IT is not a solitary executive act, a legislative measure or an oratorical performance that matters. What really matters is the wave a leader can create and let loose, a zamane ki hawa (wave of the times). B.G. Tilak created a wave in Maharashtra which was a blend of religion and politics. Freedom is my birthright, he declared. But he also initiated a religious movement — Ganapati. The Ali brothers started the Khilafat movement which Gandhi joined. The harm it did was colossal.
Later, L.K. Advani began the Hindutva movement with the demolition of the Babri Masjid at its core. A massive wave began. Narendra Modi, once a general secretary of the BJP, capitalised on it. He became prime minister and put Advani on the shelf where he sits still. He was even refused a party ticket for election to the Lok Sabha. Like revolutions, political waves also devour their own children. Modi takes no notice of poor Advani today.
Narendra Modi is all powerful. No sooner did he become prime minister in 2014 than he installed his henchman of Gujarat days, Amit Shah, as president of the BJP. The party lost its independence. Old-timers are ignored. Modi hates Jawaharlal Nehru but secretly admires and covets Nehru’s massive popularity, especially his international popularity. He also hates Indira Gandhi but admires her political techniques of popularity cult, control over party and, most of all, her authoritarian tactics which made her so invincible.
Punch drunk with absolute power at the moment, Modi has no time, still less inclination, to heed the lessons of their fall. Nehru died a broken man. His foreign policy had failed miserably. At home, his massive popularity was ebbing away.
Is Modi heading for a fall? One knows not.
Indira Gandhi sensed she would lose the elections in1976. She became pro-Hindu in conduct and speech and went after the Hindu vote. But it did not help. Hindus are a civilised and astute people. Had she lived, she would have tried some of the gimmicks to create a ‘wave’, namely a presidential system, another nuclear explosion and a limited war on Pakistan.
Narendra Modi began by inviting the world’s leaders and succeeded; especially in the US. Remember Howdy Modi? As Prof Ian Hall wrote, he “inflicted” a large hug on Barack Obama. The forced embrace became his signature call. It is amazing that Hall’s book has not received the popularity it deserved. It goes to the root of the Hindutva wave in India which owes a lot to foreign applause.
Alarmingly for Modi, the foreign admirer is now utterly disenchanted with him. Opinion in the White House, and among the US media and public is cool towards him. The Continent is no more ardent. Asia is aloof.
At home the gross unfitness in dealing with the Covid menace, the lies, the sluggish economy, the bureaucracy’s failure and the first signs of a divided opposition coming together have caused tremors in the Modi camp.
The general election to the Lok Sabha is due in 2024. Uttar Pradesh will elect its assembly anew next year. Home state Gujarat does not lag behind. Will they follow the example set by West Bengal, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala where the BJP had to bite the dust? It would be unrealistic to ignore the Modi factor. His figure has been dented but it survives still what with the beard he has made longer lately. This is a very conscious decision. He had engraved his name on the stripes of a jacket. The ridicule it earned led him to discard the use of that expensive wear.
The Modi wave is ebbing away. Is he heading for a fall? One knows not. What is clear is that his popularity has waned at home and abroad since it was based on a cardboard construct. Neither is likely to rise to its former level soon. The foreign applause was based on slender material. It is unlikely to regain its former noise.
The situation at home is different. Modi’s popularity has declined and is unlikely to rise again. But the Hindutva ebb has not fully subsided. He takes good care of that. He appointed a yogi with no administrative experience as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the heart of the Hindutva movement, and assured the rise to chief ministership of Assam of a former Congress member who supports Hindutva.
Modi has never held a single iftar party unlike all his predecessors including the BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Centre, 50 per cent of Hindus consider that India “should rely on a leader with a strong hand and solve its problems”. Modi fits this description. The opposition hasn’t propped up any leader who can fit the bill except perhaps Sharad Pawar.
Uttar Pradesh frowns on interfaith marriages. Assam is worried about the population explosion of migrant Muslims (from Bangladesh) to Assam. The Hindutva vote and vote bank are intact. Modi can be defeated. But he is no pushover. The wave, though weak, will help him. But he will be a different prime minister with a smaller majority.
The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai.
Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2021