Pavan K. Varma | Tectonic shift: Can Modi turn into new Vajpayee?

Today, the Narendra Modi 3.0 government will take oath. But this time, it will be a coalition government. While the reasons for the below-expectation performance of the BJP have been analyzed at length, the real issue ahead is, whether Mr Modi is temperamentally capable of running a coalition government?

The question is relevant, since Mr Modi has no experience of heading one. As chief minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, he did not need coalition partners, and was the sole and unchallenged supremo. When he became Prime Minister (PM) in 2014, the BJP made history by winning, for the first time, an absolute majority. The unquestioned hero of this stunning victory was Mr Modi, and he both deserved and revelled in the undiluted adulation he received. There was an NDA government, but the allies made no difference to the viability of the government. They were treated perfunctorily as optional accessories, and NDA meetings, few and far between, became a frozen formality, where only the writ of the PM mattered. Where coalition partners dared not to toe the line, they were welcome to leave and, indeed, many did.

This unilateral model of leadership was reinforced by the 2019 national elections, where the BJP again secured a mandate which surpassed that of 2014. Now, the PM became near infallible. Even Cabinet meetings, so stories circulated, were devoid of real discussion and debate. An agenda was circulated. The decision, as desired by the PM, was endorsed without question. No one anymore had the temerity to ask a query, or even worse, even remotely differ. Those who were suspected of being less than absolute followers, were dealt with summarily, and became role-models to inhibit others who dared to do the same.

The PM’s writ ran supreme, not only in government, but also in the party. Chief ministers of long standing, and proven popularity, were dumped at will. Cabinet ministers were dropped inexplicably, and they silently swallowed their disappointment and doubled their efforts to demonstrate their loyalty. Entire state cabinets were dismissed overnight, and there was not a murmur of protest. Even the RSS — as the grapevine suggests — was sidelined, consulted only when necessary, and its advice often ignored.

Parliamentary work ran overwhelmingly at the ruling party’s will. Bills were often rammed through, like the Land Reforms Bill. The BJP’s brute majority in the Lok Sabha, and a managed majority in the Rajya Sabha, enabled it to push through legislation, often without adequate consultation, and with fewer bills sent to Select Committees for deeper examination. When the PM attended Parliament, his entire Parliamentary party would stand up in adoration, and when he spoke, the fractious and diminished Opposition, could create a ruckus but little more.

In the 2024 elections too, the PM, expecting a third term with an absolute majority, “abki baar 400 paar”, acted in the same self-willed manner. The BJP was marginalised to the point of invisibility. Even the manifesto was called “Modi ki Guarantee”. Decisions about whom to admit from other parties, and ticket distribution was done in a tightly centralised manner. Mr Modi was both the mascot, and the saviour, confident about his unchallenged position.

The election results have, however, forced a leader, who has been for almost a quarter of a century his own master, to compulsorily consult with coalition allies, without whose support his government cannot survive. How will he face up to this challenge of which he has no experience?

Politics is the art of compulsion. Can Mr Modi become another Atal Bihari Vajpayee, accommodative, inclusive, consensual, with a sense of humour and persuasive powers, willing to give and take? This will require a tectonic shift in personality. While one can never underestimate the versatility of Mr Modi, it is an ask which will push his abilities to the limit. There are already signs that he has accepted the new situation. I have heard the word “BJP” and “NDA” more from the PM in the last one week than I have in the last ten years.

But how long will this last, given Mr Modi’s self-willed style of leadership, his low threshold to dissent, and his habit of unilateralism, which finesses discussion and debate? My own gut instinct is that, while duly genuflecting before his allies to begin with, he and Amit Shah are already working on contingency plans to mop up MPs who are available to be approached to boost the BJP numbers. In fact, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the BJP could attempt to poach upon members of its own coalition partners.

There is also the question of how the BJP will pursue its core agenda of Hindutva. It is clear that the Ayodhya temple was not a significant factor in the elections. Hindu-Muslim hate politics is giving verifiably diminishing returns, and now would be opposed by some of his key allies. The conundrum is that if Mr Modi tones down this bigoted narrative, it may impact his core, hardline support base. He has unleashed a Frankenstein monster. Can he, to survive, tame it?

For the moment, I think, the stability of the government is not in jeopardy. The BJP, even if short of an absolute majority, is by far the single largest party, not a small achievement in a contest for a third term, and the Opposition, although fortunately strengthened, does not have the numbers to provide an alternative. Moreover, at least till yet, the INDIA alliance is far from being united enough to become an electorally effective option. Can Rahul Gandhi, acquire the gravitas of a statesman, and unite the divided Opposition into a cohesive coalition?

Trouble could mount for the ruling coalition if in the three state Assembly elections due later this year — in Jharkhand, Haryana and Maharashtra — the BJP loses — as may well be the case. Should that happen, there could emerge a challenge for Mr Modi from within the BJP-RSS combine, where there is manifest discontent in several quarters.

The Indian people deserve a salute. They have tamed the arrogance of the BJP, ensured the possibility of stability at the Centre but which perforce has to be less divisive and more democratic, and while creating a much-needed stronger Opposition, prevented an unsustainable khichidi government, which would not be in the interests of the country.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle )
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