In early 1983, in an extraordinary indulgence, Indira Gandhi entertained an argument from the then most prominent Kashmiri Congress leader, Syed Mir Qasim, that the Indian National Congress should withdraw from the electoral field in the Valley. The Syed’s point was that now that Sheikh Abdullah was gone, the young Farooq Abdullah needed to be helped to find his feet if the secessionist sentiment and pro-Pakistani elements had to be contained and tamed. As the former chief minister saw it, the Congress’s presence as an electoral rival only weakened the National Conference and strengthened those who entertained animus towards India. The Indira Gandhi-Mir Qasim dialogue lasted many weeks; in the end, Indira Gandhi dismissively told him that as long as she was the president of the Indian National Congress, she could not and would not countenance any idea that her party would not be a political and electoral force in any part of India.
Notwithstanding Indira Gandhi’s haughtiness, she was indeed formulating an essential obligation of any political party that desired to rule India with a certain degree of cohesion, confidence and certainty. This all-over-the-placeness came naturally to her at that time because the Congress had an impressive majority in both houses of parliament and controlled most of the state governments. She was in her zone, as she was about to play host to the largest gathering of global leaders ever in New Delhi for the non-alignment summit and later in the year, the Commonwealth crowd. As she saw it, her party had a legitimate right to intrude into every nook and every cranny in this vast land and bring the entire country on the same political-ideological page.
Until recently, the Indian National Congress’s self-perception was that it was a natural party of governance. Incumbency at the Centre and most state capitals provided its leadership with assets and resources either to crowd smaller political parties out of the electoral arena or to cannibalise them by coopting and corrupting leaders of these outfits.
There is an inherent tension – undoubtedly, a dynamic and healthy tension – between the New Delhi-centric ‘imperial’ requirement to have a working sway over the ‘empire’ and the local sentiments, anchored in centuries of cultural and linguistic identities. The most central imperative of statecraft in India has been to find an equilibrium between the central overlordship and the federal/regional/local aspirations. And, this is an ongoing project, never ‘finally’ settled, never cast in stone, and it demands the political leadership in New Delhi to summon what the Germans call fingerspitzengerfuhl – a capacity to make the wise call by avoiding the temptation of a tactician’s cleverness.
Many efforts – the United Front Government, National Democratic Alliance and the United Progressive Alliance – have hinged on finding the right grammar of partnership. The operative part was a commitment to partnership, a modus vivendi to share honour, glory, patronage and political dividends. The arrangement worked as long all the partners abided by the rites of coalition dharma.
Then comes Narendra Modi. His party, the BJP, acquires a Lok Sabha majority of its own, both in 2014 and 2019; it does not need partners to run the government yet has the political acumen to see the wisdom of having the trappings of an all-India alliance. But gradually and inevitably, it succumbs to the 1983 Indira Gandhi mindset. The BJP wants to be the dominant and domineering presence in areas like Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala, etc.
In effect, Modi’s BJP seeks to roll back the pre-2014 terms of co-existence between the Centre and the federating units. The pre-2014 understanding was best articulated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in an address to the National Integration Council, 2005:
“There is a resurgence of regional and sub-regional identities in a manner that was not conceivable 60 years ago. As a pluralistic society and polity, we have adequate space for regional and sub-regional identities and cultures. These are not necessarily inimical to our larger concept of nationhood. We must rejoice at the blossoming of these regional identities and lay emphasis on harmony rather than uniformity. We must, at the same time, ensure that these local identities become part of our diverse mosaic in a harmonious way rather become the cause for divisiveness and exclusion.”
Now, the Modi crowd sees this approach as a recipe for national weakness and underperformance. But it was this wise and measured approach to definitions and notions of nationhood that enabled Modi to make claims and advance pretensions in the name of Gujarati Asmita. Without the elbow room the Manmohan Singh approach provided him, Modi would have been a small footnote in history.
Of course, now Modi’s BJP seeks to operationalise the Nagpur-inspired hegemonic harmonisation, as demanded in the original “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan” mantra. Modi’s persona has evolved from self-anointment to self-canonisation as the greatest leader India has had. This “Modi the Invincible” project does not admit of any constituency of caste, class, region or religion that may be beyond the seductive charm of his charisma. This project’s built-in logic demands that the BJP should show an aggressive face in every galli, mohalla and kasba to crowd out the non-BJP elements and sentiments.
And, yet inexplicably there are political parties, some substantive but most small and small-change, who believe they stand to benefit from an electoral alliance with Modi’s BJP. Mindful of their own regional calculations and compulsions, the Chirag Paswans and the H.D. Deve Gowdas may believe they will be better off with a Faustian deal with Modi’s BJP. Tactically, the BJP Chanakays are entitled to their calculations that electoral alliances with these insignificant outfits would deprive the opposition of at least a few votes; also, a large ensemble of “allies” helps create the illusion of a very large swathe of political opinion lined up behind the Vishwaguru.
Admittedly, a national election is not the time for political nobility or morality. It is a time for unabashed opportunism and shenanigans. That is old, bad India. The BJP’s current discovery of the NDA is a very familiar Ponzi scheme in which unethical players engage in a who-can-cheat-whom game. Nothing new or glorious in this shabby business. Bad faith was never so prettified. Welcome to Naya Bharat.
Harish Khare is a former editor-in-chief of The Tribune.