A reporter once accosted the former British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, with a question about the concerns that would determine his government’s future course. “Events, dear boy, events,” was the Tory grandee’s condescending reply to what he probably thought was a needlessly earnest approach to life.
To those inclined to view politics as the manifestation of profoundly impersonal forces, Macmillan’s sharp reply may sound characteristically facile and typical of a breed of politicians that shun grand theories in favour of common sense. However, in spite of the apparent superciliousness, Macmillan was actually articulating something quite profound and born of experience: that democratic politics is actually governed by a series of ad hoc responses to circumstances.
The past three weeks in India’s politics appear to have borne out the overriding importance of ‘events’ and, at the same time, demonstrated the futility of forward planning. The anointment of Narendra Modi as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s and, by extension, the National Democratic Alliance’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 general elections may not have come as a surprise to those who are content with a bird’s eye view of politics. However, the rapidity of developments that began with the BJP national executive meeting in Goa in early-June and culminated with his selection as the party’s prime ministerial candidate on September 13 confounded the Congress and many of those who have made Modi-baiting their livelihood.
Part of the problem stemmed from over-scrutinizing the internal regime of the wider sangh parivar. It was assumed that since Modi’s individualism was at odds with the apparent regimentation of the RSS, the faceless apparatchiks of the sangh would blackball the Gujarat chief minister or, at least, put in place a low glass ceiling. Secondly, the relative importance of L.K. Advani was overestimated by both Advani and the wider political class. The steadily declining stature of Advani, particularly after the Jinnah controversy and his refusal to ease himself out of active politics after his rejection by the electorate in 2009, was insufficiently appreciated. Failure to read the wall writing was partly because of a widespread intellectual inclination to collapse the important distinction between subjective preference and awkward reality. The conviction that Modi ‘should not’ be allowed to rise to the very top of the political pile became synonymous with the assertion that Modi ‘will not’ make it to the top rung of India’s principal Opposition party. Blessed with this analytical confusion, too much was made of the dissenting noises by individual leaders who had their own misgivings over the rise of a man with a forceful and assertive personality. All in all, the belief that Modi’s rise within the BJP would be abruptly halted by internal checks became secularist groupthink.
This collective thinking of people who are disinclined to engage with people on the other side of the tracks also resulted in the serious underestimation of the role of the foot soldiers. Since India lacks any institutionalized system of choosing leaders, the conventional approach is to scrutinize the committees which apparently take crucial decisions in the Indian equivalent of smoke-filled private rooms of the gentleman’s clubs of Pall Mall and St James’s. Throughout the lengthy process of finding a successor to the Vajpayee-Advani leadership and facilitating a generational shift, the preference of the grassroots activist was rarely taken into consideration. Indeed, it was glibly assumed that the belief that Modi outside Gujarat would relegate the BJP to the political fringe constituted conventional wisdom.
Nitish Kumar was a prime victim of seeing reality through the prism of anti-Modi dogmatism. For a chief minister of a state where politics is a passion, he, quite surprisingly, fell prey to rather wishy-washy formulations about the “idea of India”. He failed to anticipate the fact (borne out by a series of opinion polls) that his pre-emptive strike against the BJP was considered gratuitous grandstanding and quite needless. Bihar was quite at ease with Nitish at the state level and Modi at the national level; Nitish wasn’t.
Nor did Nitish factor in the quiet importance attached to Modi’s caste by communities who were traditionally dissociated from the BJP. He could, perhaps, have imbibed the experience of BJP’s Yashwant Sinha, a Lok Sabha member of parliament from Hazaribagh in neighbouring Jharkhand. Sinha, who started out by being dismissive of Modi, was confronted with a reality check when the Teli community of the region tersely informed him that he could forget their support in 2014 if he persisted with his Modi scepticism.
The extent to which Modi’s Ghanchi origins will play a role in influencing the backward castes to regard him as one of their own is still uncertain. Anecdotal evidence points to the fact that many ‘backward’ communities are being confronted with a kinship choice: should they not back the first other backward classes leader with a realistic chance of becoming prime minister? Modi has never played the caste card, coming as he does from a tradition that dreams of the ‘political Hindu’. But the tale of a man who started life selling tea on a railway platform being challenged by the babalogs of entitlement touches both a caste and a class chord. This should have been apparent from day one; yet some people chose to pretend that this neo-subaltern dimension to Modi didn’t exist. The Gujarat chief minister was decried as an arriviste by a secularist establishment that combines its indulgence of everything non-Hindu with Brahmanical exclusivity.
Approaching the complexities of the Modi phenomenon with a closed mind has led to strategic and tactical confusion within the Congress establishment. Admittedly, defining the perceptions of Modi is a daunting task since it covers a range of imagery. To some of his growing band of admirers he is a modern variant of Chhatrapati Shivaji confronting the enemies of Hindu nationhood; to another lot of people, Modi is the embodiment of the log cabin to White House story — an imagery that not only defines him but turns the tables of demonology on his opponents; to yet others he stands out as the only successful practitioner of non-statist, market economics that Indian politics has thrown up—a theme that ties in neatly with his popularity among a restless youth that is impatient with the tardy pace of economic growth; and, finally, to a very large section Modi encapsulates a decisive and muscular nationalism that was earlier associated with Indira Gandhi, a form of assertiveness that is immediately contrasted with the meekness of a remote-controlled Manmohan Singh.
At the best of times it is a difficult proposition challenging a mass politician who means so many different things to different people, and who is probably aware of the advantages of ambivalence. At best it can be countered by positing an alternative attraction. But this is where the Congress is most vulnerable. Rahul Gandhi started off as a dashing figure with interesting ideas. However, over the past nine years his unending discovery of India and his perceived lack of commitment to the heat and dust of India have reduced his appeal dramatically. He still carries India’s most famous political brand as an inheritance but he appears to have done little to add value to it through relevant modifications and upgrades. He is seen to lack application — a reason why ordinary Congress workers make no secret of their desire to see the mantle passed from Sonia Gandhi to Priyanka Vadra.
For this election, or so it appears at present, the Congress has been reduced to responding to events over which it has no control. Its best bet lies in Modi destroying himself somehow.