In spite of the all-too-visible Opposition disunity, it is evident that Prime Minister Narendra Modi does not find himself in a comfort zone. The recent developments in Bihar, and the mere possibility of a non-Gandhi leading the Congress Party as its new president with the backing of the Gandhis, are in themselves large enough developments to disconcert the status quo. The timing of the attempted downsizing of influential BJP leader Nitin Gadkari by Mr Modi and his cohorts are but an attempt to neutralise the “enemy” within before it is too late.
Given the sudden changes in the political scenario triggered by Bihar, which carry the possibility of extensive changes in the balance of social forces ranged against the establishment, it wasn’t surprising to see Mr Modi seeking to protect himself with what may be called a tricky 90-minute address to the nation from the Red Fort on Independence Day.
The discourse was pedestrian, vacuous, and partisan. The speech, which everyone tunes into, was tricky because its main thrust was seen to be party politics rather than the underlining of achievable higher national goals for a society with a unique mosaic and heritage.
The aim on such an occasion should have been to inspire national unity, but the PM’s address ended with a call to strengthen the leader’s hand in fighting “corruption” and “dynastic” politics. It’s by now well understood that these are code words to mean Opposition parties in general, and the Congress and the Gandhi family in particular -- starting with India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who has been reviled in season and out of season.
For the nation’s unemployed youth -- and we have never had so many in our villages, and in towns and cities, at any given time -- the speech held no hope. It deepened despair. That’s why the speech had to be deceptive. The PM spoke of making India a “developed country” in 25 years. No roadmap for this was indicated. It’s obvious such a goal was proclaimed in order to create false hope and generate endorsement of the present leadership.
The reality is making India a developed nation will need its per capita GDP to rise 15 to 20 times in 25 years, going by today’s yardsticks. Is this feasible? Or, was the “pran”, or “pledge” to this effect, just a “chunavi jumla” – a gimmicky sentence -- meant to fool India? Bangladesh’s per capita GDP happens to be higher than ours at present. Can the leader of that country offer the “developed nation” bait to her country? Will she not be laughed out of court?
Mr Modi hasn’t been able to keep two important past pledges -- to give every household their own home by this year (2022) and to double farmers’ incomes by 2022. If these had been kept, the government would have a leg to stand on. Now it doesn’t.
Does that make Mr Modi nervous, and is that why he made the sort of speech he did from Red Fort? Possibly yes. The PM realises the next Lok Sabha election is only two years away and there are several Assembly polls before that. Therefore, nervousness is in order.
Since hitting at the Opposition, usually on false premises, and claiming that no one before him has done such and such, come naturally to this PM, let’s allow for these even in an Independence Day speech. But it’s clear that Mr Modi’s sense of unease has been compounded by being caught out on not delivering on earlier promises.
In addition, it’s evident that our leader was deeply disturbed by a political development with likely far-reaching consequences, and this led the PM to deliver an empty, party-political, speech. The dramatic breaking by Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar of his party’s alliance with the BJP, and his realignment with the RJD led by Tejashwi Yadav, the Congress and every non-BJP party in the state on August 9, less than a week before the PM’s August 15 speech, caught the establishment’s “chanakyas” off-guard. Were it not for Bihar, the speech’s contents may have been less desperate about creating false hope, altogether less ludicrous, and smelling less of unadulterated propaganda.
In the last Lok Sabha polls, under Mr Modi’s leadership, the BJP won 303 seats, 31 above the needed half-way mark. Its NDA allies added another 50. Those allies have left the party since. In Bihar alone, the impact of recent events can possibly shave off the BJP’s score by nearly a dozen seats. A drop of just 20 more seats from other states can bring the government below the majority mark.
Although the Opposition parties are divided, the ruling party can bleed in many states. In West Bengal, for instance, another dozen seats can easily be surrendered by the BJP. The reason the Bihar realignment has salience is that it brings together the CM’s JD(U), a party of Lohia socialist orientation, the Congress and every available shade of Left. This is a first in Indian politics. If shades of this development can materialise in some other states, the BJP could have a serious challenge on its hands. Hindutva alone cannot serve as counter, given that the conditions of life have turned dire for most people.
Bihar also offers the example of the consolidation of OBCs, an influential section of Dalit groups, and a section of upper caste society. If anything like this is actualised in some other North Indian states, in particular Uttar Pradesh, the BJP may find itself severely disadvantaged.
There is also a possible new factor to consider. If the Congress Party can elect a non-Gandhi as its next president in the coming days and weeks, the BJP -- which has so little to show for its eight years in office -- will be robbed of the dynasty plank as a major attack weapon against the Congress. This can introduce a totally new dynamic if the Gandhis endorse the new president without reserve and Rahul Gandhi can continue to play his energetic bulldozer role, paying special attention to the economic immiseration of society in the Modi era.
Serious differences between Mr Modi and Mr Gadkari have been spoken of for years. The PM has chosen to strike at his Nagpur colleague -- who is known for his proximity to the RSS -- by having him ousted from the BJP parliamentary board to quell possible inner-party rumblings -- very soon after the developments in Bihar. Evidently, upon being weakened overall, the Prime Minister did not wish to countenance potential commando action from within. The palace evidently thinks that the forest is moving.