Why Modi Claims He Has Won


Jawed Naqvi

Fifty-seven races are still to be decided on Saturday, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi says he has already won a thumping majority. Let’s see the mind more than the logic at work here.

It was Jawaharlal Nehru’s 60th death anniversary on Monday. His grandson Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated on May 21 during an election campaign in 1991. Rajiv was the last member of the Nehru-Gandhi family to be prime minister. All said and done, there was civility in the electoral discourse under their watch even if the battles were bitterly fought.

Narendra Modi, like his inspiration Donald Trump, has deliberately vulgarised India’s political discourse, and how. As the longest Indian elections trundle towards the last punishing phase in the scalding heat devouring much of the country, one is reminded of the most pivotal and brilliantly short March 16-20 polls Indira Gandhi ordered in 1977. There were 542 seats in the fray even then, but polling was not stretched over 44 days of hate-filled name-calling as is happening today.

Indira Gandhi made the announcement on Jan 18, and leading opposition groups met on Jan 20 to create the Janata Party. There were no invectives hurled from either side during the unblemished polls. If we must find a reason for this general civility, it could be simply that the leaders were nicer and perhaps also because the elections were held when the emergency was still on. It ended only on March 21, the day after the polls were completed.

The claim of having won a third term even before the elections are over, fits with the emasculation of India’s democratic heft Modi has supervised.

Had she wished, Mrs Gandhi could have held on to power after the results went against her, the emergency statutes ensuring her unbridled hold on the levers of government. But the transfer of power was silken smooth, and if there was a problem it was the infamous jostling for the top job among senior Janata Party leaders.

In hindsight, it seems the Janata Party was cobbled hurriedly by groups who had otherwise little in common. The unstated reason for the rushed and short-lived adoption of a single-party emblem leading to the merger of most non-communist northern parties into a single unit, stemmed from a mortal fear based on a technical worry. Had they fought the elections separately, Mrs Gandhi as the likely leader of the single largest party would be called to stake a claim as per convention. Indeed, she ended with a no mean tally of 154 seats, which would have been higher than any individual party against her.

The question is, would she have taken advantage of the offer? She wouldn’t, and a good clue to her response came in 1989 when Rajiv Gandhi lost his humongous 400-plus majority of 1984. The Congress got 197 seats and its closest rival, the Janata Dal, managed just 143. The BJP, aided by communists and centrists, catapulted from two seats in 1984 to 85, enough to spur L.K. Advani’s imminent march on Ayodhya.

Rajiv Gandhi remains unique in turning down the prime ministerial offer as the head of the single largest party. He stated, instead, that the fractured mandate was not for him. It remains a remarkable act of parliamentary propriety, more so when compared to the 1996 elections and Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s lurch for power in a fractured verdict.

That year, the BJP, headed by Vajpayee, for the first time became the single largest party, winning 161 seats in the Lok Sabha, but with next to no hope of gaining a majority of 272 seats. P.V. Narasimha Rao’s Congress struggled at 140. The way the House was stacked, Vajpayee’s defeat in the mandatory trust vote was imminent. Yet he happily took power for all of the 13 days that president Shankar Dayal Sharma gave him to prove his majority. The 13 days would become a blot on parliamentary ethics, to be upstaged only by Modi’s communal politics.

With no hope of winning the vote of confidence, the Vajpayee government tore up the rule book and signed the infamous Enron deal in which the US power company was given scandalous and eventually suicidal financial guarantees to set up a gas-run power plant in Maharashtra.

The project was doomed to fail, and tomes were to be written about the alleged financial scandals it spawned. But it gave the BJP a ruse to signal to Washington the arrival of India’s oldest pro-US party at the helm. Vajpayee’s 1998 nuclear tests saw more crude messaging to the US that India was ready to be an ally in its anti-China project.

Vajpayee resigned without facing the vote but not before giving a long lecture on democratic propriety. Indian democracy, however, recovered from the setback to see one of its more memorable occasions of pride laced in rare selflessness. Like Julius Caesar, communist leader Jyoti Basu was offered the crown which he politely turned down. Unlike Vajpayee, Basu was promised the support of a substantial secular bloc but he was bound by his party’s fiat against taking the oath of office. He would go on to describe the CPI-M’s decision as a historic blunder.

The claim of having won a third term even before the elections are over, fits with the emasculation of India’s democratic heft Modi has supervised. Leave alone the lumpenisation of language gleaned from his Trump-like election speeches, there is a more serious worry doing the rounds. Several well-regarded election analysts are not sanguine that Mr Modi would get a clear majority. They also fear that he would not relinquish power as Indira Gandhi did if he loses. Desperation to stick to power is evident from his juggling of the election commission and low-calibre messaging to voters. Subhash Chandra Bose was a freedom fighter who famously said: “You give me blood. I’ll give you freedom.” What does Mr Modi tell the most impoverished section of the electorate? “I gave you five kilogrammes of rice. It’s your turn to give me your vote.”

Courtesy: Dawn

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