Critical days for Modi and rivals

Published June 25, 2024
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

THE underplayed defeat for his government by 32 seats in the parliamentary elections, with a whopping loss of 63 BJP MPs from the previous tally, may have reined in Prime Minister Modi’s self-obsessed march on Indian democracy for now. His new and untested experiment with a coalition government has just begun, with the opening of the 18th Lok Sabha on Monday.

Modi must cling to power not only for himself and his hatchet man, the home minister, but also for his corporate friends who have backed him from his days as Gujarat chief minister, benefiting both sides in assorted ways.

Hindutva was a lubricant in the enterprise but by no means incidental to the project. A slip-up in the new House could be politically fatal and, of course, hugely embarrassing, too. Without Modi at the helm, skeletons are primed to tumble out of the cupboards at the home ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office, which jointly and exclusively ruled the country during the last 10 years.

The days ahead, therefore, could go any which way. There’s always a chance of seeing a resolute opposition carry the day for democracy. Or we could see a lurch towards greater authoritarianism, which is Modi’s natural stance to rule. In which case, the requirement would be challenging on three counts. He would need to effectively smother the assault from a rejuvenated opposition. He must also keep intact his benign hold on critical allies lest they become vulnerable to the siren calls of opposition. Above all, Modi would need to vacate the challenge from within the Hindutva fold, primarily from the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, with whom he has had strained relations.

Worrying scenarios are already circulating of mid-term polls or worse should Modi feel he is losing the grip.

An old story from the Caravan magazine is self-explanatory. It quotes former BJP minister Arun Shourie as indicating a Modi-Bhagwat stand-off. It seems Bhagwat sent an emissary to Shourie to prod Modi to chalk out an election strategy with the RSS chief for the 2014 polls. Modi, we are told, ignored Bhagwat, but grudgingly agreed to meet him not in the RSS headquarters of Nagpur, as asked, but at a place of his choice in Ahmedabad. The strain burst into the open with the 2024 poll verdict. The BJP’s rout prompted Bhagwat to mock the “arrogance” of power, while the RSS mouthpiece, Organiser, slammed the BJP for undermining the parent body’s advice in critical ways.

Also, within the Hindutva fold, the saffron-clad chief minister of Uttar Pradesh is said to be in the crosshairs of the Amit Shah-Narendra Modi duo. He is accused of subverting the elections in the state, where the BJP campaign ran aground before the secular forces of Rahul Gandhi and former state chief minister Akhilesh Yadav. Yogi Adityanath does not belong to the RSS stable, and has signalled the revival of his own Hindutva militant brigade, which he had abandoned over the years in office. A potentially rebellious Uttar Pradesh could leave Modi further isolated within the BJP, particularly when by-elections are due for state legislature seats vacated by Lok Sabha winners, with candidates chosen by New Delhi.

An imperative for Modi to effectively fend off the three challenges — from the opposition, the allies, and within the Hindutva fold — to keep his grip on power, lies in the election of the Speaker of the Lok Sabha. After the 2019 victory, Modi handpicked a trusted man for the job, Om Birla. With the Speaker of his choice, he cou­ld evict the entire opposition when that was nee­ded to pass crucial bills. He could single out MPs for special treatment, as he did with Rahul Gan­dhi and Mahua Moitra in the previous Lok Sabha.

The Speaker of the House is crucial in a parliamentary democracy. But for the Nazi Speaker in the Reichstag, Hitler would have struggled to become Fuhrer. William Shirer records as American correspondent in Nazi Berlin how Frantz von Papen, a Hitler ally-turned-critic, came running with the decree in hand from president Hindenburg to dissolve parliament. This was their attempt to stop Hitler from accumulating invincible powers.

The Reichstag president (Speaker), Hermann Goering, deliberately ignored Papen till the Nazi hold on the House was sealed with a vote. Only after this he signalled to Papen to come forward with his papers, just to quickly inform him that he was late as the Reichstag had already voted to preclude its dissolution.

It was, of course, a coincidence that in 1934, when Goering became the Reichstag chief, Kesarinath Tripathi was born in Uttar Pradesh. As a BJP apparatchik, Tripathi rose to become Speaker of the House in the Uttar Pradesh assembly and became noted for arbitrarily breaking up Mayawati’s party to enable the BJP to consolidate power. This BJP trick was used elsewhere, including Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra, to dismantle opposition governments and instal their own.

If Modi gets the Speaker of his choice, the opposition could soon find itself fighting him on the streets instead of parliament. Besides, it could signal trouble for Modi’s allies. Three members of the Telugu Desam Party defected to join the BJP in the Rajya Sabha not long ago. Such threats could become ominous should the Speaker be from the Modi team.

Unsurprisingly, the first day of the Lok Sabha began with a violation of the convention according to which the most seasoned veteran MP becomes the protem Speaker. Convention says the most senior member is chosen for the job. The BJP chose its own, a seven-term member over the Congress’s eight-term veteran.

Worrying scenarios are already circulating of mid-term polls or worse should Modi feel he is losing the grip on power. Such a crisis could erupt should the BJP be trounced in the Maharashtra and Haryana state polls due in November. To set up a stronger show, Modi may yield to the RSS, possibly surrendering the post of the BJP president to someone handpicked from Nagpur.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

jawednaqvi@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, June 25th, 2024

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