For 2019, How Will Opposition Find Match For Modi?

Published: March 17, 2018 07:00 IST
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In the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy, elected representatives and the cabinet are supposed to be the pillars of democracy. In effect, though, the Prime Minister - the first among equals, as it were - is the shining star among lesser moons. Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Sonia Gandhi and Narendra Modi have dominated the 16 general elections held so far. In the 17th Lok Sabha polls, coming up soon, the combined opposition has the rather insurmountable task of finding a match for Narendra Modi.

In my recently published book, Ballot: Ten Episodes That Have Shaped India's Democracy, I have recalled how the issue of cow slaughter was central in Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's election to the first Lok Sabha in 1951-52 when Swami Prabhu Dutt Brahmachari (supported by the Hindu Mahasabha and Ram Rajya Parishad) contested against him on the plank of cow protection. While taking a 360-degree view on successive polls, I was struck by how history has been repeating itself and how the issue of cow slaughter staged a noisy comeback in 2014, albeit on slightly different grounds. In recent years, the country has witnessed instances of violent and reckless groups of vigilante-ism by gau rakshak outfits in the name of protecting cattle, targeting specific religious and caste groups leading to lynching incidents.
 
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an election rally (File photo)

Nehru was largely instrumental in the Congress' success in the 1951-52, 1957 and 1962 parliamentary polls. When Indira Gandhi found socialists and leaders of backward classes closing ranks under Ram Manohar Lohia, she used her gender to counter it. On January 20, 1967 at Rae Bareli, Indira Gandhi invoked her womanhood as a source of strength, earning the informal title of 'Mother India' with a speech where she called the entirety of the country her family, highlighting how she intended to take care of their burdens. At a public meeting in Jaipur, around the same time, she hit out at former royals and took on Maharani Gayatri Devi, who had won the 1962 Lok Sabha polls by a mammoth margin. Gayatri Devi, a glamorous queen, had positioned herself as Indira's rival. Gayatri Devi worked hard to bring the Swatantra Party, which believed in free enterprise and closer ties with the West, close to the right-wing Jan Sangh. Indira was direct with the voters she addressed, telling them to "go ask the maharajas and maharanis how much they had done for the people in their states when they ruled them and what they did to fight the British while they lived in luxury at the cost of the people." It is worth noting how, decades later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi effectively used his humble chaiwala origins to contrast the Congress's 'elitist' leadership. Congress heavy-weight Mani Shankar Aiyar provided ample opportunity to Prime Minister Modi to highlight how Aiyar's chaiwala remark smacked of contempt for a man born in a 'pichda' (underprivileged) family whose mother used to fill water and clean dirty dishes in other families' homes.

Interestingly, Atal Bihari Vajpayee helped Indira Gandhi increase her cult figure status by describing her as "Abhinav Chandi Durga" for defeating Pakistan in the 1971 war. Modesty may have prevented Indira from accepting Vajpayee's compliment but she admitted to her friend and biographer Pupul Jayakar that she had had some intimations of "supernatural powers throughout the war and even previous to it, having had strange experiences". Jayakar thought that all doubt had left Indira and she was filled with a euphoria that left little space for any other emotion. The declaration of a national emergency in 1975 and the subsequent coming together of Congress (O), the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the Sanyukta Socialist Party, and the Bharatiya Lok Dal helped the combined opposition to defeat Indira. Indira's single-handed imposition of the state of emergency provided the Jan Sangh and the RSS an element of respectability, which subsequently paved the way for its later avatar, the Bharatiya Janata Party, to enter mainstream Indian politics. If Mahatma Gandhi's assassination had made RSS a political pariah, the Emergency helped the RSS manufacture the vision of championing a democratic struggle. The 1977 electoral success gave the RSS confidence that acquiring political power was within their grasp.
 
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Cover of Rasheed Kidwai's book, Ballot: Ten Episodes That Have Shaped India's Democracy

And so the right-wing stayed when Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980. She tried to cultivate the majority community, accepting an invitation to launch the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's 'Ekatmata Yatra', also called the 'Ganga Jal Yatra'. This was a nascent Vishwa Hindu Parishad's first mass-contact programme, giving a glimpse of how Hindu rituals and symbols could be effectively utilized for popular and political mobilization. By 1982-83, Indira Gandhi displayed a lack of social solicitude towards Muslims. A clear indication came from her loyalist CM Stephen, who declared in 1983, "The wave-length of Hindu culture and the Congress culture is the same". Barely six months before her assassination in October 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sought to assure the majority community that if there is 'injustice' caused to them or 'if (they) did not get their rights, then it would be dangerous to the integrity of the country." Subsequently, the Narasimha Rao era too was marked by right-wing dominance, and later the Congress Working Committee under Sonia Gandhi declared, "Hinduism is the sole guarantor of secularism in India". Months before the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had sensed the BJP's belligerence. In private conversations, he wondered why the Congress leadership was not promoting a "Hindu mainstream face" to check the rising popularity of Narendra Modi. One wonders if at the time he voiced this he was, perhaps, conscious of his own minority status as that of Antony, Sonia Gandhi and Ahmad Patel, all key decision-makers in the Congress.

Behind the success of a vibrant and participating democracy, a closer look reveals a big paradox. The political class, cutting across party lines, claims to like substance, keeps their rhetoric focussed on development and nation-building and professes hatred for spin and hypocrisy - and but are they the biggest hypocrites of all?

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Rasheed Kidwai is associate editor at the Telegraph and the author of two non-fiction bestsellers, '24, Akbar Road' (Hachette India) and 'Sonia: A Biography' (Penguin India)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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