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Teflon Modi: Why The PM’s Sticking Power Far Exceeds That Of Other Big Election Winners

He’s escaped the three-year itch that afflicted Indira and Rajiv Gandhi.

09/06/2017 8:41 AM IST | Updated 09/06/2017 8:41 AM IST
Amit Dave / Reuters

There has been a three-year itch in Indian politics that afflicted the leaders or parties that won spectacular victories in general elections. (Let us keep the Nehruvian period aside as the single-party-dominant Congress system dominated our politics as long as India's first prime minister was alive.)

It was in the 1967 elections that competitive democratic politics came into the visible public domain in the Indian sub-continent. Indira Gandhi managed to cobble together a government taking the support of the communists then.

Modi is clearly not facing the backlash that the Gandhis did, and which made them bite the dust in the elections subsequent to their remarkable victories.

But in 1971, Indira Gandhi emerged as a leader in her own right when the Congress led by her registered a landslide victory in the Lok Sabha elections she had advanced by almost a year. But barely three years after this humongous electoral success, Mrs Gandhi faced a major political challenge calling for her resignation by no less a leader than the messianic Jayaprakash Narayan.

Indira Gandhi tried to weather the storm by imposing emergency and sending opposition leaders to jail, but eventually she lost the battle in 1977 when the Congress was routed in north India and Mrs Gandhi herself lost her seat in the Lok Sabha.

The Janata party that came to power in 1977 with a sweeping majority also came unstuck within three years and as a result Indira Gandhi was back in power in 1980.

After Mrs Gandhi's assassination in 1984, Rajiv Gandhi rode the sympathy wave to register a popular mandate which even Jawaharlal Nehru, in his heyday, had not been able to muster (remember, BJP was reduced to just two seats in the Lok Sabha in that 1984 election).

But barely three years down the line, Rajiv Gandhi himself got embroiled in the Bofors bribery charges and was swept out of power in the 1989 election.

The Rajiv era was the last period when a single political party ruled at the Centre. Indian politics has been overtaken by the coalition experiment from 1989 onwards. The coalition era did not see any spectacular political victory by a single political party for decades.

This scenario changed in May 2014 when Narendra Modi led the BJP to an unprecedented victory in the Lok Sabha elections. Modi, of course, heads a coalition government but he could have ruled only on the strength of the BJP which has won a majority of seats on its own, a feat achieved by a political party only after 30 years (the Rajiv election in 1984).

Three years have passed, and it must be said to Mr Modi's credit that he has not fallen victim to the three-year itch that afflicted the leaders or parties that won spectacular victories in general elections.

Modi is prepared to dilute, or even sacrifice, his deeply held convictions if he is convinced that such a move would reinforce his political power.

What Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were to the Congress, Narendra Modi is to the BJP—the unquestioned leader of the ruling party. But Narendra Modi is clearly not facing the backlash that the Gandhis did, and which made them bite the dust in the elections subsequent to their remarkable victories.

There is no denying that Narendra Modi continues to capture the popular imagination and he would probably win with a bigger margin if the general elections were to be held now.

So, what explains Narendra Modi's extraordinary success?

It is more personal than ideological. Modi does not come with the baggage of a family or a dynasty. Speak to the average Indian: they would say that Modi does not have to mint money at home or clandestinely buy property abroad as he has no one to bequeath his wealth to—what Modi is doing is only for the benefit of India and the Indians.

There is also a practical element that is unique to Modi. He came to the Delhi durbar with an entrenched image of a pro-business leader that had brought him success as Gujarat chief minister. But Modi quickly realised that a closer affinity with business groups would not stand him in good stead in national politics.

Modi's earlier insistence on the amendment to the Land Acquisition Act, which was re-promulgated as an ordinance four times, was reflective of his pro-business stance. However, he soon realised that the move was bound to alienate the numerically preponderant agricultural community.

Modi quickly made amends, dropped the controversial amendment and embarked upon a series of measures to create an image that he is pro-farmer and pro-poor.

Modi may be somewhat reassured that there is no new Narayan lurking on the political horizon whom the people of India can look up to as the conscience-keeper of the nation.

Political success is clearly central to Narendra Modi's scheme of things. He is prepared to dilute, or even sacrifice, his deeply held convictions if he is convinced that such a move would reinforce his political power.

Atal Behari Vajpayee, who led the first NDA government from 1999 to 2004, had also had the credit of presiding over a corruption-free government—at least there was no public scandal about his regime—but he seemed to have been overwhelmed by the urban gloss that hid the issues and concerns of the rural community. That is why, despite a seemingly successful five-year term, the NDA government met with a surprising defeat in 2004.

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government focused its attention on the rural poor and ushered in seminal schemes like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Act (MNREGA) that established its pro-poor image and gave them another "surprising" victory in 2009 elections. The UPA lost in 2014, as it was scarred by a series of corruption scandals.

Narendra Modi's success lies in that, like Vajpayee, he has so far led a government that has not faced any major or credible corruption charges. But, unlike Vajpayee—and like the Manmohan Singh-led UPA—Modi has made the rural plank the fulcrum of his administration. That makes his possible success in 2019 elections an almost certainty.

Can anything derail Modi's successful journey in the next two years? Well, situations throw up surprises that no one can anticipate. Indira Gandhi had certainly not bargained for a Jayaprakash Narayan to come out of his retirement to spearhead a campaign to unseat her. Modi may be somewhat reassured that there is no new Narayan lurking on the political horizon whom the people of India can look up to as the conscience-keeper of the nation.

Rajiv Gandhi was cruising safely as the charming young leader of the democratic world when the Bofors scandal hit him in 1987. No bribery charges could be proved against him or his associates then or even by the BJP-led government later in 1999, but Rajiv clearly had lost the confidence of the nation which grounded him in 1989 elections.

Modi is unlikely to face a Bofors-like charge, given his conscious effort to maintain a personal distance from political corruption.

That makes Modi safe to win the 2019 bet, unless, of course, something completely unforeseen overturns his political juggernaut.

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