There comes a time in the life of every regime when it loses its iqbal, that elusive yet unique mix of moral wholesomeness, political nobility and administrative authoritativeness. A healthy quantum of iqbal enables a ruler to elicit obedience, demand respect from citizens and subjects for his or her rules and firmans; such a ruler does not need to rely on coercion as the first option. A regime that loses its iqbal may remain in office but its moral raison d’etre stands disintegrated.
The Shahenshah and Shah arrangement reached that point of no return when the honourable prime minister and his equally honourable home minister were wallowing in political shabbiness in West Bengal while the second coronavirus surge was ravaging millions and millions of helpless and hapless Indians. From now on, only unhappy choices confront the nation as the prime ministerial overlordship has not yet run its course.
Perhaps this terrible denouement was unavoidable. The Narendra Modi project was predicated on a manufactured perception that here was a man who was selflessly, sincerely, studiously striving to deliver national welfare and public good; here was a unique leader, guided entirely and unequivocally by a burning desire to promote national prosperity and glory. Here was a wise helmsman who was motivated by a higher nobility of purpose and elevated personal ethics. An honourable man pursuing honourable goals through honourable means. And, that his leadership was a national blessing.
This myth was sustained by what Edward Said once called “a whole structure of opinion and discourse.” As the Modi team re-wrote the textbook on the personality cult, editorial writers and television anchors unthinkingly but cheerfully carried the ‘Great Leader’ ball. Anyone pointing out deficiencies or defects in the Leader’s policies and politics was immediately rapped on the knuckles for ‘playing politics’. The refrain was: silence, keep quiet, the great saviour is at work.
Instead of this artificially created myth of nobility and higher purpose, the citizens, in and beyond West Bengal, saw the two most serenaded politicos displaying an unfailing and unflagging capacity for political pettiness, all in pursuit of naked power. Here is a political party ruling at the Centre crossing every single red line to dislodge a regional party; and behind this putschist mindset is the brutally cynical calculation that once the winner has recouped political dominance, it will be easy to command public esteem and commandeer popular acceptability behind the honourable prime minister and the equally honourable home minister no matter the disasters caused in the interim.
Political hubris and pandemic reality
This cynicism notwithstanding, the second surge has exposed the vastly exaggerated claims to great competence. The prime minister himself led the chorus pronouncing ‘victory’ in the battle against the pandemic. The art of administering a great nation is to anticipate problems, to learn from the experience of other societies and systems, and to be prepared for the worst scenario.
Instead of heeding the second surge warnings from Europe, the entire “structure of opinion and discourse” was working over time to hail the prime minister as the “Yug Prush” who was benevolently choreographing the joyous ‘tika utsav, or ‘vaccination festival’, across the land.
There was nothing inevitable about the second surge tragedy, if only the entire bureaucracy had not abandoned its basic administrative dharma, skills and experience in favour of Modi bhakti. If 0nly the scientific establishment, too, had not allowed the politicos to call the shots, with some of them advocating superstitions and myths, and deferring to dubious gurus and babas in the fight against the pandemic.
As a nation, we have arrived at this sorry pass because arrogance and cynicism have entrenched themselves in the new national ruling elite of new India. Take the example of two BJP-ruled states, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh.
In Gujarat, the acuteness of the crisis and the collapse of the health system remain unacknowledged; worse, there is a kind of official callousness last on display in India by the British colonial authorities in times of natural calamities and disaster.
In Uttar Pradesh, all notions of good and fair governance appear to have been jettisoned because of an extreme cynical calculation that the next assembly election is already in the pocket now that a Ram Mandir at Ayodhya has already been allowed by the Supreme Court. Cynicism, arrogance and hubris have combined to cripple the imagination of the entire BJP leadership.
Hence the unprecedented tableau of grief, pain and death across the nation. The Modi regime stands defrocked of its iqbal. It is time for the nation to fight back. The high courts no longer appear bamboozled by the unrelenting propaganda at taxpayers’ expense. A new chief justice has taken guard in the Supreme Court and the nation expects him to nudge the judiciary to rediscover its constitutional mojo. We have a once-in-a-century national crisis and this is no time for individual timidity; the collective resilience of our constitutional institutions must be worked up, if only to make up for the gross deficiencies of a failed leadership.
As a nation, we are in for unhappy days and months ahead. Whatever be the outcome of the counting of the votes on May 2, the Shahenshah and Shah regime can be expected to go berserk. Victory in West Bengal of any sort would validate the BJP leadership’s cynical calculus, and it will insist on making unreasonable demands on all constitutional institutions. A failure to dislodge Mamta Banerjee, on the other hand, would unhinge the ruling coterie and reinforce it in its animosities and combativeness and one-sided righteousness.
The country has paid a very heavy price for putting up with prime ministerial overload. It would be difficult, nay impossible, to wean the prime minister from his self-obsession and a sense of entitlement, because it is in the nature of all authoritarian personalities to seek unchallenged power. Like Indira Gandhi in 1974-75, Modi may conclude that the country needs the new vaccine of a firmer hand. Democratic India, watch out.
Harish Khare is a journalist who lives and works in Delhi.