom. The Congress will need to radicalise its own origins and therefore the party. The party predated and has outlasted every major personality that became its face. The lack of ideological clarity in the face of dwindling power has exacerbated factional conflict within the Congress.
The dilemma is not whether Rahul Gandhi is a dynast or prince, a reluctant leader or a fitfully absent figure. But rather, apart from the past, what does the Congress stand for?
India today is undeniably being remade by Hindutva. As the main and original national party, the Congress desperately needs a powerful new idea to counter Hindutva.
Two ideas and two national parties are what is needed if Indian democracy is to survive Modi’s Hindutva.
Shruti Kapila teaches modern Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. Twitter: @shrutikapila. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)