In the recent no-confidence motion debate in the Lok Sabha, perhaps the most critical argument was made on the first day itself by one of the more intelligent members, Pinaki Misra of the Biju Janta Dal (BJD). He was reported, as per the Times of India, to have argued,“I cannot understand why they [Congress] should cut their nose to spite their face, ask him [prime minister] to come to the House and put them through the shredder, and I have no doubt he will when he speaks on Thursday.” Misra was once a card-carrying member of the Khan Market Gang and is not unfamiliar with the abilities and assets that the Delhi durbar can bring to bear against its opponents; and he is entitled, like his party, to decide that discretion is the better part of valour.
The Pinaki Misra argument is anchored in a psychological fear of Narendra Modi’s political persona. Just because the prime minister – acknowledged the world over as the most accomplished demagogue of the decade – can deliver a biting speech does not mean that the opposition could, or should, forsake its constitutional right as well as its duty to hold him accountable for the Manipur shame that has now curdled into a national embarrassment. No prime minister in a democracy is entitled to this kind of ghamand, or spiteful arrogance – that he would refuse to speak up on a burning national issue. Instead of allowing itself to be cowered down by Modi’s rhetorical prowess, the opposition chose to hum Irving Berlin’s ‘Let’s Face The Music And Dance’.
And, the opposition did choose to dance because it is no longer in awe of the prime minister – the fear of the demagogue has dissipated. The fear has dissipated because he is now selling shoddy goods and counterfeit arguments. It could not escape the notice of keen observers that the prime minister has suddenly discovered the usefulness of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). This urgency to gather up allies, old and new, speaks of an unacknowledged vulnerability, a definite nervousness.
Rather than putting the opposition through the shredder, as Pinaki Misra had predicted, it was the prime minister who ended up sullying his own book, especially with the fauji biradari (armed forces), when he recklessly raked up the Indian Air Force’s bombing of Mizo insurgents in March 1966. The core of the Indian deep state would have thought that after nine years as the prime minister of India, he would have left behind his street brawler’s impulses and acquired a sliver of gravitas and rectitude. Recalling a 50-year old coercive exercise in the manner he did – to score political points rather than actually introspect or reflect on what was done – was not just an insult to the armed forces but to the state he represents. Indira Gandhi was barely two months into her prime ministerial innings when she displayed courage and clear-headedness to accept the army generals’ recommendation that air power was needed against the heavily-armed insurgents. Modi desecrated his own image that millions of Indians have of him as a real leader who would never compromise with national interests for the sake of an argument or a few votes. But here he was recklessly recalling the Mizo episode, that too just to score a debating point and to cover up his own home minister’s failure to understand the complexities of the Manipur impasse.
It is painfully obvious that the ruling coterie’s familiar skills – political cleverness, strategic cunning, and street fighter’s underhandedness – came a cropper in Manipur. Not every problem of statecraft can be addressed or resolved with deceit and duplicity. The entire North-east is a web of intractable fault-lines, not easily amenable to producing winners and losers. But the Shahenshah and Shah regime chose to persist with its divide and rule techniques. Every serious analyst and knowledgeable columnist, down to district level stringers, now knows that it was chief minister Biren Singh who colluded with the violence-mongering partisans. To the hard-core national security-wallahs, the prime minister’s recklessness becomes even more galling because he ended up equating the Mizo insurgents, who had declared a war of secession against India, with the majoritarian hoodlums in Manipur.
Now that the prime minister himself has “politicised” a genuine national security operation, it would be legitimate for the opposition to ask uncomfortable questions about various security failures in the last nine years. National security has been one area where non-BJP leaders and parties have found themselves on the back-foot in taking on the Modi regime. Now the prime minister has scored a spectacular self-goal.
Neither in his Lok Sabha performance nor in his oration at the Red Fort can the prime minister be said to have repaired his damaged aura. He may have consolidated his standing among the hard-core BJP/Jan sangh/Sangh parivar constituency – and, a limited constituency at that, but his repeated assertion that he would be voted back to power sounds like cocky arrogance to the majority.
The “I will be back in 2024” bluff is a psychological offensive, meant to convey to unaligned and wavering political outfits and leaders that it is futile to resist the BJP. It is also to browbeat constitutional functionaries into giving him undeserved breaks. But no one in the opposition feels overawed. As it were, within hours of the prime minister’s 10th performance at the Red Fort, the Congress party came out with a detailed refutation of the claims and assertions made by him in his self-congratulatory speech. After all, any decent observer can notice that except Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, there is no patch of India where the BJP enjoys irreversible dominance, with or without Modi as its prime ministerial mascot. And it is the opposition parties and leaders’ dharma to point out that all that glitters in naya Bharat (new India) is not gold, as also to underline how a ghamandi raja has failed to perform his rajdharma.