Sunday, August 25, 2013
Congress vs BJP? No, it's the establishment vs the outsider
By Swapan Dasgupta
In nine months, at the very latest, Indians will know whether the drive to catapult Narendra Modi from Gandhinagar to New Delhi has been successful or not. Indian elections being notoriously unpredictable, it is hazardous to predict the outcome of a national contest with any measure of surety. At this stage, before formal campaigning has begun, it is only possible to identify trends. But whether these trends will crystallize into definite voting patterns or be derailed by events are predictions best left to astrologers. Lesser beings can merely chronicle the flight path of politics.
The pitfalls of crystal ball gazing have, however, not prevented people with a stake in India's future from taking positions. With the anointment of Modi as the challengerin-chief to what he calls the 'Delhi Sultanate' , the air is thick with partisan interventions. For some social media enthusiasts, 'NaMo' is India's definitive answer to national underperformance. To the entrenched Durbar of Lutyens' Delhi, the interloper from Gujarat is more than a challenge to the dynasty: he promises not merely a change of government but a regime change.
In the past too incumbent governments have been threatened by alternative formations. In 1977, there were redoubtable Indians who seriously believed that the alternative to the Emergency was anarchy. In 1991 when the BJP arrived on the national scene riding on Lord Ram's chariot, a powerful section of the Establishment intelligentsia detected the sounds of stomping jackboots. Fascism, we were assured in the editorial pages, was just a block away.
For those familiar with the scaremongering that precede possibilities of change, the equation of Modi with the end of civilization as we know it isn't unique. Incumbents love to project alternatives as juju men. This, more so in India where a single party has dominated the Centre for 57 of the 66 years since Independence. A political dispensation, it should be remembered, isn't only made up of MPs and their favoured bureaucrats and police officers. Over the years the Congress has used its discretionary powers to accumulate considerable baggage. From those who sit on innumerable committees and acquire the status of Cabinet ministers to the lesser ones favoured with membership of advisory committees of public sector units and governing bodies of centrally-run educational bodies, the corridors are invariably crowded with people who survive on the extractive potential of their visiting cards. It is this parasitic class that are most threatened by the winds of change.
Yet, there is a significant difference between the fear that is taking shape today and the concerns that greeted the emergence of Atal Behari Vajpayee as the PM-inwaiting in 1997-98 . For one, Vajpayee was a Delhi insider. He may not have been in government (except for the two years of Janata Party rule) but he was a known commodity with strong cross-party connections. Secondly, Vajpayee was a Brahmin and was linked to India's most significant network of influence. Finally, in appointing Brajesh Mishra, a former diplomat with an impeccable Congress pedigree, as his principal secretary, Vajpayee sent out the clear message that he wasn't interested in unsettling the Establishment. Unlike President Ronald Reagan in the US, Vajpayee had no interest in nurturing a 'counter-Establishment'.
Modi is a different kettle of fish altogether. For a start, he is an outsider in the cosy political world of the Capital. He is not linked by the elaborate networks and cross connections that make Lutyens' Delhi an incestuous arrangement. He hasn't been sullied by the compromises and adjustments that are a feature of governance through entitlements. Modi neither possesses nor yearns for the old school tie; he is content being what he is. Despite long years as CM of Gujarat, he has not been co-opted by the Establishment. In fact, being a loner he doesn't really care whether or not the beautiful people find him acceptable or repugnant. After all, for the past 12 years they rarely if ever deemed it appropriate to woo him with awards for being the most reformist state or something similar.
The outcry over Modi's 'polarizing' agenda isn't really centred on a defence of the much-acclaimed 'idea of India' . It is essentially an expression of fear and apprehension over the rise of a leader who owes little or nothing to the Establishment. When the pundits decry him for being 'tasteless' in contesting the Prime Minister's monopoly over Independence Day and 'ruthless' in bulldozing the opposition to him inside the BJP, they are not necessarily passing aesthetic judgments. Modi's class and caste have become objects of derision for the entitled precisely because the old Establishment fears for its relevance. What we are witnessing is more than a Congress-BJP battle: a beleaguered Establishment is trying to ward off a social upheaval and the rise of an impatient, new class.