The Bharatiya Janata Party seems to have persuaded people across India’s ideological spectrum that there is no alternative to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Working on this assumption, many have already awarded the 2019 Lok Sabha elections to the BJP. They argue that not only is Modi the country’s most popular leader, he inspires confidence like no other leader does – certainly not Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi.
Yet those who glibly claim that there is no alternative to Modi are privileging, unwittingly or otherwise, person over idea. This attitude creates the conditions for a cult of personality to thrive, laying the ground for disastrous decisions to be taken. It also inhibits the possibility that alternative sources of power could emerge.
The king’s cabinet
Unlike the United States or France, the prime minister of India is supposed to be primus inter pares or first among equals in his cabinet. The prime minister’s colleagues are expected to act as a restraining influence on him through their collective wisdom expressed through discussions.
But this principle has been turned on its head by Modi, as it was by Indira Gandhi after her victory in the 1971 Bangladesh war. Like Gandhi, Modi has subjugated his cabinet colleagues not just to his supervision but to his authority. The Union cabinet today is akin to the king’s court.
Modi’s propensity to acquire supreme power is not just a personality trait. It is the consequence of a cult of leadership being built around him to create the myth that there is no alternative to Modi. For the myth to have credence at the national level, it is imperative to establish, first of all, that there is no alternative to Modi in the BJP.
To establish the notion that there is no alternative to Modi in the BJP, his intellect is claimed to be superior to all others, as is his capacity to govern. These attributes are affirmed by the subservience of his ministers, who have been reduced to taking directions from him. He is seen as a political and administrative genius driving the cabinet – and with it India – to scale the peaks of glory and achievements.
The belief that the ruler can do no wrong prompted Indira Gandhi to get the President to sign the proclamation of Emergency in June 1975 even before it was placed before the cabinet for its approval. The 21-month Emergency was a period during which civil liberties were curbed, the press censored and Gandhi’s political rivals jailed. The short-circuiting of the cabinet was aimed at stunning its members into acquiescence, apart from pre-empting them from warning the press and the Opposition. Indira Gandhi denied herself the benefit of counter-views and India was poorer for it.
Similarly, the Indian economy is now stranded in a hard place because Modi introduced the policy of demonetisation on November 8, sucking out 86% of the currency in circulation overnight. The cabinet was informed of the decision hours before the prime minister announced it to the nation. This secrecy was said to be essential to ensure that information about demonetisation was not leaked and the operation sabotaged. It did not make sense for ministers to challenge or question a prime ministerial decision they could not stall at that late stage.
Though Modi led his party to an astonishing electoral triumph in Uttar Pradesh in March, the tragic consequences of demonetisation are now apparent for all to see. Gross domestic product growth is down, the job market stagnant, and the ensuing economic slowdown has been aggravated by the Goods and Services Tax – a nationwide tax launched on July 1 to replace many state and Central taxes. Today’s economic upheaval is the result of establishing and believing that there is no alternative to Modi in the BJP.
No escaping him, so vote for him
Earlier this month, BJP MP Nana Patole said that the prime minister gets angry if he is asked questions. To ask questions of a person is to believe he is fallible. For Indians to believe that there is no alternative to Modi, it is essential that they have faith in his infallibility.
In 1974, Dev Kant Barooah, who was Congress president, coined that obsequious slogan “India is Indira, Indira is India.” A year after he made his remark, the Emergency deprived Indian citizens of their rights. Barooah was telling the nation it had no choice other than to vote for Indira Gandhi. Supporting her was equivalent to loving India.
This is the essence of the assertion that there is no alternative to Modi. It is like saying, “Since you love the nation, how can you not vote Modi, especially as there is no alternative to him?” There is no alternative to Modi because he will win anyway – since you cannot escape him, you might as well vote for him.
The continuous electoral triumphs of a leader help convince his or her party that there is no alternative to him or her within its leadership structure. But it triggers a countervailing trend outside the party – a desperate search for an alternative to the leader.
This was the impulse that prompted various parties, including the BJP, to band together under the banner of the Janata Party to vanquish Indira Gandhi in 1977. But then internecine squabbles and splits in the Janata Party brought Gandhi back to power in 1980. This caused some people to state with greater certitude than before that there was no alternative to Gandhi.
However, India has federated since then. The BJP is yet to match the dominance the Congress enjoyed at the time. There are states where regional leaders retain supremacy. The BJP is trying hard to deter them from uniting with the Congress to create an alternative to Modi.
BJP’s 5-step programme
To achieve this goal, the BJP has a strategy with five elements. The first involves mocking Opposition leaders to infantilise them. Rahul Gandhi has been the principal victim of this, no doubt facilitating the BJP in its task by his cavalier attitude.
Yet, his relatively assured performance on his trip to the United States this month provoked senior BJP leaders to come out gunning for him on social media. It was essential for them to prove that Modi has no alternative.
The second element is to prove that Modi’s opponents lack the qualities to provide an alternative to him. Recall the obstacles the Central government constantly erects to prevent Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal from functioning smoothly or the harassment of his party MLAs. Or take West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, under pressure from Hindutva footsoldiers (though she too has helped them with decisions that give credence to the BJP’s theory that she is appeasing Muslims).
The third element in the strategy is to order Central agencies to raid Opposition leaders who take aim at Modi – and who could come together to create an anti-BJP alliance. In the crosshairs, for instance, are Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad and his family, against whom the Central Bureau of Investigation has filed a corruption case.
The fourth element is the media, over which the BJP has such an inordinate influence, it seems to border on control. Television channels constantly show him delivering speeches at length or driving by in a cavalcade ever so slowly. To demonstrate that there are no alternatives to him, it is important for Modi to dominate popular consciousness.
It brings into play the fifth element: the need to design events in which Modi’s role is paramount. This is why he constantly inaugurating toilets to cow sheds and laying the foundation stones for projects such as the bullet train. This is why he stares from advertisements in newspapers daily.
All this, in a way, is redolent of the style Bollywood perfected during Amitabh Bachchan’s heyday. It required a big budget extravaganza, a screenplay that rarely moved Bachchan out of the frame, and a story in which he brought about systemic changes on his own. Bollywood has, to an extent, veered away from such fantasies, a trend that has thrown up better made, realistic films, as also heroes who are not megastars but win our confidence through their performances.
From Bollywood, the Opposition, particularly the Congress, could well take a lesson. Instead of trying to build Rahul Gandhi as an alternative to Modi, it should seek to turn him into first among equals. It could, for instance, create a billboard in which five Congress leaders are juxtaposed with Modi in the frame, and a line saying: “Five is better than one. Think demonetisation!”
But for this slogan to achieve credibility, the Congress has to disown the style of Indira Gandhi, and privilege idea over personality.