I spent the last week of July in New Delhi, my first extended trip to that city since the General Elections of 2014. It was a year and two months since the Modi Government had come to power, and signs of disenchantment had set in. Scholars, executives, restaurant waiters, and security personnel all made sarcastic remarks about the Prime Minister and his Government. Some flagged Modi’s love of foreign travel, others spoke of the gap between promises made and delivery on the ground. Even long-time supporters of the BJP were critical of some of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet colleagues, for their lack of effective stewardship of the Ministries under their charge
All this was not entirely unexpected. Many years ago, the sociologist Ashis Nandy coined what he called ‘The Iron Law of Indian Politics’. It took, by Professor Nandy’s reckoning, about a year-and-a-half for a government elected by a popular mandate to begin losing its sheen. This is what had happened with Rajiv Gandhi in 1986 (with the Shah Bano case), with V. P. Singh in 1990 (with the adoption of the Mandal Commission Report), and with P. V. Narasimha Rao in 1992 (after the demolition of the Babri Masjid). So perhaps this Iron Law was now working itself out with the Government led by Gujarat’s new Iron Man as well, this time not because of one spectacularly misjudged act, but because of accumulated mistakes in several spheres.
Readers of this column might think that this growing disenchantment would instil a sense of vindication. For I have been a critic of Narendra Modi, of his socially insensitive policies as Chief Minister of Gujarat, and of his megalomaniac tendencies both as Chief Minister and as Prime Minister. However, any sense of vindication I may have felt was quickly stilled. For, to my surprise, I found that several friends I talked to thought that the delegitimisation of the NDA regime had opened up a space for the renewal of the Congress under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi.
On my recent trip to Delhi, a lawyer and a scholar separately told me that Rahul Gandhi was a new man, that his long vacation had energised and motivated him, that he seemed ready, willing, and able to lead the Congress out of obscurity into the warm glow of victory in 2019 (and beyond). How they arrived at these beliefs was not clear. Was it the victory of Hope over Experience, the result of living in Delhi (where reality is always distorted), or the habit of unconsciously equating all Opposition to the BJP with the Congress and then of equating the Congress with its First Family?
I am told that the senior Congress leadership takes succour in trends from the past. Indira Gandhi bounced back from defeat in 1977 to return to power three years later. Rajiv Gandhi lost in 1989, but was making a strong comeback when he was assassinated during the campaign for the 1991 elections. So, the thinking goes in and around 10 Janpath, this time too, Rahul Gandhi will lead the Congress back to power after the current Government has exhausted its goodwill.
This hope that history shall once more repeat itself wilfully ignores the facts on the ground. The organization of the Congress is in a shambles; which is why it has been losing power in state after state. Rahul Gandhi is not as charismatic as Indira or Rajiv. In any case, India has moved on from the charms and seductions of dynastic politics. Voters ask of a national leader what she or he has done, not whose child or grandchild she or he is.
God knows Indian democracy needs a credible Opposition, and a credible man or woman to lead it. For Narendra Modi is without question the most powerful Prime Minister since the death of Indira Gandhi. Indeed, in the extent of his command of his party and government, only Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru match Modi. But whereas Nehru and Indira had to contend with outstanding leaders in Opposition, Modi does not—at least not so far.
Some illustrations may bear out this point. Between 1947 and 1950, Nehru had to reckon with an alternative power centre within his party and Government—namely, that led and represented by Vallabhbhai Patel. On critical matters (such as the choice of Congress President as well as of the President of the Republic itself), Nehru had to defer to Patel’s wishes. After the Sardar died in December 1950, Nehru was unchallenged within the party and Government. But not so in Parliament, where his policies were often strongly and effectively criticised—by, among others, Syama Prasad Mukherjee from the right, and Hiren Mukherjee and A. K. Gopalan from the left.
During the 1950s, the Jana Sangh and the Communist Party of India had charismatic and capable leaders. But in some ways the most effective political opponents of Nehru were erstwhile Congressmen. They included the populist J. B. Kripalani, the socialist Ram Manohar Lohia, and the founder of the free-market Swatantra Party, C. Rajagopalachari. Nehru took these three leaders very seriously indeed. For their patriotic credentials were as solid as his. Kripalani had joined Gandhi during his first struggle on Indian soil, in Champaran in 1917. Rajaji was known as ‘Gandhi’s Southern Commander’; indeed, the Mahatma had gone so far as to call him ‘the keeper of my conscience’. Lohia was a great hero of the Quit India movement. These three Opposition leaders were brilliant, articulate, and utterly incorruptible. And their criticisms of Nehru were often telling, helping tame the Prime Minister’s ambitions and contain his arrogance.
Between 1969 and 1975, Indira Gandhi was easily as powerful in her party as Nehru had been in his pomp. Yet she did not govern unchallenged. The Jana Sangh’s Atal Behari Vajpayee and the CPI (M)’s P. Ramamurti and Jyotirmoy Basu were as effective in Parliament as Syama Prasad and Gopalan had once been. In the country as a whole, Morarji Desai and K. Kamaraj were widely respected for their integrity and capability, and for their fidelity to the ideals of the old, undivided, Congress Party. Above all, there was Jayaprakash Narayan, the conscience-keeper of the nation, the man who could have succeeded Nehru as Prime Minister but chose to work selflessly in the conflict-ridden borderlands of Kashmir and Nagaland and in the criminal badlands of central India instead.
It was, of course, Jayaprakash Narayan who led the countrywide opposition to Indira Gandhi in 1974-5. The Prime Minister jailed him, alongside all her other critics. In doing so, Indira Gandhi deeply damaged her credibility. When elections were finally called in 1977, her Congress Party was handed a resounding defeat.
Narendra Modi is akin to Jawaharlal Nehru in his elevated sense of self. And he is akin to Indira Gandhi in his contempt for the autonomy of public institutions. Both are dangerous tendencies in a popularly elected leader, To check and contain them, however, one needs a credible Opposition. Nehru had to match wits with the likes of Kripalani and Rajaji. Indira Gandhi was confronted and challenged by Jayaprakash Narayan . But who is there to effectively oppose Modi?
One may justly criticise the NDA Government for making tall claims it cannot meet, for placing incompetent individuals in charge of crucial Ministries, for allowing, even encouraging, the bigotry and sectarianism of BJP MP’s and Ministers, for rewarding loyalty rather than competence in administrative appointments. These are worrisome trends. Far more worrisome, however, is the state of the Opposition. The regional parties have become more and more corrupt. The growth of the once promising Aam Admi Party has been stalled by the vanity of its Supreme Leader. And the Congress continues to decline.
Economists say that Narendra Modi has been lucky in having the oil prices fall so fast in his first year as Prime Minister. But he may be luckier still in having Rahul Gandhi held up as his main challenger in politics.
AN OPPOSITION TO DESPAIR OF
by Ramachandra Guha
(published in The Telegraph, 8th August 2015)