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The Modi Tsunami – The Patel Legacy vs. Nehru’s Legacy

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By Jayantha Dhanapala* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

KANDY, Sri Lanka (IDN) - At a time when faith in genuine people-based democracy is waning globally, an electoral exercise of gigantic proportions has just been concluded in the world’s largest democracy - India. A record 66.8 % voted over nine phases and the nationalist Bharathiya Janata Party (BJP), with 63 year old Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its Prime Ministerial candidate, has won an overwhelming majority to rule by itself and, with its coalition allies in the National Democratic Alliance many of them representing regional interests, falling just short of a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha.

The “Modi wave”, accurately presaged by the opinion and exit polls, has turned out to be a Modi Tsunami reducing the venerable Congress Party of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi to a state where it may not even qualify to take the post of Leader of the Opposition.

The only analogy that emerges is the 1977 Indian election when the Indira Gandhi-led Congress was soundly rejected because of her draconian “Emergency Rule” bringing in the first non-Congress Party government of post independent India - the Janata Party. That victory had been inspired by a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi – Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) – who called for a “Total Revolution”.

After the election a newspaper cartoon famously featured a peasant seated under a tree in rural India asking JP “Was it total enough?” The Janata Party led Government had Moraji Desai as its Prime Minister and Atal Bihari Vajpayee as Foreign Minister but fell prey to internal bickering which paved the way for the return of Indira Gandhi. Thus sweeping victories may not always augur enduring stability.

The conspicuous difference now is the dominant personality of Modi and the fact that the BJP do not have to rely on coalition partners to survive. Emphasis on corruption, inflation, modernization through technology and infrastructure improvement appealed to the business and youth sectors. “India has won” declared Modi signaling the end of the regionalization of Indian politics.

Neither Jayalalitha’s solid bloc of 37 Tamilnadu seats nor Mamata Bannerjee’s 34 seats of Trinamool Congress in West Bengal will sway the balance of power or influence India’s foreign policy. However Modi, vowing to work for all of India, would be unwise not to keep both these ambitious ladies in a co-operative mode.

Among the winners were Modi himself in the two constituencies he contested -Vadadora in Gujarat and the sacred city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh where he beat Kejirwal of the Aam Admi Party. He will have to give up one of them and the choice between his home state constituency, where he has been Chief Minister for thirteen successful years, and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh by the holy Ganges – the heart of the “saffron” agenda - will be a difficult one.

Among the leadership of the BJP Arun Jaitley lost in Amritsar but may be elected to the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) and be given the Finance portfolio for which he is widely mentioned. The veteran L.K. Advani, who finally acquiesced in the ascendancy of Modi as the BJP candidate for the Premiership, won his seat in Gandhinagar and is mentioned as a possible Speaker while Sushima Swaraj, who had also distanced herself from Modi, aims at one of the four key posts – Finance, External Affairs, Defence and Home like Ravi Shankar Prasad.  Former BJP External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, who had quit the party over his seat allocation, lost at the elections.

The controversial former Army Commander Gen. V.K.Singh won making his debut in electoral politics as a BJP candidate. Two members of the Gandhi clan in the BJP – Sanjay Gandhi’s widow Maneka and his son Varun both won their seats. In the Congress leadership, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi won with reduced majorities and have taken responsibility for the heavy defeat of Congress but their resignation offers were predictably declined.

The demand of some Congress youth for the replacement of Rahul by his sister Priyanka is a symptom of the deep lack of confidence in the current leadership tempered by a reluctance to break entirely with dynastic politics. The downside to this democratic exercise is the unprecedented amount of money spent on campaigning, the fact that there are more billionaires among the MPs elected than ever before and that 34% of the elected MPs have criminal cases pending against them. As a symptom of the deficiency of a ‘first-past the post’ electoral system it must be noted that 61.6 % voted against the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance.

The list of losers on the Congress side included thirteen Ministers like External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, Law Minister Kapil Sibal, Home Minister Shinde and ex-Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar who was beaten into fourth place in his Tamilnadu constituency.

The resignation of Premier Dr. Manmohan Singh brings a sad close to ten lacklustre years and the eclipse of his great contribution as Narasimha Rao’s Finance Minister which transformed the Indian economy. One commentator wrote, perhaps too harshly, that Manmohan Singh would be the fall guy who fell down long ago and forgot to get up. The left parties were reduced to an ignominious 9 seats. The new party Aam Admi was only able to gain 4 seats despite the hype they had after their anti-corruption campaign hanging on to the coat tails of Anna Hazare. Their leader Kejirwal was seen as quixotic tilting at the windmills of the established parties especially after he impetuously quit as the governing party in the Delhi Administration. Extremist Vaiko and the accused in the 2G scam Raja too lost in Tamilnadu.

Dramatic story

Several general trends can be identified in the election results. Modi is enormously popular and directed an energetic campaign. His rise, breaking caste and class barriers, from being a tea vendor to Prime Minister is a dramatic story far more epic than US President Abraham Lincoln’s rise from log cabin to the White House over 150 years ago.

Of the two eminent Gujaratis in modern Indian history – Mahatma Gandhi and Vallabhai Patel – Modi’s admiration is clearly for Patel who was called the “Iron Man of India” or the “Bismarck of India”. Patel’s nationalism and pragmatism led to strong positions on Kashmir, on the unification of India, on establishing the all India services like the Indian Administrative Service and other issues, which inevitably clashed with Nehru’s secular liberalism. The differences had to be settled by Mahatma Gandhi.

After Gandhi’s assassination Nehru and Patel had an uneasy reconciliation but the future direction of India was clear after Patel died in 1950. The nationalists in India, like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), suspected of being linked to Gandhi’s assassination and where Modi had his early political tutelage, have always felt that India would have been a different country had Patel been Prime Minister instead of Nehru and had lived longer. Modi has consciously adopted the Patel mantle as an excellent administrator while being pro-business. Patel’s ambiguous attitude towards Muslims and other minorities was defended by BJP leaders during the election campaign.

The stain of Modi’s silence on the 2002 Gujarati riots remains despite his exoneration by the courts and yet the Muslims do not appear to have voted against the BJP en bloc. Modi would do well to model himself on his mentor the much-loved Atal Bihari Vajpayee whose balance and inclusive policies was a contrast to the RSS. Modi grew emotional at his first meeting with the NDA MPs when he mentioned the ailing Vajpayee.

The fears caused by Modi’s RSS past and the BJP’s own track record over such issues as the 1992 Babri Mosque affair in Ayodya, remain among the liberal elite of India strongly wedded to secularism and among all minorities. Voicing these fears bravely a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, wrote in an Open Letter to Modi published in the Indian newspaper ‘The Hindu’:

“All religious minorities in India, not just the Muslim, bear scars in their psyche even as Hindus and Sikhs displaced from West Punjab, and Kashmiri Pandits do. There is the fear of a sudden riot caused with real or staged provocation, and then returned with multiplied retribution, targeted very specially on women. Dalits and Adivasis, especially the women, live and relive humiliation and exploitation every minute of their lives. The constant tug of unease because of slights, discrimination, victimization is de-citizenising, demoralizing, dehumanizing. Address that tug, Mr. Modi, vocally and visibly and win their trust. You can, by assuring them that you will be the first spokesman for their interests.

No one should have the impudence to speak the monarchist language of uniformism to a republic of pluralism, the vocabulary of ‘oneness’ to an imagination of many-nesses, the grammar of consolidation to a sensibility that thrives in and on its variations. India is a diverse forest. It wants you to nurture the humus that sustains its great variety, not place before it the monochromatic monoculturalism of a political monotheism.”

Economic policies

On his economic policies Modi’s critics point to deficiencies in human development indices such as child nutrition, education, environment etc as the downside of his sustained growth rates in Gujarat. His authoritarian style and corporate cronyism in Gujarat cannot be replicated nationwide if he is to be a contrast to the corruption of Congress.

The backdrop to this political process is the socio-economic situation of a country of 1.2 billion which has begun to surge forward economically like many others in the Global South such as Brazil, China and South Africa. At the same time inequalities and gaps in the development process reveal large segments of marginalized populations in addition to the deeply entrenched caste factor.

Oxfam in a recent report has this to say: “India has seen its number of billionaires increase from less than 6 to 61 in the past decade, concentrating approximately $250bn among a few dozen people in a country of 1.2 billion. What is striking is the share of the country’s wealth held by this elite minority, which has skyrocketed from 1.8 percent in 2003 to 26 percent in 2008, though it declined in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.”

Little was said on foreign policy during the campaign but, with two stable governments in Islamabad and New Delhi, an improvement in relations with Pakistan, at least with confidence building measures, is likely especially after the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.

In a brilliant move worthy of Vajpayee, who as External Affairs Minister in the Janata Government after 1977 had crafted the best relations with India’s neighbours, Modi has invited the heads of government of the neighbouring South Asian Regional Co-operation (SAARC) as guests at his ceremonial swearing in on May 26.

Rumours about a change in the nuclear doctrine of India can be discounted. It was a BJP government that was responsible for the 1998 nuclear tests weathering the international storm it caused. And it was the BJP government which formulated the nuclear doctrine of minimum deterrence and no first use. An improvement of relations with the USA is more earnestly sought by Obama than by Modi especially after Modi had been refused a US visa following the Gujarat anti-Muslim riots of 2002. Economic diplomacy will be strengthened notably with China. The trade balance between the two countries is projected to reach $100 billion by 2015.

Modi, like his mentor Vajpayee, is an occasional poet and a volume of English translations of his poems from the original Gujarati was published on the eve of the elections. One poem had these lines –

“I will not walk on the beaten paths

Mine are different, random walks.”

Where will his paths take India?

*Jayantha Dhanapala is a former UN Under-Secretary-General and a former Ambassador of Sri Lanka. He was Deputy High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in India from 1981 to 1984. [IDN-InDepthNews – May 23, 2014]

The writer's previous IDN articles:
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2014 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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