WILL NITISH TURN BACK MODI WAVE?

Geopolitical notes from India

M D Nalapat

Friday, June 12, 2015 – AFTER Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi, the only Prime Minister to occupy the centre stage of political discourse in India has been Narendra Damodardas Modi, who for more than twelve years was Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, which is off the coast of Pakistan. By 2011,it was clear to this columnist that the 2014 Parliamentary polls would be held on time in mid-2014, and that the battle would in essence resemble a US Presidential contest, this time around between Modi and Rahul Gandhi, the 45-year old son of Sonia Gandhi.

Rahul Gandhi could have become the fourth member of his family to be PM in 2011,by which time it was obvious that Manmohan Singh had become toxic to the electorate because of his lackadaisical attitude towards issues such as corruption. His own diffidence merged with the innate caution of his mother Sonia Gandhi (who has as much power over the Congress Party as Indira Gandhi did once she created a party named after her in 1969) to ensure that Manmohan Singh was continued as PM, with the result that the 2014 contest became a walk-over for the BJP, which picked up speed in the tailwind created by the unpopularity of the Manmohan Singh government. A year later, it is Narendra Modi who is experiencing the first signs of voter discontent and unpopularity, in a context where even Manmohan Singh took sixty-five months before voters began to develop doubts about his ability to lead the government.

The 2009 Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament) contest was not between Modi and Manmohan, but between Lal Krishna Advani and Manmohan, a battle which the then Prime Minister won with ease. Despite the presence in his team of master spin doctors such as Arun Jaitley and expert wordsmiths such as Swapan Dasgupta (both of whom were loyal to Advani until the final days of the patriarch’s relevance), voters in India did not take to the second-in-command of the 1998-2004 Vajpayee government. The fact is that Advani has several qualities that have made him a formidable practitioner of politics in India. Unlike some other leaders in the BJP, who do little for their followers, Advani has relentlessly promoted those he saw as being loyal to him, often without any regard to their suitability for the posts he earmarked for them, or even their competence and integrity.

The most important factor has been the absence of visible accountability for those accused of corruption during the ten years of the Manmohan Singh government. Several ministers in the former PM’s Council of Ministers are super rich, a few are even hyper rich, but thus far there has been zero action taken on the numerous charges of misfeasance that were made against them by Narendra Modi himself. Why the new PM is acting in such a cautious manner has been the subject of discussion, but what is not in doubt is the fact that the way in which the big names of the UPA appear to have evaded the legal consequences of their actions has harmed the image of Modi as the scourge of corruption.

Next has been a series of steps formulated by the bureaucracy to bring back illegal moneys into the country from tax havens abroad. If even $ 100 million of the more than $ 1 trillion of such funds return to India, it would be a surprise. The steps adopted have been legalistic rather than realistic, and the practical effects (in terms of getting back money secreted abroad) are expected to be minuscule.

Should the measures designed to bring back black money from overseas fail, the same situation could afflict the BJP in 2019,especially in a context when taxes have not only been kept at the elevated levels they were during the Sonia-Manmohan period, but have in fact been increased Lack of communication is also affecting perceptions of the government, as few ministers or officials have the courage these days to brief the media about what is going on. As a consequence, the many good policies and practices introduced by Prime Minister Modi are going unrecorded, while gossip and rumour get passed on as news, filling television channels and newspaper headlines. Overall, a climate is being created that is propitious for Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who broke away from his alliance with the BJP in 2013 because of the emergence of Narendra Modi as the supreme leader of that party.

Perhaps it is because Nitish, a backward caste leader himself, was uncomfortable about another backward caste politician (Modi) overshadowing him in popularity, but from then onwards, he has made it a mission to try and lessen the hold that Narendra Modi has on the voter. The chance will come by November, when elections to the state assembly in Bihar fall due. The BJP’s trump card has been former Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, who was responsible for so much mismanagement that Bihar became an international byword for corruption and inefficiency in governance. Should Laloo’s RJD be given a majority of seats to contest rather than the JD(U) of Nitish Kumar, enough voters may be scared away into voting for the BJP, as few would like to see Laloo emerge as the Bihar strongman once again. However, if Nitish Kumar and Rahul Gandhi (who has allied with him, dumping Laloo) succeed in ensuring that the bulk of seats be fought by the JD(U) and the Congress Party rather than the RJD,there is a rising probability that the coalition will coast to a majority in the elections.

This would be a heavy blow to the BJP, which has come to power because of its sweep in Bihar and UP. Indeed, a loss in Bihar would increase the chances for a similar defeat of the BJP in UP in 2017,in a context where its stare unit is no longer the fighting instrument it was in the 2014 polls Should Nitish Kumar overcome pressure from Laloo Yadav to concede the bulk of seats to this discredited politician, he may pull off a win in Bihar. This would have series repercussions on national politics, for it would make clear that Prime Minister Modi will need ro do much more to win the battle over perceptions so as to avoid defeat in the UP assembly polls in 2017. The first year of the Modi government has seen only a gradual change from the politics of the past to the administration of the future, and a defeat in Bihar would indicate that voters do not only seek change, they seek it at the earliest rather than in the leisurely fashion favoured by India’s officialdom.

—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.

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