Friday, November 20, 2015

After Bihar debacle, era of Modi’s unchallenged control is over in BJP

A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, a little less than his share of the credit. — Arnold H Glasow

On November 12, 2015, Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, while waxing eloquently in the British Parliament, stated that the fiercest debates between Indians and Britons were over whether there is appreciable unfair swing on Lord’s pitches or if the turf in Eden Garden cracks too early. Though his smart speech writer — with a fair understanding of cricketing nuance not demonstrated by Modi when he headed the Gujarat Cricket Association — used it to cause a furrow in the legendary British stiff upper lip, the simile would have reminded the resident of 7 Race Course Road of the major task he faced on return. 

Barely had ‘routed-in-Bihar’ Modi departed from India to redeem his popularity in the only constituency that is safe in 2015 — the Diaspora - and this time in the United Kingdom, that party veterans bowled a straight one which swung late. With two of the quartet being members of the never-convened Margdarshak Mandal — or Guidance Council — it became clear that the advice they were officially entrusted to offer to the party leadership — but which was never sought — was now available to those wishing to pose uncomfortable questions to the leadership.

Days prior to the Bihar verdict, I spent time with a Bharatiya Janata Party insider and went over various possibilities. Like any party loyalist, he was optimistic about securing a comfortable majority but was fair enough to discuss prospects if the unthinkable happened. “The knives will be out,” he said softly. I chose not to pose a supplementary question allowing the gravity of the utterance to sink in. After all, this was said about a man whose hallmark was the ability to run organisation in a style that brooked no resistance!
To say that prior to the Lok Sabha polls, no one had any inkling about the extent to which the party leadership would shrink under Modi would be comprehensively incorrect. After all, his track record in Gujarat where he swatted both party organisation and the parent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was testimony to the fact that he allowed no potential rival to flourish. In the thirteen years that Modi governed Gujarat, he systematically stymied rise of new leaders and marginalised existing stalwarts. Survival depended on personal loyalty and the list of subservient leaders began with present chief minister — Anandiben Patel — and ended with district level apparatchiks. Modi’s supremacy in the state can also be deduced by the fact that he forced the RSS leadership to remove the state head of the organisation.

Given such personality traits, the RSS was initially disinclined to go into the 2014 elections with Modi as the BJP’s electoral mascot. But two factors titled the scale: Firstly, Modi was the most charismatic leader in the fold and secondly, his popularity within the organisation was high and had he not been anointed, a veritable revolt within the rank and file would have arisen. It was grudging acceptance of reality that resulted in Modi being named as the party’s prime ministerial candidate — first in June 2013 as the chief of the newly created Campaign Committee and eventually in September when he was officially named lead player of the party. 
The decision was motivated by the old dictum: Cross the first few hurdles to begin with and then find a way to navigate through the rest of the track. The thinking in Nagpur was that despite his ways, Modi could still be controlled like Vajpayee was in the initial part of his tenure. But the problem was that the BJP secured a clear majority on its own. Consequently, neither was the BJP dependent on allies for survival, nor did Modi require the support of the RSS to stay in office because a large number of members of Parliament were first-time members and personal loyalists of the new prime minister.

If the verdict gave an indication of the complete dominance that Modi would have over the party, the appointment of Amit Shah — who evidently shares several secrets with his boss — sealed the matter. While he was appointed to the post with the objective of securing for Modi a firm control of the party, the manner in which this was justified by showering all kudos for the 2014 victory on the “man of the match”, left many sour faces in the party. Since he became president, Shah has run the party with an iron hand and virtually put an end to the BJP’s collegiate or collective style of functioning. Within a few months of the Modi-Shah duo assuming complete control of the party, muted clamour to make the party more inclusive and decision making more consultative began to be heard but there was no one willing to pay heed. The sentiment was manifest during Delhi assembly polls but the leadership did not take corrective steps despite the rout. The staggering extent of the defeat in Bihar was however too much to ignore and it was just a matter of time before protests erupted. The only question was when and by whom?

Now that this has been answered what is the prospect ahead? At the moment, no leader in the party is aiming for Modi’s head and instead the main target is Shah. The main objective of the move is to deny him a fresh — and regular — term as party president from January 2016. A decision on this will be reached within the next few weeks and will be dependent on developments within the entire Sangh Parivar. The RSS will play a decisive role in deciding Shah’s fate and Modi will make every attempt to ensure his aide’s continuance. 

Whatever the outcome — though it is tough to imagine that Modi will allow his powers to be curtailed and a not-so-loyal party chief installed — the era of Modi’s unchallenged control is over. It may be too early to say that the Bihar defeat and subsequent demand by the party elders marks the beginning of Modi’s end. Yet, there is no escaping the thought that in a not so remote future, this period will be depicted as transition point in Modi’s complete dominance of the party. Modi may be provided with a face-saving device — and even retain Shah — but the sheen has gone. Just as it was fascinating to narrate the rise of Modi, one cannot escape the thought that it will be equally exhilarating to track the decline.

Modi biographer, the writer’s latest book is Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984


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