Cracks Appear in the Modi Coalition, and It’s Not Just Karnataka

The Karnataka results show that either the prime minister is losing his mojo or that the incompatibility of various constituencies in the Modi coalition is manifesting itself. Perhaps it was not a day too soon. 

Any governing arrangement that seeks to impose itself and its ideas on a continental polity like ours must necessarily cobble together a coalition of parties, factions, interests, beliefs, ideologies and individuals. In the days of its dominance, the Congress was a purposeful coalition. The country then experimented with arrangements like the United Front, the National Democratic Alliance and the United Progressive Alliance. The longevity of a coalition depends upon its managers’ skills and political wisdom. Even so, a coalition has a built-in shelf-life before incompatible aspirations, ambitions and personality quirks unhelpfully assert themselves.

In 2014 came Narendra Modi, who did not need a parliamentary coalition. But he did conjure up a kind of coalition that stretched beyond parliament and parties. He wore many hats and personified a number of overlapping constituencies. He has weaved this coalition around himself, spun it in his designs and colours, and all these years has provided a steady hand at the loom. Terms like ‘Modi Magic’, ‘Modi Charisma’, ‘Modi Masaterstroke’ etc. were used to describe how skillfully he could weave in various constituencies in a seemingly harmonious pattern.

The Karnataka results show that either the prime minister is losing his mojo or that the incompatibility of various constituencies in the Modi coalition is manifesting itself. Perhaps it was not a day too soon. 

The Modi coalition

The first significant constituency in the Modi coalition can, for want of a better word, be identified as “modernist” in its predisposition. This is essentially the 1991 Manmohan Singh constituency but has now expanded itself to include a technocratic impulse. It could be said to be represented, at one end, by a sober Arvind Panagariya and at the other by a frivolous Surjit Bhalla, with the likes of Rajeev Chandrasekhar and ‘Metro Man’ E. Sreedharan thrown in between. This constituency does not reject the idea of democracy but is not enamoured of the ‘messiness’ of democracy and therefore prefers a ‘strong’ leader like Modi who can ride roughshod over democratic decencies.

Corporate captains, cronies and crooks constitute the second important element in the Modi coalition. From the very respectable Tatas to the still-to-be-respected Adanis, ‘Corporate India’ has expediently bought into the prime minister’s various slogans and acronyms and fads.  As long as his government’s coercive powers are being used to degrade the trade unions and other troublesome sectors and as long as the public sector banks are placed at the disposal of corporate trickery, India Inc is happy to line up behind Modi. Business leaders in India are well-socialised into the quid pro quo culture. 

The Hindu constituency, the third element in the Modi coalition, is not a monolithic group. There are traditionalist, conservatives who are excited by the idea of a Hindu ‘renaissance’ but are uncomfortable with the Hindu-Muslim zero-sum game mindset; then there is the ‘communal’ Hindu who believes he is justified in feeling hostility and animosity towards Muslims all the time; and then there is the lumpen Hindutva crowd that bands itself into various rogue outfits, senas, dals, etc and in many places are inter-changeable with the petty criminal crowd. They provide the foot soldiers in the so-called ‘mobilisation’ in Narendra Modi’s name.

A significant subset of this constituency, of course, is the RSS establishment. The swayamsevak is now happily snared in the dynamics of the contractor-politician axis. In the ten years of Modi Raj, the RSS’s middle rung has been introduced to the taste of easy prosperity, and these softened swayamsevaks are the prime minister’s secret allies against Mohan Bhagwat and other top Sangh leaders, who stand reduced to toothless tigers. 

The Deshbhakti constituency comprises the fourth component of the ruling coalition. Narendra Modi stormed to power in Delhi by tickling the ‘nationalist’ bone among citizens at all levels. This constituency gladly accepts all anti-democratic measures and practices put in place by the ‘security’ establishment – as long as the sales pitch invokes ‘national security’ or ‘national honour’ or ‘national pride.’ In 2019, Pulwama-Balakot came handy to consolidate this constituency behind Modi.

This constituency has expanded exponentially in the last 10 years as the armed forces, as well as the strategic community, have been induced to dilute their professional neutrality. A section of the armed forces even came to believe that Modi would finally give India the garrison state it deserves. This constituency has come to represent a powerful sentiment that Narendra Modi has single-handedly brought unprecedented glory and power to India in the global world. All the publicity built around Modi and the G20 is sweet music to this constituency.

There is also a caste constituency. Under Modi, caste, sub-caste and sub-sub-caste identities, allegiances and animosities have been worked most comprehensively by the much-serenaded Chanakyas. Unending energy and enormous resources – including the 40% cut – have been spent on propping up new caste leaders and groups and all have been made to feel ‘empowered’ by Narendra Modi.  

Sixth and last, there is the anti-Congress, anti-Gandhi family constituency. This would include the traditional BJP voter, irrespective of the prime minister of the day, the original Jan Sangh crowd; the conventional anti-Congress voter who has reason to dislike the INC, and the new voters who have been alienated by the Rahul Gandhi-Priyanka Vadra centrality in Congress affairs. Ironically, it is the original ‘decency constituency’ that Sonia Gandhi once introduced in the Indian political space but which got fed up with her family’s frivolities and moved over to the Modi column. 

Mallikarjun Kharge, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Photo: Twitter/@INCIndia

All these constituencies have conflicting demands and expectations but Narendra Modi has so far been able to implant a sense of stability, order, progress, and prestige. Karnataka shows a dissonance cropping up among the coalition partners. 

Ten years of Modi Raj have inevitably failed to satisfy all the constituents of his coalition equally. 

The ‘nationalist’ corner has noted how elaborate the Modi regime has been in its cowardice towards China’s aggressive encroachment of Indian territory; the modernist sector cannot remain unperturbed if the Union home minister goes about threatening riots; the poor Ram bhakt is groaning under the inequities built into the crony capitalism of the Gujarat model variety; the middle classes find themselves helpless in the face of the growing police raj, which in many places has degenerated into an extortion racket. The Aryan Khan syndrome is making its ominous inroads in towns and cities, with no sunvai. Something has to be seriously wrong in the realm if a muscle man-cum-parliamentarian can rough up a central minister and the poor mantri does not feel it worth the trouble to complain about the ruffian. Too much ‘Hindu, Hindu’ noise ends up reducing the prime minister to a caricature of a global leader when he shouts “Jai Bajrang Bali.”

In the coming days, the Modi coalition will see a silent struggle for dominance, with the Amit Shah-Yogi Adityanath faction demanding a more aggressive Hindu agenda, even if it means violence and disorder. On the other hand, the non-communal crowd will want a return to stability and sobriety. It is up to the prime minister to choose which hat he wants to discard. Even though a sense of panic has not yet descended upon the Modi establishment, the Indian voter is finally beginning to see through the prime minister and his bag of tricks. Expect turbulence ahead.