May 14, 2016

India: Modi's Government Under a Swamy’s shadow

The Tribune, May 13, 2016

Under a Swamy’s shadow
Harish Khare

Prime Minister may lose monopoly of initiative

Arun Shourie is dead wrong. The other day this brilliant chronicler of the BJP’s past and present had fulminated, as cogently as only he could do, against the Narendra Modi political establishment. He was unsparingly hard on Modi for what he saw as untrammelled one-man rule, “a one-man presidential government” as he put it to a TV interviewer.

That indictment was valid till recently. It no longer seems to hold. The Prime Minister is no longer the only person who gets to set the tone of his administration. He now has to share the honours and the limelight with Dr Subramanian Swamy, newly nominated to the Rajya Sabha. Now, it is no secret that not many, including the Prime Minister, were wild with excitement at the prospect of Dr Swamy’s arrival in the Rajya Sabha. But he has arrived —despite them, to put it rather mildly. The internal equations and working relationships are suddenly in turmoil.

These are the ruling party’s private affairs. But what was evident was that it was Dr Swamy who shaped the political mood during the second half of the just-concluded budget session. So acrimoniously Swami-fied had the mood become that the government’s parliamentary managers found themselves forced to cut short the Lok Sabha session by two days.

An overstatement? Perhaps. By all formal indicators, Narendra Modi remains in charge of his government: he is the leader of the BJP parliamentary party, he is the most popular and the most visible face of the government, only his photographs appear on the millions of advertisements put out by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and he and only he gets to travel to Tehran and other world capitals. We are still quite a few stones’ throw away from a hostile takeover.

Even before Dr Swamy’s “arrival”, there were other cooks pottering around in the Modi kitchen. Admittedly, the Prime Minister has been — as all BJP prime ministers and chief ministers have to — constrained to listen carefully, attentively and deferentially to the bosses headquartered in Nagpur. These Nagpur-based commissars do call more than one shot. They impose their men and their priorities on the Prime Minister. Dr Swamy being only the latest imposition that he has had to put up with.

Again, it is possible to argue that in key areas of foreign policy — particularly in our approach to Pakistan — it is the Americans who are setting goals and priorities. But the Yanks do their subversion and manipulation rather subtly.

But, at home, it is now the redoubtable Dr Swamy who calibrates the tactical mood inside and outside Parliament.

Dr Swamy is a product of the quarrelsome 1970s and its entrenched enmities. He famously cut his political teeth during his days of defiance in the Emergency era. He has remained charmingly trapped in the memories of those days. There is a familiar ring to his argument that Sonia Gandhi needs to be sent to jail. He simply drags the polity back to the Charan Singh days. Let us recall that on June 28, 1978, Charan Singh had publicly indicted the Morarji Desai government for its “failure to put the former Prime Minister [Indira Gandhi] behind bars by now.” Charan Singh went on to note that this failure had forced people to conclude “that we in the government are a pack of impotent people who cannot govern the country.” Charan Singh insisted on vindictive retribution — and the rest is history.

Dr Swamy scratches this itch. He manages to tap the cultivated hostility and enmity within the BJP/ Jan Sangh/ RSS/VHP against the Gandhis. This desire of wanting to put Sonia Gandhi in jail is a 15-year-old project. Dr Swamy has simply revived it.

But the brilliantly cunning man that he is, Dr Swamy knows he is no Charan Singh. Charan Singh was a mass leader and had a sizeable following among Janata Party MPs. Dr Swamy is a solo player and knows that not a dog would bark within the BJP should the RSS/VHP bosses pull the plug on him. He skillfully lays a trap and lets the Prime Minister walk into it. Modi goes to Kerala and makes his provocative insinuation against Sonia Gandhi, inviting massive protest and disruption from the Congress benches. Dr Swamy seems to have correctly dissected the Prime Minister’s insistence on being the most acerbic voice in his dispensation, and he plays on this. For all practical purposes, he has now emerged as the resident agent provocateur in the ruling dispensation. Since he has also aligned himself firmly with the “Temple” lobby, his provocations against political rivals (including those within the BJP) seem to carry the Sangh Parivar’s imprimatur.

It must also be said to Dr Swamy’s credit that he understands the modern media’s need for drama, controversy and confrontation. He effortlessly manipulates the tools of social media and television news channels to give them “copy.” And now that he has crowbarred his way into the Rajya Sabha, he is deemed to putatively represent the ruling party’s political priorities.

Dr Swamy has injected — and that is his strength — an air of combativeness within the BJP. He has made moderation a dirty word. To be reasonable or to seek reconciliation is to be decried as a condemnable weakness. It is possible to suggest that before Dr Swamy’s arrival the BJP’s political managers would have handled differently the matter of the Prime Minister’s academic degrees. Arvind Kejriwal’s allegation would have been ignored. At best, the University of Delhi could have been asked to respond. Instead, the party president and the Finance Minister were stampeded into holding in a press conference. Both came out looking unconvincing and diminished. But such is the allure of confrontation that sobriety and reasonableness become dispensable qualities. This is the Swamy effect. Single-handedly he can be relied upon to curdle up the political mood, not necessarily to the government’s advantage.

That spells trouble, mostly for Narendra Modi. A Prime Minister is accorded an institutional primacy and is tasked with national leadership because he/she has the capacity to take the nation forward, produce policies and initiatives that find acceptability in the political arena, generate cooperation in a vast and straggling federal polity and its multiple centres of authority and keep on steering the country away from destructive political warfare.

After two years of the Modi regime, it is becoming clear that the governing style is yet to align India with the 21st century realities. Governance is no longer an internal matter. And, the world no longer cares for those nations which consume themselves in internal bickering and feuds. Interdependent and interconnected as the Indian economy is with the global order, our leaders would not be respected on the world stage if they are seen as practitioners of vindictive politics back home.

Two years ago, the people of India were promised a different — a purposeful — essay in governance. Now that the Modi government has come under Dr Swamy’s shadow, its priorities stand in danger of getting distorted. All the consequences may not be wholesome, or even desirable.