Modi’s Political Authority Stands Diminished in the Eyes of Global Investors

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj before leaving for UK and Turkey, in New Delhi on Thursday. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj before leaving for UK and Turkey, in New Delhi on Thursday. Credit: PTI

It is clear that the Bihar assembly election was no ordinary event and will deeply impact the way both the ruling coalition and the opposition conduct themselves in the months ahead.

For starters, an open power struggle has already begun within the BJP, with senior leaders led by L.K. Advani shooting off a very strongly worded letter suggesting that the “consensual character” of the party has been “destroyed”. The letter argues that a review of the humiliating defeat in the Bihar election cannot be done by the few who were responsible for it.

The spin doctors in the government are desperately trying to ring fence Narendra Modi and Amit Shah by saying the Bihar defeat is a matter of “collective responsibility”, a principle established by none other than stalwarts like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani decades ago. However, what the spin doctors conveniently hide is that Vajpayee and Advani also ran the party much more democratically and local leaders had a big say in the conduct of the state elections.

After Narendra Modi’s arrival, the BJP is being run the way  Indira Gandhi ran the Congress in the 1970s, with the head of the government fully controlling the party.

BJP watchers say that under previous presidents the Parliamentary Board would have regular meetings, almost every month. This practice has discontinued for the past year and a half. Under Vajpayee, the general secretaries of the BJP were also strong personalities who spoke their minds. That is no more the case. In fact, this kind of centralisation of state elections – with Modi as the face of the campaign and no chief ministerial candidate declared in advance – was never practised by the BJP earlier. This was very much part of the Congress culture. No wonder, the letter written by Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Yashwant Sinha and Shanta Kumar says the Bihar defeat suggests no lessons have been learnt from the stunning Delhi defeat.

There is no doubt that Advani’s letter is aimed at the fence sitters in the party who have been very uncomfortable with the way Amit Shah has been conducting the party affairs.

The ‘Margdarshak Mandal’ led by Advani is trying to ensure that the party is autonomous of the government. The real test of this campaign will be seen in January when the BJP president’s post comes up for renewal. At the current rate, it appears a section of the BJP will seek elections. Normally, the RSS plays a critical role in deciding a candidate by consensus. Will Amit Shah get another term? That is the most important question.

All in all, it is a big test for Modi and even if he wins this battle, his dependence on the RSS will have increased. For only Nagpur can rescue Amit Shah at this stage.

Centralisation has backfired

Modi has wasted an enormous amount of his political capital needlessly trying to centralise power both within the government and the party. Both seem to have backfired in their own ways. The humiliating defeats in Delhi and Bihar have brought the Modi brand several notches down. This is particularly so because of the way he chose to stake his personal reputation in both elections. This in turn will have an impact on his functioning as the head of the government.

For instance, Modi gave global investors the impression that he would personally ensure all necessary reforms were delivered to make India an easy place to invest. While world leaders and investors remain hopeful that the Prime Minister has the necessary authority to override the system and deliver on economic reforms, it is increasingly clear his political authority has been considerably eroded.

After such a humiliating political defeat, the global community will likely question his real authority and capability. The winter session of Parliament will show how much equations have changed. The Prime Minister will be under tremendous pressure to create a broader climate for faster economic growth. So far, his ego has come in the way of personally reaching out to opposition leaders like Sonia Gandhi. Modi himself has chosen to postpone key reforms to focus more on the Bihar assembly election. Industry leaders feel it was bad strategy on Modi’s part to delay economic decisions for the sake of consolidating political power via state assembly election victories. In any case it seems unlikely that the BJP will get to the halfway mark in Rajya Sabha by 2018.

It will be interesting to see whether Modi changes tack for the crucial assembly elections of West Bengal, Assam, Punjab, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh over the next year and a half.

Climate needs changing

In the winter session of Parliament which is due to begin end of November, the opposition hopes to see a chastened Modi get off his high horse. Nitish Kumar’s advisor and JD(U) member of the Rajya Sabha, Pawan Varma, said, “Our party will support reforms but we will not for a moment tolerate statements reflecting intolerance and divisiveness coming from the BJP ministers as well as MPs.” That is a clear warning for Modi that he better control the zealots in his team if wants to conduct business in Parliament. Arun Jaitley is already trying to woo Nitish and is suggesting Bihar would be a big gainer from the introduction of GST. Jaitley must realize that Nitish will not budge until Lalu is also taken on board. It won’t be so easy for the Modi-Jaitley combine from here onwards.

The truth is that the BJP, under Modi’s leadership, has created a singularly hostile climate in which even the allies of the party are deeply unhappy. The most telling comment after Modi’s stunning Bihar defeat came from the Shiv Sena MP and spokesperson, Sanjay Raut. Asked whether the BJP should now seriously introspect on its loss, Raut said sarcastically, “Why introspect? They know everything. I can tell you if elections are held in Maharashtra today, the BJP will suffer the same fate.”

What does that tell you about the way Modi and his chosen men are conducting politics? No wonder the old guard in the BJP is so nostalgic about “consensual politics”.

  • ashok759

    To be fair, there should be intergenerational transition. Where else in the world would octogenarians seek a slice of real power ?

  • forsanity

    The Margadarshak Mandal will not prevail. I am sure of that as they have no political capital left. But the message they have put forth is damning and accurate. Modi was, and unfortunately always will be, a reincarnation of Indira Gandhi. He is built in the same mold – aggressive, authoritarian and insecure. Insecure because he is scared of any one else rising up the ranks and one day challenging him exactly like how Indira Gandhi was. Precisely why there are no strong chief ministers in BJP ruled states (MP and Rajasthan are exceptions because they grew in stature before Modi was a force in BJP but they will be cut to size if they raise their voices). Also, why it is scary where the country might end up when aggressive, insecure leaders are challenged by the opposition.

  • Vinod

    “Modi’s Political Authority Stands Diminished in the Eyes of Global Investors”!
    M K Venu has apparently done a quick survey among “Global Investors” (not including Congress politicians, I’m sure) and has published the results in the headline! The text instead talks about Venu’s understanding of the political situation. Does the term “misleading” mean anything to Venu?
    This is The Wire’s quality of writing is it?

    • Swati Mohana Krishnan

      I found the article interesting and felt that M.K. Venu has drawn links between Modi’s grandiose international economic plans and his attempts to take over various states and regional governments, very clearly. The title rather than being misleading, connects neoliberal policies in the domestic and international arena to each other and emphasises the dirigiste essence of contemporary statecraft.

  • http://mkmathai.blogspot.in/ lisma52

    the mistake bjp did in bihar was not projecting a chief minister candidate. this strengthened the ‘baahari’ allegation . other than that bihar was a normal election exercise. and none lost badly or gained significantly.
    that bjp will change drastically is a misreading. to be frank there is nothing wrong in power getting centralised. 20 or 30 heads need not be better than one or two. and we know how consensus is reached in multi head meetings