By Swapan Dasgupta
It is that time of the year when convivial dinner table conversations invariably veer towards politics and the general election. At such an occasion around Christmas, I overheard an erudite gentleman tell the junior diplomat of a European Union country that “if Narendra Modi comes to power I will flee the country.”
The melodramatic proclamation left me cold. I had heard like-minded, self-proclaimed liberals say similar things in 1997 when the likelihood of a BJP-led government became a real possibility. No matter that Atal Behari Vajpayee was regarded as the sole enlightened voice in a party of cretins and fanatics, when it comes to impending political change there is always a great deal of nervous over-reaction.
Last week I went to a similar dinner where the guests were a familiar mix of the literary and the media. Once again, politics entered the conversation but this time there were no hyperbolic assertions and inquiries about one-way tickets out of India. On the contrary, the members of India’s “creative” community were visibly relaxed. The consensus was that the momentum had gone out of the Modi campaign and that The Economist’s dire warning had worked. Just as Hurricane Sandy had blown away the Republican challenge to the Obama presidency in 2012, the feeling was that a flood of missed calls had choked the Modi campaign. “Just wait and see”, the resident pundit with a taste for socialism and the good life told me, “Aam Aadmi Party will win 80 Lok Sabha seats.” Modi, I was told in no uncertain terms, has “lost the plot”.
I am no prophet and it is indeed possible that the Indian electorate will use its vote to register a protest, putting aside the more daunting task of electing a government that is empowered to perform. Whatever the ultimate decision, there is no question that the first fortnight of 2014 has been intensely educative for all.
First, we have seen the conventional wisdom surrounding political mobilisation or, indeed, insurrectionary politics, being turned on its head. Contrary to the belief that motivating people to engage with civic and national life involved a long and even thankless slog, we have now been informed that governance and participation is all a matter of a missed call. A missed call, the innovators would like us to believe, can change India and propel the forces of goodness. I would strongly suggest that no citizen of India loses this opportunity. It is even better than clicking the ‘Like’ button on Facebook.
Secondly, an otherwise sceptical media that hitherto made ritual genuflections at the altar of neutrality have suddenly decided that this is no time to be mere observers and reporters. The Indian variants of Lord Beaverbrook, Lord Rothermere and Rupert Murdoch—each one blessed with a Citizen Kane-like belief in their power to make or break governments—have decided to throw in their lot with the Missed Call Party (MCP). The media has chosen to be a force multiplier for the MCP. The consequences have been absolutely bizarre. National news and even local news have been subsumed by the city news of Delhi.
Thirdly, the past month has seen the very same people who served as social, cultural and intellectual props of the Congress Party and the UPA Government shift their preference to the MCP. Nandan Nilekani may be the solitary aberration but it would seem that the tribe of individuals who were rewarded with committee memberships, research grants by ministries and umpteen business class tickets for seminars in the Occident, have realised that dynastic politics does not have the capacity to ensure the perpetuation of their perquisites after the summer of 2014. After the December 8, 2013 results of the Assembly elections, they may even have fearfully concluded that their Establishment would be replaced by a Counter-Establishment comprising those committed to rapid growth and Indian resurgence—a far cry from the lachrymose advocacy of the National Advisory Council agenda. Today, in the exhilarating buzz around the MCP, they have sensed an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: to stop Modi reaching Delhi and to remain relevant during the ensuing chaos.
Finally, the dramatic energy boost of the MCP has come as a godsend to at least one powerful country that is fearful of a Modi-led government. The reasons for this fear are complex. There is of course the burden of the strategic miscalculation that led to a US Administration peremptorily announcing the revocation of Modi’s US visa. But there is a far more complex reason. India’s “potential” to be a global economic power and be a factor in the strategic calculus of Asia has long been recognised. At the same time, India’s inability to live up to expectations for the past decade has been greeted with smug satisfaction. In Modi the big powers anticipated the possibility of the Indian elephant rising from its slumber. It would have meant recalibrating international relations—a bothersome and hazardous exercise. However, an India gripped by political turbulence and preoccupied with navel gazing, symbolism and missed calls would end all uncertainty. India would happily re-establish its pious irrelevance.
There are many smiling faces in the Capital these days. For the old sinners, the missed calls symbolise the counter revolution; for India, missed calls could be the harbinger of missed opportunities. The choice is ours.