By Swapan Dasgupta
The period between now and the late-afternoon of May 16 will be marked by two very different shows: the calculated somersaults of the grandees and the wails of some people crying ‘wolf’.
To my mind the process began on September 15 last year after a rally in Rewari (Haryana) where Modi demonstrated his crowd-pulling abilities. It got a boost when, quite unexpectedly and egged on by his son Chirag, Ram Vilas Paswan embraced the NDA. Since then the procession of politicians seeking to climb on to the bandwagon has just got longer and longer. That’s also because, after the Shabir Ali fiasco, the BJP took a conscious decision to stop the entry of the ex-MPs and sitting-MPs. I don’t think I will be revealing a closely guarded state secret of the BJP by letting out that the rump of the Congress Party in the Seemandhra region—those who didn’t join the YSR Congress earlier—was ready to defect en masse to the BJP. Unfortunately for them, the BJP put a freeze on lateral entries (but not grassroots inductions).
To believe that all those who changed their tune had some inner voice telling them to come to the assistance of Modi would presume that politicians are blessed with a spectacular measure of nobility. Such a presumption can safely be discounted, although there could well be the odd individual who responded to a higher calling.
The political establishment in India tends to be parasitic in nature. It is not that ideologies and belief systems are absent—and these often take the form of lifelong loyalties—but that intellectual considerations are invariably overwhelmed by the proximity to political power. The established political figures that belatedly discovered the virtues of Modi did so because at some around November-December last year, he suddenly looked a winnable proposition. If by some chance Modi fails to breast the tape at the finishing line you can be sure that most of the migratory birds will undertake another journey.
I recall a senior minister of the Atal Behari Vajpayee government once referring to a common friend who hadn’t contacted him since May 10, 2004—the day the NDA was voted out—who re-surfaced four months ago to make a pilgrimage to Gandhinagar and formally join the BJP. It is even being said that he will be rewarded with an important post if the NDA returns to power.
The mercenary facet of the scramble for the loaves and fishes of office shouldn’t be mistaken for an insistence on a pre-entry, closed shop approach. Governing a country as large and complex as India necessitates the involvement of a circle that goes far beyond those who slog it out in political parties and endure both victory and defeat. Unlike the Congress that has tasted ruled for some 50 year and has the requisite networks to handle power, the BJP is by comparison well-meaning innocents.
The biggest disadvantage Modi could face if he wins on May 16 is that there is very little of the Vajpayee era legacy he can bank on. Despite the shrill cries of saffronisation that resonated at the time, the Vajpayee Government used notables from the old establishment as its main props. The so-called chaddiwalas became an object of derision.
That there has to be continuity in the political establishment is undeniable. Democracies don’t permit radical ruptures and nor would a total break with every aspect of the past be desirable. Modi has to effect a judicious balance between old experience and new enthusiasm. In doing so, however, he has also to ensure that the deep-rooted culture of venality that comes with the accommodation of the old doesn’t infect the new.
It is a difficult task and errors are bound to be made. But if Modi is not distracted by the extraneous considerations that derailed the Vajpayee government—the rush for social acceptability and the over-importance of the hugely capable but politically insensitive Brajesh Mishra—he could yet put the human resources at his disposal to optimum and effective use.
If he becomes PM, Modi will enjoy a honeymoon. The electorate’s infatuation with him will last for anything between a year and 18 months. However, the media honeymoon won’t even go beyond four months at the most. This isn’t because the media sees things that are invisible to the naked eye of the reader. The wariness of a PM Modi will be on account of three factors. First, the media is dominated by individuals with liberal, Left-of-centre inclinations who are more likely to sing praises of AAP than Modi. Secondly, the top dogs of the Fourth Estate will hate having been proved wrong by Modi. Anyone who shows the media as Gods with feet of clay isn’t going to be toast of the bars that go by the name of Press Clubs. And finally, the local media will take its cue from the foreign media that, quite uncharacteristically, has ended up being cheerleaders for one side. Will the likes of The Economist and the self-righteous Guardian, not to mention the know-alls who advise the State Department and the French foreign ministry, ever let on that their reading of India was wrong and a consequence of meeting the wrong type of people?
Since this week, the cry of media-freedom-in-danger has already started doing the rounds. The intensity of this alarmism will rise over the next three weeks and reach a crescendo on the evening of May 16. If Modi fails, watch the liberals lick their chops and celebrate. On the other hand, be equally prepared for threatened departures out of India and accused rapists and embezzlers asking for political asylum in the West.