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Importance of being Modi lost on the old order’s effete

by Harsh V. Pant

These are exhilarating times in India. An old political order underpinned by the supremacy of the Nehru-Gandhi family is crumbling before our eyes while a new order is gradually taking shape.

The victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Narendra Modi’s leadership has transformed the political landscape of India almost beyond recognition. For a democratic system to remain vibrant and dynamic, such transitions are essential.

In fact, most mature democracies do see such transitions periodically. In India, for a host of reasons, while democracy has flourished, its vitality has been sapping, especially over the last decade. Today, when the Indian electorate has demolished the myth of the Nehru-Gandhi dynastic right to rule, it can safely be concluded that Indian democracy has taken a turn for the better.

The rise of the BJP in the 1990s led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a milestone as for the first time a real national alternative to the Congress party emerged. But Vajpayee was a politician who had grown up under the shadow of Nehru. His ideology differed, but he was part of the traditional Indian political establishment. He gave the Gandhis due respect and was keen that the old political order remained undisturbed.

The last decade was the decade of the Gandhis once again. Sonia Gandhi ruled with an iron fist even as all the blame for inefficient governance was laid at the door steps of Manmohan Singh, a prime minister only in name.

Gradually as Sonia paved the way for her son, Rahul, Singh’s role shrank even further. The damage this has done to India’s institutional fabric is immense and the true costs will be fully known only in the future. Over the last five years, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance lurched from crisis to crisis and the India story lost most of its sheen.

As the Indian political class failed to match up to the aspirations of a rapidly changing India, the vacuum was filled by Narendra Modi. One of the most talented politicians in India, Modi’s rise has been nothing short of extraordinary.

He was consistently snubbed by the Indian media and liberal intelligentsia. Even as he was single-mindedly focused on making Gujarat a BJP bastion, his critics only talked of communal riots in Gujarat in 2002. Modi has been termed a rabid Hindu nationalist, a Muslim hater, and even a fascist.

It is safe to say that no Indian politician has attracted as much animus as Modi has in recent years. But this only made him stronger. He continued to win election after election in Gujarat and cases filed against him in the courts also collapsed. From the state of Gujarat to the center stage of Indian politics, Modi swift rise is befuddling for his critics who always questioned his ability.

In an unprecedented move in Indian polity, the party cadres of the BJP forced party president Rajnath Singh’s hand. He had to declare Modi BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in September 2013.This was a move fraught with risks as the old guard in the BJP were opposed to the move and there was a danger that the National Democratic Alliance led by the BJP might collapse.

In the end, despite some discontent in the old guard and a major ally leaving the alliance, the decision to anoint Modi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate turned out to be a masterstroke as it changed the character of India’s electoral campaign, perhaps forever.

The Congress party refused to follow suit by naming Rahul Gandhi as its prime ministerial candidate for fear that if it lost, Rahul would not be able to maintain his hold on the party.

Where a focused Modi led a decisive campaign, Congress found itself in disarray. Rahul neither has the political sense nor the leadership ability of his main rival. Ironically, for Congress, which had conjured up the image of Rahul Gandhi as the nation’s youth icon, it is Modi who ended up attracting most of the votes from India’s young.

India’s youth, increasingly aspirational, find the idea of a dynastic endowment anachronistic while the story of a backward caste, tea-seller working his way to the highest office in the land seems inspirational. It resonates with that very basic democratic ideal that every Indian can aspire for the office of the prime minister, whereas in the Congress party, that privilege remains reserved for the Nehru-Gandhi family or their chosen ones.

Modi’s rise has shaken the foundations of the Indian polity. He has broken old norms, challenging the Gandhis openly, talking about them disparagingly, embellishing his record, sidelining the old guard within his own party, reaching out directly to the people, and making a strong pitch for national leadership without inhibitions.

He wanted to be India’s next prime minister, he told his countrymen and women, and he was not ashamed to ask for their support. His ambition is his greatest asset in an increasingly ambitious India. The Indian electorate, instead of looking down at him, rewarded him with a handsome mandate.

Modi is a product of contemporary India where identity politics, while important, is no longer the be all and end all of politics. An absence of leadership for the last decade is leading to a craving for decisive leadership. Modi fills that vacuum. Modi has many flaws, much like other leaders. But politics is not a contest among ideal types.

For liberals, spooked by Modi’s rise, it has been hard to make a case that at this juncture in India, electing a moribund, decadent and ideationally bankrupt Congress or a divided, rag-tag Third Front was a better alternative than electing Modi. By shaking its foundations to the core, Modi has transformed politics.

Now he will have to deliver, for the new aspirational India is also a very impatient India. Modi will have to prove his mettle, but his legacy is already a significant one.

Harsh V. Pant teaches defense studies at King’s College London.