There is a great deal of sadistic joy being derived by politicians, media pundits and social media “liberalati” on the apparent “setback” suffered by the government – after an united opposition forced an amendment to the motion of thanks for the President’s Address. Media reaction ranged from “embarrassment” to “government left red-faced”. The Trinamool Congress rejoiced at their pyrrhic victory – by an unprecedented act of convergence with arch-rival CPI(M) - their Parliamentary party leader, Derek O’Brien, calling it “the Rajya Sabha’s equivalent of a vote of No Confidence”. Many a commentator has already written the epitaph of the Land Acquisition, Insurance and other bills in the parliamentary pipeline saying Modi’s arrogance is going to cost BJP dearly.
It is unlikely that the PM Modi hadn’t bargained for any reaction– after what was by any standards a provocative speech. If he left the House immediately on completion of his speech – without waiting for any questions or rejoinders – it must have been a pre-mediated move and not guided solely by considerations of parliamentary protocol. While the absence of BJP MPs from the house was singularly unpardonable – they being around would not have made much difference as the NDA is hopelessly short of numbers in the Rajya Sabha.
It is debatable if better “floor management” could have saved the day. Some feel the BSP, SP and BJD may have been persuaded not to go against the government at least on this occasion - but expecting the Congress and CPI(M) to have yielded after the vitriol that was poured over them in both houses (in the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha ) was wishful thinking.
Narendra Modi’s combative mood was evident from his swipes as “Zamana badal gaya hain, sunna padega ji” – not to mention, his going for the jugular on MNREGA in the Lok Sabha - which was undoubtedly targeted squarely at Sonia Gandhi sitting across the aisle. And, oh boy – did the message hit home? One had to only watch Madam’s expression on TV to know. Therefore, if he chose to be aggressive it must have been advisedly so. This might hold some clue on what could the government’s strategy in the days ahead is going to be as it braces up to negotiate some vital pieces of legislation on which rests not just BJP’s economic reforms agenda – but also, as the Prime Minister so lucidly explained , many of the welfare and developmental initiatives linked to them.
In an earlier article even this author had argued that Modi should – perhaps – have adopted a more “inclusive” or reconciliatory approach in governance carrying the opposition with him to the extent possible. That he has chosen not to do so - can’t be due to his ego and authoritarian temperament alone. Whether one likes him or not, there is no underestimating Modi’s political acumen – as he himself chided the opposition in Parliament. If he thought – offering the olive branch to the Opposition was the solution, he would have done so long back. It’d be simplistic to suggest he has been blinded by power not to see the obvious.
Erudite political analysts have criticised the “modern day Alexander” streak in Modi – with Amit Shah being his proverbial “Ashwamedh” – suggesting this is creating deep insecurity not only among BJP’s opponents but also its allies. It is also being argued – after Jharkhand, Kashmir and, now, most recently the Delhi rout – this strategy has run its course and can only yield diminishing returns, if not become outright counter-productive, going forward. Therefore – if Modi has decided to play on the front-foot it must only be after careful consideration. Even before the elections – Modi had figured out he had to go it alone all the way. None of the left of centre parties would risk jeopardising their traditional vote-bank (dilute their labels of “secular” or “friends of the poor and farmers’’ – as opposed to industrialists) for the fear of total extinction. Little has changed even after the elections. Those – who had to switch sides, have done so lock, stock and barrel (though one is yet to see any real exodus yet). For others it’s too early to give up their core “positioning”, which they are only trying to consolidate it by strange mating rituals driven by strong Darwinian instincts of self-preservation, as it were. And, to expect the Congress to play a “bi-partisan” role – under their current self-centred leadership – would be dreaming of Ram Rajya indeed.
Another learning for Modi government has been - alliances have been formed through hard-negotiations by subtle show of strength and occasional brinkmanship. They have to be held in place also by exercising the “upper-hand” at all times. Slightest signs of faltering or weakness – and partners like the Shiv Sena immediately start flexing muscles demanding a fresh pound of flesh. Allies will play ball only as long as BJP is in the driver’s seat. For that Modi-Shah’s expansionist forays have to continue relentlessly.
Though the merits of a strategy can only be judged in hindsight – and therein lie the test of a leader – for the moment “non – confrontational” parliamentary politics is not an option for Modi government. If civilised discourses and genteel persuasion were the solution – then Arun Jaitley’s cerebral speeches and dinner diplomacy would have won the day. But, here we are dealing with mauled tigers – which won’t be tamed just by applying poultice on their wounds. Sure, backroom negotiations will happen. But, they will have to be with real carrots and sticks on the table – and not soft cajoling and coaxing - over litti-chokha (in any case Bengali “fish-fry” is a no-no for vegetarian Modi).
But, in the final analysis, Modi is the prime minister today by virtue of an overwhelming popular mandate. Ultimately he will have to carry the message back to the people. In this, he is fighting a lonely battle. It is ironical that Modi’s biggest gift – communication - is also proving to be his Achilles Heel. Modi’s only cheerleaders are his band of hand-picked loyal ministers - mostly the young lot. By choice, he has marginalised the old guard. The RSS and its nominees in Parliament have little stake in Modi’s reformist agenda. There will always be that uneasy tension with the old regional satraps – like Raman Singh and Shivraj Chouhan. Seniors like Rajnath, Sushma and Gadkari – who share a mutual wariness with Modi - would play it safe and won’t stick their necks out for Modi. To that extent, he suffers from the same handicap as the UPA, which was often called a government of “technocrats and bureaucrats”. This leaves only Modi alone to control the narrative – with little help that he can get from Arun Jaitley and Amit Shah. He did it successfully – during his run up to the Lok Sabha - managing his entire campaign out of a war-room in Gandhinagar with a crack team (and, probably, an international Communication Consultant – as many allege). But, he can’t remain the lone crusader when he is the PM, as the position itself puts major constraints on him like we saw during the Delhi elections.
At present Modi has the entire Opposition, NGOs, media left-lib intellectuals and some sections of businessmen rallying to derail him. So far, Modi has managed to successfully neutralise (even if for the time being) the international lobby. He could isolate another vital link in the chain by co-opting the media - who – feeling left out as jilted lovers – would be too willing to queue up and offer their hand – if only Modi whispers “Barkis is willing”. It may not honeymoon on a bed of roses thereafter – but life can certainly be a bit less stressful.
Article first published in @DailyO_ (click here to read)