When the Metro Man Boards the Saffron Line

As Sreedharan joins the technocrats who have already gathered under the protection and patronage provided by Prime Minister Modi, there is a subtle but real deepening of the personality cult and its authoritarian temperament.

That the highly respected ‘Metro Man’, E. Sreedharan, should have finally allowed himself to be persuaded to join the Bharatiya Janata Party is not of much consequence; what is of significance is that this little storm in the Kerala teacup suggests, perhaps, that having manufactured a ‘New India’, Narendra Modi is now trying to create a New BJP.

The first thing that needs to be emphasised is that Sreedharan is 88 years old. This, of course, is a grand breach of the “no one above 75” fatwa that was used to put senior leaders like L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi on ice back in 2014. Had Sreedharan been 30 years younger, it would have been comforting to conclude that Modi is mentoring a new, younger generation of apparatchiks for the saffron party. But the leader’s requirements have changed.

Admitted, Kerala is extraordinarily comfortable with the octogenarian crowd. Modi knows that a state which not long ago was presided over by V.S. Achuthanandan will not shut its doors of affection, if not association, on Sreedharan.

And though Kerala is politically an over-contested, over-saturated, over-affiliated political territory – every street and every village is ‘marked’ – surely there must be more that a handful of Keralites who want to find an escape route out of the strangle-hold the two political alliances exercise on the state’s electoral, ideological and political landscape. Indeed, if we factor in that Malayalis are vastly networked outside the state, even beyond the national borders, the external connection is not without its disruptive potential.

Sreedharan is entitled to his belief that “there would be a landslide migration to BJP” once he becomes the saffron party’s trophy mascot. But, admittedly, this is not just the Metro Man’s conceit; this exaggerated sense of self-importance comes easily to most Indians. What is more revealing is that his patrons in New Delhi also believe in the all-India potency of their own charisma, which will allow a Sreedharanfied-BJP to make a beachhead on Kerala’s political shores.

Also read: Picking, Kicking and Wrecking: Subjugation of the Bureaucracy in the Modi Regime

At the same time, it must be conceded that Sreedharan’s induction does point to the BJP leadership’s ability and willingness to cast their net wide, beyond the closed network of a handful of families. In the past seven years the Congress, by contrast, has not attracted and held a single prominent face. Nandan Nilekani was the last non-political face, but he too left the party after a defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha. Sreedharan’s entry into the BJP perhaps also points to a certain hopelessness at loose in the polity – a belief that the liberal, democratic and progressive forces are not going to sort their act out in the near future.

The Sreedharan bubble will surely burst in a few months time when Kerala goes to polls; but, the virus his induction represents will not dissipate itself soon. And, this virus is at the heart of the Narendra Modi phenomenon.

This virus is the fascination with technocrats and their disdain for the masses and their proclaimed contempt for the mess that is democracy. A technocrat is, by definition, different from a professional politician like, say, Rajnath Singh or Amit Shah or Shivraj Singh Chauhan. A professional politician cannot make a living except at the public expense; whereas when a technocrat feels disenchanted or neglected, she or he can just pick up his toolkit of skills, orientations and experiences, and leave the political arena. This is what gives technocrats an edge, just as it also hobbles them in the party’s hierarchy. But the technocrat does add to the political crowd’s pretensions of competence and capacity.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Governor P. Sathasivam, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Venkaiah Naidu and E. Sreedharan at the inauguration of the Kochi Metro in June 2017. Photo: Twitter/narendramodi

Ever since Narendra Modi took over the BJP sometime in late 2013, part of his appeal has been to convey a sense of comfort and welcome to the technocrats. Today there is a technocrats’ phalanx – the V.K. Singhs, the R.P. Singhs, the Jaishankers, the Hardeep Puris – which makes the Modi regime look self-assured and self-confident. Many of them may have their own calculations, not all necessarily worthy of our respect, but the arrival of Sreedharan into the Modi tent does reinforce the sense of space and voice the technocrats have been given.

The presence of technocrats in a political cabal is very reassuring to the influential middle classes, precisely because they are not life-long politicians. They are ‘solution men,’ trained to undertake vast administrative projects, harnessing bureaucratic resources, tapping intellectual and policy resources to create visible accomplishments. And, they are comfortable working outside the established structures of political accountability and parliamentary scrutiny. They have the middle classes’ respect because they are seen as motivated by a noble desire to serve – and serve selflessly – society at large.

Also read: How the Spectre of Hindutva Captured Politics in Kerala

Since they are perceived to be uncontaminated by ‘dirty’ politics, it helps a party like the BJP earn added respectability. The presence of these ‘non-political’ people enables the party to whitewash its sins. Recall how after the 2002 Gujarat riots, the Vajpayee establishment tapped Abdul J. Kalam to shore up its standing with the middle classes and the global community. The Modi coterie understands well the importance of technocrats and generals and the message their presence sends. Even the venerable major-domos of the higher judiciary get taken in by this upselling of ‘competence’.

The added significance of the Sreedharan induction is that he cannot be suspected of being a closet saffron ideologue; he is not someone who can be accused of having being minted at Nagpur. In fact, it is even possible to suggest that by increasing the visibility and usefulness of technocrats, Modi is seeking to allay public concerns about the influence of those meddlesome RSS commissars.

In addition, because these technocrats gather under the protection and patronage provided by Prime Minister Modi, there is a subtle but nevertheless real deepening of the personality cult and its presumed potency. All these technocrats profess to have been influenced by the leader’s “inspiring” leadership. The incipient megalomania acquires a forward momentum.

Cumulatively the emergence of a formidable technocratic nomenklatura will end up diluting the clout of rank-and-file politicians, just as it would deny authenticity and sincerity to civil society and its activists. And, most alarmingly, it will inevitably reinforce the authoritarian temperament.

Harish Khare is a journalist who lives and works in Delhi.