Note: This article was first published on May 31, 2020, when Narendra Modi completed six years as prime minister of India. It was republished on October 7, 2020, when Modi entered into his 20th year as head of an elected government.
There are some facts which just do not admit any contradiction. For example:
– the Raj Kapoor-Nargis duet “Pyar Hua, Ikraar Hua…” in Shri 420 remains the most mesmerising romantic song of Hindi cinema;
– no woman, before and after, looked as bewitchingly beautiful as Madhubala did when she danced to that wonderful song of defiance – “Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya…” – in Mughal-e-Azam;
– No batsman, Indian or foreign, played the cover-drive with as exquisite an elegance as did Rahul Dravid; and,
– Narendra Modi is not only the greatest demagogue free India has produced, he is also the most powerful ruler India has known since Lord Curzon.
There’s no room for any doubt or contradiction. Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao and certainly not Manmohan Singh – none have enjoyed the kind of complete and total ascendency that Narendra Modi exercises today in every power and constitutional equation.
Let us enumerate the elements of prime ministerial power in a parliamentary system like ours.
First and foremost: mastery over the cabinet. No prime minister was ever as much a master of his/her cabinet as is Narendra Modi. Nehru had to share power and authority with Sardar Patel; he had Maulana Azad who could tick him off; later, there was Govind Vallabh Pant, with a mind and weight of his own.
Indira Gandhi had to contend with Morarji Desai, and later had to defer to Jagjivan Ram and Y.B. Chavan. Still later, she had to deal respectfully with Kamalapati Tripathi, R. Venkataraman, etc.
Rajiv Gandhi allowed himself to be overshadowed by Arun Nehru. P.V. Narasimha Rao was never allowed his prime ministerial equanimity by Arjun Singh. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had L.K. Advani sniping at his heels. And, Manmohan Singh had Pranab Mukherjee and A.K. Antony as implacable cabinet colleagues.
In total contrast, Narendra Modi has not allowed any cabinet colleague to think that he or she could have a profile independent or different than countenanced by the PMO. The pretentious Sushma Swaraj was put in her place within six months. Rajnath Singh, the poor man, is permitted to feel that he is the senior most member of the cabinet, but that’s just it.
And, now with Arun Jaitely and Sushma Swaraj gone, there is not a single cabinet minister who can walk out and still hope to survive a week politically.
No prime minister was as complete a lord and master of his/her cabinet as is Narendra Modi.
There are two other political entities – the parliamentary party and the ruling party organisational establishment – which can clip a prime minister’s wings. Before Modi, all prime ministers had to submit and adjust themselves to the tricks and tantrums of the party ‘bosses’; and, all prime ministers had to ensure that the parliamentary flock remains pliant and peaceful.
On both these counts, Modi can afford to be supremely indifferent. And, as a BJP prime minister, he also has to attend to a particularly bothersome establishment based in Nagpur. Again, very deftly, those self-important men have been adequately sized up – and dealt with.
Then, there are constitutional institutions of restraint – a wise and watchful Rashtrapati Bhavan; a parliament exacting accountability; a vigilant judiciary calling out waywardness; an independent Election Commission, insisting on fair rules of the games – which have been put in place to ensure a certain kind of equilibrium of authority and power. The idea is to ensure that a prime minister does not become a runaway autocrat. But, again, with a disciplined sense of purpose, with considerable political deftness and sheer brazenness, Prime Minister Modi has reduced these institutions of restraint to mere encumbrances. In particular, Modi has been exceptionally brilliant in extracting compliance and timidity from the higher judiciary.
As prime minister, Modi has liberated the media of its institutional onus of ‘speaking truth to power’. No prime minister before has found himself/herself in the happy situation when the media goes after the opposition. Not to forget, no prime minister has ever found himself saddled with so determinedly leaderless an opposition as has Narendra Modi. A perfect prime minister.
Not just at home, Modi stands way above his democratic counterparts. Look at US President Donald Trump. The man has to explain himself week after week; he has to put up with a quarrelsome media and has to spar with detractors on social media. In India, increasingly, no one dare write an unfriendly tweet about the prime minister, lest he/she lands up in jail on charge of sedition. No one dare make an issue of the fact that he should address a press conference; unlike Trump, no questions about Modi’s policies or leadership are to be entertained.
There can be no doubt that today Narendra Modi is the world’s most powerful democratically elected leader; and this is a great blessing for India in these times of uncertainty and turbulence, with enemies – seen and unseen – lurking around the corner, out to distract this ancient land from our destiny. Now, we are told we should be applauding the fact that in just six years, he has undone achievements and accomplishments of six decades. Within six years, our derailed national journey to glory and greatness stands resumed.
It is only natural and logical that this most powerful prime minister should also emerge as the Total Ruler, who can find his rightful place in the company of great transformative leaders known to history. It is only natural that some mistakes be made. So what of it? History knows of no ruler who did not make mistakes. And, as the ancient wisdom goes, no omelette can be made without breaking a few or many or maybe a million eggs. Anyway, who is counting?
There is a certain relentlessness to the logic of a prime ministerial autocracy. And it is entirely logical that there should be disdain for any institution or individual questioning the Modi regime. The solicitor-general’s impatience with the apex court is entirely understandable. The honourable law minister is within his right to wonder why the choice of judges cannot be left to the prime minister “if he can be trusted with the country’s nuclear button”. And the other ministers are not wrong to suggest that some Congress leaders are weakening the nation’s resolve when they carpingly point out inadequacies in Modi government’s ‘war’ on the coronavirus.
Till the Nehruite liberals can find the imagination and the instrument to roll back our prime ministerial autocracy, we should count our blessings. We must be grateful for our bountiful leadership dividend.
No questions, please.