Was the prime minister’s speech in parliament another example of his belief that people will swallow anything he says provided he does so with sufficient bravado?
When a government feels it is doing well, it invariably emphasises its achievements. Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s ‘India Shining’ campaign is a good example. It is only when it does not, that it starts harping on the real or imagined failures of its predecessors. Narendra Modi has been doing this ever since he sensed that his party was headed towards a possible defeat in Gujarat (it scraped to victory with 99 seats, well short of the 150-plus seats it aimed to win). He has redoubled his efforts since the BJP’s shattering loss of all three by-elections in Rajasthan to the Congress.
In Gujarat, polls taken by his own party before the second round of voting had shown that the party was in imminent danger of losing its majority. Modi’s reaction was to go on a blistering personalised attack on the Gandhi family at the opening of the Ambedkar International Centre in Delhi. When Mani Shankar Aiyar instinctively responded with a measured, but equally personal counterattack on Modi – and instead of defending him, Rahul Gandhi chose to throw him to the wolves – Modi found the bone he had been looking for to chew.
Over the next three days, he made Mani Shankar the surrogate for the Congress party, and made a succession of the wildest, most brazenly false, accusations against him – of going to Pakistan to hatch a conspiracy to kill Modi, and of hosting a secret meeting at his own home to plan how to make a Muslim plant of Pakistan’s ISI the Congress’ next chief minister in Gujarat. Rahul and the rest of the Congress could only bite their fingernails and watch as Modi savaged Mani Shankar (and by association the Congress) to shreds.
This tactic helped Modi scrape through in Gujarat, even if by far lower margins than expected. So it is hardly surprising that he resorted to it again in his reply to the opposition during the motion of thanks in parliament on the President’s address to the nation. In his 70-minute reply, according to reports, Modi ‘tore into’ and launched a ‘blistering attack’ on the Congress, and blamed it for all the ills that the country was suffering from today.
In reality, Modi’s attack on the Congress reeks of desperation – of a wild thrashing around to find any shred of an excuse for his own party’s credibility denigrating in the eyes of the people.
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He blamed the Congress for partitioning India and “sowing such poison that not a day has passed in 70 years when 125 crore Indians don’t pay for it”. He put the blame for all of the country’s woes upon the Congress party’s choice of Jawaharlal Nehru in place of Sardar Patel as prime minister. Had that not happened, India would never have lost a part of Kashmir to Pakistan, he said.
He mocked the Congress for claiming that it had brought democracy to India when the Licchavis had ruled through democracy 2,500 years ago; he accused the Congress of having declared an Emergency and turned India into a prison; he blamed the Congress squarely for having started the practice of relying upon kickbacks in defence deals to fund elections. Finally he put the blame for the country’s rising pile of abandoned projects upon the Congress’ policy of starting projects “half heartedly” and then “putting them on the back burner”.
These accusations are no less wild, and intemperate than the ones he had hurled at Mani Shankar Aiyar six weeks ago. The Congress did not accept Partition, as he seems to imply, because Nehru and others had grown tired of waiting to seize power. It did so with the greatest of reluctance, to prevent the communal polarisation campaign unleashed by the Muslim League from “tearing the social fabric of India apart”.
Far from being against the Partition, Patel, whom Modi has elected as the patron saint of the ‘new India’ he is trying to construct, was its principal advocate within the party. “My nine months in office (in the interim government),” he wrote, “has completely disillusioned me regarding the supposed merits of the Cabinet Mission Plan. Except for a few honourable exceptions, Muslim officials from the top down to the chaprasis (peons or servants) are working for the League. The communal veto given to the League in the Mission Plan would have blocked India’s progress at every stage. Whether we like it or not, de facto Pakistan already exists in the Punjab and Bengal. Under the circumstances, I would prefer a de jure Pakistan, which may make the League more responsible.”
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Modi is also hopelessly wrong about how Patel would have dealt with Kashmir. As the architect of the Transfer of Power from the princely states, Patel would have readily accepted a decision by Hari Singh to accede to Pakistan. It was the Maharaja, and Sheikh Abdullah, as leader of the National Conference who were determined to accede to India. Patel of course welcomed this when he received a letter from Hari Singh on July 7, 1947, asking for his help in getting Nehru to accept his terms for accession.
Modi has also derided the Congress’ supposed claim that it brought democracy to India, which he says, proves its ignorance for democracy had flourished in north Bihar 2,500 years earlier in the kingdom of Vaishali. But this is nonsense. For, writing to his daughter from prison during World War II, Pandit Nehru described this democracy with palpable pride in Glimpses into World History:
“Near Patliputra or Patna, there was the city of Vaishali. This was the capital city of a clan famous in Indian history – the Licchavi clan. This state was a republic and was governed by an assembly of notables with an elected president who was called the Nayaka.”
The Licchavi confederation, which ruled most of what is now north Bihar did have a elective rule, but the right to choose a ruler and a nine-member council was restricted to around 7,000 heads of households who had to be male and Kshatriyas. These ‘voters’ would elect a ganaraja, and nine councillors who would govern the federation from Vaishali. This was democracy but evolved only to the approximate level of England before the Reform Act of 1832 when only a few thousand property owners were qualified to vote.
It is hard to discern Modi’s purpose in counterposing Vaishali to the Indian constitution. Is he implying that India would have been better off with a restricted electorate composed of men only, belonging to the higher castes alone? Or was this another example of Modi’s belief that people will believe anything he says provided he does so with sufficient bravado?
Modi cannot be more wrong. Democracy of the Licchavi sort was brought to India with the Morley-Minto reforms of 1909. What Pandit Nehru and the Congress did was to transform it instantly into modern democracy with universal suffrage. What is even more to its credit is that it did this while preserving legal space within the constitution that has allowed religious and ethnic minorities to retain their customary laws and change them at a pace of their own choosing. It is because they have this political space that we have a Muslim community today that is almost entirely free of terrorism in which its members can seriously debate ways of changing its divorce or other personal laws without immediately provoking the charge of apostasy from its clerics.
Coming next to Modi’s reference toon the Emergency, no one will deny that the Emergency gave a body blow to democracy and could have killed it. But equally, no one can deny that it did not do so because Indira Gandhi had never meant it to be anything more than a temporary expedient to halt a drift towards anarchy. She proved this by lifting it in only 19 months inspite of knowing that she was going to lose the next election.
Finally, Modi’s allegation that the Congress started projects and abandoned them halfway is not only incorrect, but demonstrates once more the desperate lengths to which he is going to retain the his credibility with the public. For first of all, the abandoned projects were not started by the government but by the private sector. Many of these were abandoned because of the inability of the government to provide the land , infrastructure or connectivity to coal or power supply without which they could not function. Others were destroyed by the sustained high rates of interest that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) forced commercial banks to charge from borrowers.
These problems originated during the second UPA government. But the BJP has been in power for four years now. So what has prevented the Modi government from remedying them? The same question can be asked about the use of kickbacks to finance political parties election campaigns. Why are so many questions now being asked about the enormous cost and hurried revival of the Rafale deal?
The way to limit corruption is to cut the link between it and politics by instituting a state fund for financing elections. BJP leaders pushed for this while they were in opposition. Why has Modi done nothing about it during four years in power?
Modi’s increasingly intemperate attacks on Congress and the Gandhi family, and his incessant harping on the alleged mistakes of the past is a dead giveaway that not only he, but the people, know that he has not redeemed any of pledges he made to them four years ago. Real growth has slowed down or disappeared in every sector of the economy delivered on the promises he made to the people before the last parliamentary elections. Instead, he has pushed economic growth and employment even lower than it had been in 2014, and has not even been able to take advantage of the disappearance of inflation in 2015, to revive infrastructural and industrial growth.
Today Modi is losing his cool because he has seen the writing on the wall. Gujarat saw an anti-incumbency swing that almost unhorsed the BJP. The loss of three by-polls in Rajasthan is a warning signal that disillusionment has set in there as well. Two of the BJP’s allies have left it, the Shiva Sena and the Telegu Desam Party (TDP). Modi knows that his charisma is waning. An October election has therefore become a distinct possibility.
Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and author of several books.