It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again

LIMITS TO SPIN AND SILENCE: Richard Nixon (left), Narendra Modi (right)

LIMITS TO SPIN AND SILENCE: Richard Nixon (left), Narendra Modi (right)

The transformation of the NDA government from a harbinger of purposive leadership into the gang that couldn’t shoot straight is one of the fastest rides downhill in Indian politics. Not even the worst critics of Narendra Modi expected such a precipitous fall. Its crisis management has been instinctive rather than considered. First dismissing stories about the transgressions of various government ministers as trivial and then trying to brazen it out are sure signs of a rattled leadership. Ministers, party leaders, RSS workers, all have been trotted out to defend the government that nonetheless has become the butt of ridicule in the media.

Watching events unfold, I am reminded of the Watergate crisis that engulfed the Nixon administration. On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested trying to plant listening devices in the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex in the heart of Washington DC. As the press picked up on the story, Nixon and his aides pooh-poohed it as coverage of a “third-rate burglary.” But the story persisted and grew bigger, revealing evidence of the involvement of top White House aides in an attempted cover up. As events spiraled, it became clear that the Nixon administration had indulged in criminal attempts to influence the outcome of the impending presidential election in November 1972. The rest is history.

The way Nixon and his aides handled the Watergate crisis is instructive as we try to understand the manner in which Modi and unknown aides have dealt with recent media controversies involving senior members of his government and party. Nixon debunked the Watergate burglary coverage as not really worthy of his attention, busy as he was with his re-election campaign and the big issues of world peace. Next step was an elaborate cover up that stretched across the administration from the White House to the Department of Justice to the CIA and the FBI to Nixon’s Republican cronies. Finally, Nixon and his aides were compelled to respond. Even then, they hedged, releasing bits of information…morsels of truth, while withholding damaging material to ensure “plausible deniability.”

This “limited hangout” defence was instinctive, a play by play response and clearly not a well thought out strategy. The assumption seemed to be that it would disappear after the election, which Nixon was widely predicted to win. The Viet Nam war and the protests against it had polarized the electorate. Nixon and his aides believed this would work to their advantage and it did. Nixon won in a landslide.

At the root of this defence was the conviction that the electoral victory would overwhelm the crisis. Nixon believed he could make Watergate disappear once he became president because it was mainly the adversarial press that was responsible for the problem. His vice president, Spiro Agnew, famously coined the phrase: nattering nabobs of negativism. Nixon always held a very dim view of the press. This was evident as far back as 1962 when he blamed his loss in the California gubernatorial election on the press and told a large assemblage of reporters in Los Angeles, “You don’t have Richard Nixon to kick around any more.” His distrust of the media was matched by his visceral hatred for the liberal East Coast establishment exemplified by the Kennedy family; he lost the presidency to John Kennedy in 1960 by a very small margin.

This divisive tendency was carried over into his subsequent presidential campaigns in 1968 and 1972. In the decade from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, America became visibly polarized: flag-waving nationalists and social conservatives on the right; liberals, the academy and a rainbow coalition of radicals, feminists and alternative lifestyle advocates on the left. The polarization was manifest in the popular culture of music, television shows, theatre, dance and films. After Nixon’s resignation in 1974 and the ignominious exit from Viet Nam in 1975, bridges began to come up over the troubled waters.

There are striking similarities between America then and India. Like Nixon, Modi seems to believe in the supremacy of an electoral victory over all matters of law and propriety; he succeeded in polarizing society wherein the “silent majority” of traditional Hindus and the muscular Hindutva minority comprise his mandate and his political strength. He has also made it his mission to spread hatred towards the secular, liberal and westernized segments of society. His distrust for and derision of the media is easily ascertained by a search on YouTube.

In the end, Modi’s assumption is that with an unassailable majority in Parliament, he can afford to ignore the swirling controversies. The “limited hangout” defence comes easy to him. He has used it in Gujarat: instead of answering for the massacre of hundreds of Muslims in 2002, he polarised the state and made it about Gujarati pride and then segued to good governance.

Modi commands an unshakable majority in Parliament but with just 31 per cent of the vote. He will have to answer to the 69 per cent for the transgressions of his minions and to the chunk of the 31 per cent that voted for his promise of development and good governance he made on the campaign trail. There will be more disclosures, more fires to put out: a Pankaja Munde here, a Smriti Irani there; a Rohini Salian, an L K Advani, a Yashwant Sinha…this is just the beginning.

Postscript: The “limited hangout” defence failed. On August 9, 1974, President Richard Milhous Nixon became the first president in the history of the United States to resign. Several of his aides went on to serve jail sentences

Rajiv Desai is Chairman and CEO, Comma Consulting, a public affairs consulting firm. He was also a member of the media advisory board of the Indian National Congress