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India may be looking at many more years of Modi-supremacy

Did the events of the year that is just ending change the way in which we perceive our politicians? My guess is that it didn’t.

It was an eventful year but I doubt if it changed very much. But yes, there were small changes which might just amount to something more significant in the year ahead.


No matter what your views on the Prime Minister, there is no doubt that he has ensured that history will remember him as one of the three most significant politicians in the history of post-Independence India. Jawaharlal Nehru (who Mr. Modi has no time for) is still ahead and so is Indira Gandhi (whom Mr. Modi may well regard as a role model in some areas) but it's clear that the Prime Minister is catching up fast.


   Mr. Modi has now reached a level where he seems to be above politics. He is treated by his admirers as a benevolent figure straight out of Hindu mythology who only has the welfare of his subjects at heart. When there are problems they are blamed on the people that surround him, never on Mr Modi himself.


   It is an enviable position for any politician to be in and though people keep saying that it can’t last, the truth is that it has lasted much longer than anyone thought possible. Even Indira Gandhi, who was hailed as a devi in 1971/2, was in trouble by 1975. Not since Pandit Nehru has any Prime Minister managed to retain this level of public adulation for this long.


   What’s more, Mr Modi’s failures and mistakes are quickly forgotten. Who talks about the disaster of demonetisation? The government’s mishandling of the Delta wave of the Covid Pandemic has faded from public memory. And anybody who questions miscalculations in India’s China policy is dismissed as working against the national interest.


   This does not necessarily hold true of the BJP however. It hopes to move beyond the Hindi belt and become a truly national party. But it is clear that this strategy is in trouble. It has worked in Assam but failed miserably in Bengal. In the South the BJP is not a factor except in Karnataka and even there its government is unpopular.


   The BJP failed to extend its influence in Punjab and even within the Hindi belt there are problems. Bihar is not as much of a sure thing as it used to be after Nitish Kumar broke away. The BJP seized power in Madhya Pradesh by breaking a Congress government, not by winning an election. All its attempts to break the Rajasthan government have failed. And it lost Himachal fair and square.


   It is, admittedly, even stronger in the states where its base now is: Gujarat and UP, for instance. But the idea was to win elections across India and that has not always worked out. In Maharashtra it only came to office by punishing the Shiv Sena for breaking a pre-poll alliance by breaking the Shiv Sena instead.


   With a leader who is as popular as Mr Modi is, the BJP should be doing better at winning elections.


   Though the year began with the own goal of Punjab which the Congress gifted away because of the ineptitude of its political managers in Delhi and a missed opportunity when it turned Prashant Kishore away, the party ended the year on a happier note.


   There were three positive developments.


   First of all, the party finally elected a President. Mallikarjun Kharge was nobody’s first choice but early indications are that Congressmen take him seriously. It helps that Sonia Gandhi refuses to talk politics with those who want to call on her and that her children make a public display of deferring to Kharge.


"Judging by current performance, it will take AAP several years to become any kind of alternative to the BJP."

   Second, the victory in Himachal has demonstrated that even in the Hindi belt, the Congress can still win elections. It wasn’t that the BJP did not put up a fight. Party President JP Nadda was actively involved in planning the campaign and Mr. Modi campaigned enthusiastically. And yet the Congress won.


   Three, there may be no visible electoral benefit from Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra as yet but it has helped the Congress in many different ways. It has finished off the caricature of Rahul as an entitled brat who runs off to holiday abroad every month. It has energised the party’s workers. And it has seized the agenda back from the BJP which had successfully portrayed the Congress as a party of scamsters run by a lazy family dynasty. By restating the agenda as love versus hate, the Yatra has allowed the Congress to try and reposition itself.


   None of this is enough, of course. The weaknesses remain: the Gujarat results reminded us of how poorly managed the Congress is: it frittered away the advantage it had gained during the 2017 assembly election campaign.


   But relative to where it began the year, the Congress ended up better off than it was.


   It was a mixed year for AAP. It began on a triumphant note by finally winning an assembly election outside of Delhi and it ended it by wresting control of the Delhi municipality away from the BJP.


   But there was also lots that went wrong. We sometimes forget that Arvind Kejriwal came to public attention as a crusader against corruption and a political system that protected powerful politicians. But this year the BJP ensured that AAP began to look like it was a mirror image of everything Kejriwal had once opposed.


   As the corruption charges piled up (from hawala deals to the liquor scam) it was hard to avoid the irony of Arvind Kejriwal’s situation. Even if you accepted Kejriwal’s claim that the BJP was framing his ministers (and I’m sure there is some merit to the claim) there was an unmistakable whiff of deja vu in reverse. Kejriwal himself had first found fame levelling unsubstantiated charges against everybody else and calling them crooks. Could the pot now call the kettle black?


   Besides, footage of Satyendra Jain being massaged in prison and enjoying large meals worked to substantiate the charge that AAP politicians were just as privileged and pampered as Kejriwal had once claimed that other politicians were.


   Kejriwal’s appeal in Delhi is based on good governance (though perhaps not in Punjab judging by the last few months) but in the rest of India his party’s position is straight-forward enough: AAP can do a better job of opposing the BJP than the Congress.


   So far AAP hasn’t really hurt the BJP. In the Gujarat election which Kejriwal said AAP would win, the BJP actually increased its vote share. In the Delhi municipal election the BJP held on to its votes. In both cases AAP cannibalised the Congress’s vote share.


   Judging by current performance, it will take AAP several years to become any kind of alternative to the BJP. Till then it will actually help the BJP by splitting the anti-BJP vote.


   This is fine by me. But is it what Kejriwal wants? In 2019, when the Congress refused to align with AAP for the Delhi elections, he tweeted: “At a time when the whole country wants to defeat Modi-Shah duo, Cong is helping BJP by splitting anti-BJP votes. Rumours are that Cong has some secret alliance with BJP.”


   Once again: pot, kettle, etc.


   Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were at their strongest when the Opposition was weak and splintered. When it grew stronger, Mrs. Gandhi was in trouble. Eventually a united Opposition drove her from office.


   There is a lesson in that. Unless the opposition gets its act together, Mr Modi will retain his place in the public imagination as the only leader who matters. And India may be looking at many more years of Modi-supremacy.



Posted On: 30 Dec 2022 12:50 PM
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