Fable of the bicycle and a plane

Published July 9, 2024
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

THE inability to accept defeat with grace comes from an authoritarian streak found in enfeebled democracies. Donald Trump and Narendra Modi, for example, are peas in a pod in this regard. Modi has an added problem — his compulsive obsessive rivalry with bête noir Jawaharlal Nehru’s back-to-back three-term tenure as India’s first prime minister. It reminds one of the soirée where a wet-behind-the-ears Urdu poet earned the wrath of a master versifier.

Legendary Firaq Gorakhpuri was waiting for his turn at the late-night mushaira when he felt compelled to chide a young poet for suspiciously plagiarising his lines to compose a bad verse. The young man pleaded innocence, adding a tad grossly that he was delighted to be involved in an intellectual accident with the master poet. Firaq’s response was withering: “One has heard of bicycles crashing into bullock carts. But a bicycle crashing into a plane?”

President Murmu, however, had to indulge Modi’s persistence. “The world can see Indians have for the third time formed a government with a stable and full mandate,” she said. “This has happened after six decades. People have shown trust in my government for the third time.” Murmu was clearly reading an address drafted by Modi’s office to the new parliament, earning endless applause from the treasury benches.

Full mandate? Stable government? In which case why did the markets, revered by BJP acolytes as a thermometer of the nation’s health, crash so nervously when the results came in on June 4? Worse, they crashed after Modi and his home minister exhorted investors in TV interviews to bet on their victory. The markets picked up only when help came from two regional parties who had little in common with the BJP’s communal agenda.

Everyone, except the BJP, sees the election results as a clear rejection of Modi’s communal politics.

That’s precisely what everybody other than the BJP accepts. After the loss of 63 MPs, Modi’s party was reduced to a minority of 240. Rajiv Gandhi resigned as prime minister after he was reduced from a mammoth 400-plus seats to become the leader of the single largest party in 1989, but short of a majority. Rajiv was a democrat, so he preferred to sit in the opposition, despite commanding the highest tally.

Third stable term? Is that why Modi rushed to the two leaders from Bihar and Andhra Pradesh post haste, who included a man who was only recently vying to became convener of the opposition alliance and the other who rose in politics as a Youth Congress leader? Modi sought their support, and the duo dictated their fanciful financial terms for their states, whose burden if fulfilled could be prohibitive for current and future taxpayers. Thus, it remains a point to ponder as to how long the alliance remains stable.

In the rush to keep the job, Modi broke a sacred democratic convention. While getting the two anchors to endorse their support, he tellingly didn’t hold a mandatory meeting of his own party’s MPs, a standard democratic requirement. Unlike the presidential system, the prime minister must be elected by his or her party’s MPs before getting the president’s nod. It’s widely believed that by holding a meeting of the National Democratic Alliance, while studiously dodging the meeting of BJP parliamentarians, he was delaying the blame game for the electoral debacle, which reportedly is waiting to burst into the open.

Everyone, except the BJP, sees the election results as a clear rejection of Modi’s communal politics, and of his hateful speeches against Muslims during the election. To rub in the point, the prime minister’s handpicked candidate was trounced in Banswara, the constituency in Rajasthan from where Modi had exhorted Hindus to mistrust Muslims, claiming they would steal their women’s mangalsutras and even their buffaloes. Muslims were infiltrators, he said venomously. The handpicked election commission unsurprisingly wouldn’t book him. Remember a court had ordered Indira Gandhi to be removed as prime minister for using an election podium built by the Public Works Department.

Still, the elections were a great leveller. The BJP’s candidate from Ayodhya was also crushed by a Dalit leader from the INDIA alliance, literally mocking Modi for embarking on his polarising campaign by hurriedly inaugurating a half-built temple to Lord Ram. In another religiously loaded rebuke, Modi’s candidate from Chitrakoot lost. The epic Ramayana tells us that Ram, Sita and Lakshman spent most of their exile years in the woods of Chitrakoot, in present-day Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

Facts are sacred, opinions free. The fact is that way beyond the moral grasp of the current incumbent of the high office, Nehru had publicly pleaded with his party to relieve him of his post as prime minister in 1958. The high office he earned came from spending nine years in jail and marching as a foot soldier of India’s freedom movement. His experience as Gandhi’s lieutenant prepared him for the job.

On April 29, 1958, the Congress Parliamentary Party found itself facing an unprecedented crisis. Nehru requested the party’s permission to retire as prime minister after guiding the country for four decades. Serving the country had been exhilarating, Nehru’s biographer M.J. Akbar quotes him as telling fellow MPs. But he now wanted a respite from “this daily burden” to do “some quiet thinking” and return to “myself as an individual citizen of India and not as prime minister”.

As one Congress MP remarked, “Jawaharlal wanted time to think about how to save the world from the hydrogen bomb but had no compunctions about dropping a hydrogen bomb on the Congress.”

When Nehru’s party rejected the offer to resign, Akbar recalled in a tribute in 2011, “letters of congratulation and relief came from both Dwight Eisenhower in Washington and Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow”. Modi might want to follow his bugbear to test the love the world leaders have for him. To begin with, he could offer to resign, and let his party take the call.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

jawednaqvi@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2024

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