Imagining Modi out of power

April 01,2024

One way of teasing out the principal impulse behind Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s politics of steamrolling the Opposition, through means fair and foul, is to imagine him out of power, an exercise difficult to undertake as he has never lost an election in which his own fate was at stake. So, even as you read these lines, assume today is June 4 and the election results show the National Democratic Alliance is, say, 30-40 seats short of the majority mark, with the Bharatiya Janata Party still, individually, far ahead of its competitors.

This scenario will immediately prompt a change in the behaviour of TV anchors, who will, in contrast to their last 10-year record, adopt a voice of neutrality as they analyse the results. They will ask questions like: Is Modi to blame for the BJP’s slide? Is the verdict the nation’s vote against authoritarianism or misgovernance? What explains the fading away of Modi’s magic touch? 

For the man who dominates TV channels as none other, too accustomed for too long to anchors lavishing praise on him, it will be a comedown difficult to countenance. The Modi myth is fundamentally a media construction, which will begin to unravel at the hint of a change at the Centre. The media is the scaffolding Modi has used to constantly refurbish his persona, which will develop cracks under the stress of objective analyses.

These cracks will multiply as a hung Lok Sabha will trigger a competition among different formations to build a new coalition to secure the majority required for forming a government. Modi has alienated far too many political leaders for them to support the BJP’s bid for another stint in power with him still helming the party. There will arise voices inside the BJP to dump Modi for enhancing its chances of luring new allies to its side. Voices earlier muted because of the fear of Modi will suddenly engage in publicly criticising him.

Or Modi will himself choose to drop out of the prime ministerial race, knowing a BJP government without a majority of its own would necessarily circumscribe his power, which he has always exercised without restraint. Modi has always had an eye on history. He will want to be remembered as India’s most decisive prime minister, despite his decisiveness spawning disasters such as demonetisation and failing against Chinese occupation of Indian territory. 

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, dwarfed by Modi’s rise, will readily ditch him in case it thinks another from its rank can head a new coalition, for what’s vital for it is that India’s march towards a Hindu Rashtra does not come to a standstill. It will want power to ensure that the project of Hinduising knowledge and the public arena continues to whatever limited extent possible under a coalition government.

Should the BJP fail to form a government despite sidelining Modi, there will surface two tendencies within the new dispensation comprising a medley of parties. One group will argue that the best way to undermine Modi’s popularity is to not call him to account for his perceived misdeeds, to not obsess about him and let him sink into oblivion.

But this group will likely be in a minority, for Modi has tormented too many Opposition leaders indiscriminately. The majority among them will want files to be dug up for gathering evidence to prove correct their suspicion of Modi having favoured a certain industrialist. They will want to do to him what he has to them—send the investigating agencies to knock on his door, entangle him in myriad cases, and even push for banishing him to prison. 

The quest for absolute domination, acquired through electoral victories, application of draconian laws against rival formations and splitting them, has been a defining feature of Modi’s politics. But domination and fear are like Siamese twins: the more power a leader acquires, the greater his/her fear of losing it. The self-esteem based on media headlines becomes fragile at the loss of the leader’s capacity to engineer them, at his/her inability to dominate the national consciousness night and day. This is why Modi will shudder at the possibility of an electoral defeat, regardless of how unlikely it may be. He would think: didn’t the Vajpayee government suffer an unanticipated defeat in 2004? 

A weak Opposition must, therefore, be disabled from springing a surprise. This is why Chief Ministers Arvind Kejriwal and Hemant Soren have been sent to jail, the bank accounts of the Congress frozen, and the Electoral Bond scheme conceived to create a terrain requiring a steep uphill climb for the Opposition to reach the summit Modi occupies—for battling him.

Democratic principles can scarcely appeal to Modi, who knows he will face a crisis, existential as well as psychological, if he were to be voted out. To stave off such a future of nightmares, he produces nightmares for Opposition leaders that they must endure. Unless their nightmares trouble citizens, the 2024 parliamentary elections will seem fixed to realise Modi’s mission of a Lok Sabha with 370 BJP MPs, paving the way for altering the Constitution beyond recognition.