Friday, February 13, 2015

Delhi poll verdict: Is Modi-led India spinning in circles?

by Jiwan Kshetry

Delhi poll results that handed down a heavy symbolic defeat to PM Modi's party have proved that 'Modi wave' in Indian politics was really a wave that can rise to dizzying heights so long as appropriate momentum is there but has an inevitable tendency to come down the moment the momentum is lost. The future of electoral politics in India is no longer as predictable as we thought till now.
"Modi will have to be a boatman: one oar must focus on the economy and the other must concentrate on the Hindu agenda."

These were the prophetic words of one Sakshi Maharaj a powerful priest-turned-politician as told to the Reuters reporters in India recently.

Indeed. That statement was a veiled threat by the man to Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, that if he backtracks in his promise to further the rather divisive Hindutva agenda in India, a backlash from the conservative constituency formed by powerful Sadhus like himself was inevitable. On articulating the dilemma of Modi--who came to power by striking a delicate balance between the development and Hindutva agenda--as a helmsman of India, though, he was succinct.

To illustrate what would happen if Modi abandoned the Hindutva agenda by solely focusing on development, Sakshi reportedly told that Modi's imaginary boat will spin on circles, like a boat propelled by one oar on one side.

On Tuesday, suddenly the weakness of the Modi government in India was exposed: despite the glittering and stupendously costly campaign showcasing the achievements and potential achievements under Modi, his party was decimated in the provincial elections in Delhi by a newcomer party which has existed for only few years.

As it appears, it is perfectly possible that the Modi government may be susceptible to spinning in circles if not already doing so.

As the results in Delhi show, however, Sakshi may have been only partially true. As the marriage of convenience between neo-liberalism and hardline Hindutva shows signs of strains the oar rowing the Hindutva agenda seems to be overplaying its role giving rise to the spin.

From forced conversions infuriating the minority communities in the country to the thugs of RSS (Rastriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the parent organization of Modi's party BJP) posing as moral police out to 'teach discipline to the young' alienating the young middle class, the heavy-handed approach of the extremist elements in Modi's power base seems to be badly backfiring. People in Delhi have repudiated BJP for precisely same excesses which Sakshi saw as the lukewarm responses from Modi fixated too much on the development agenda.

With this the prolonged honeymoon period of the Modi-led government in India is now effectively over and there will be no other yardstick other than performance in the form of good governance and speedy development to measure his success or failure and his political survival will depend on the measure of that success.

It would be, however, entirely wrong to conclude from these results that the immediate political future of Modi and his right-wing party is in jeopardy, for the rout of the party in the national capital is more symbolic than real when it comes to national politics. Also, Narendra Modi is a seasoned political player in political arena and it is too early to rule out a comeback in near future.

But the most significant fallout of the poll results in Delhi is this: Modi, along with his handpicked president of the BJP, Amit Shah, is no longer forms the infallible or invincible pair when it comes to electoral politics.

That is, in fact, a situation dreaded the most by Modi because his entire political career has been defined by his ability to keep his winning momentum despite all the odds.

Not every of his three successive victories as the Chief Minister of Gujarat state was a cakewalk and there were credible threats to his leadership there also. But every time, he handled the challenges so deftly playing at his own strength and the rival's weaknesses that a resounding victory was achieved.

Citing the diversity and unpredictability of the voters' behavior in a country as diverse as India, many analysts including this columnist were skeptical of his ability to repeat the history in general elections last year. He proved all of us wrong and confidently rode to power in Delhi amid a historic verdict in favor of his rightist party.

Now the record of Modi-Shah duo winning any elections they fought or oversaw lies in tatters much to the chagrin of religious right in India which has dreamed to rule India for decades to come.

For the uninitiated, Amit Shah was minister in Modi-led state government in Gujarat after 2002 and served there for a nearly a decade holding upto twelve portfolios at a time including the important home ministry and was alleged of orchestrating some of the worst human right violations in Gujarat including the infamous fake encounters. His acquittal from murder charges by a special court recently has raised many eyebrows in India and many fear the era of pervasive impunity if his acquittal sets a precedent for similar cases.

Coming to the Delhi poll verdict again, this has proved that the 'Modi wave' in Indian politics was really a wave that can rise to dizzying heights so long as appropriate momentum is there but has an inevitable tendency to come down the moment his brand of politics loses its vigor. Modi has a long way to go before he finds a political plank more sustainable than the marriage of convenience between neo-liberalism and hard-line Hindutva ideology.

Immediate risks for him are two fold: 1) his new-found rival Aam Admi Party is now set to develop a national footprint after a resounding victory making his party no longer the only option for voters across the country averse to leaning back to Congress, the BJP's fallen foe in national politics, and 2) battle for the general elections in 2019 will prove much tougher than those in 2014 to win.

A barely noticed political formation in world's most populous democracy has just illustrated how powerful the thrust of democracy is.

Jiwan Kshetry is Kathmandu-based blogger and freelance writer who writes regularly for his blog South Asia and Beyond and keeps an exclusive South Asia blog at South Asia Scholar.