All those fresh semi-circular marks that you espy on India’s political sands are due to U-turns that politicians and political parties have been taking during the current run-up to general elections. Even as the Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh sets aside his loudly articulated opposition to the Food Security Bill and declares to back it in the parliament’s monsoon session, there have been spectacular back-flips elsewhere. The UPA flip-flopped through the entire 360 degrees of its ideological spectrum. It began its second term high on successes, based on growth and reform oriented policies, in the previous innings. But, suddenly it paused for an inordinately long time.
It dawdled over whether to keep walking ahead on the road to further development or turn left, as prompted by some influential economists who had cautioned against accentuating the rich-poor divide. There were too many dollar billionaires sprouting at the pyramid’s top, they averred. This would create social tensions, they warned, raising the specter of emaciated hordes joining the Naxalites, ignoring the fact while the number of billionaires was increasing, there was also tactile improvement in various socio-economic indicators at the pyramid’s bottom; more jobs were on offer; per capita income was increasing at a decent pace. Whether one calls it trickle-down effect or inclusive growth, more people were having food on their plates, shirts on their backs and bucks in their purses. Individual enterprise, that had been for long an emaciated child of the vapid Integrated Rural Development Programme, had begun to take wing on its own. Consequently, India’s tertiary sector saw phenomenal growth. Inexplicably, policy paralysis ensued, immobilizing all government initiatives.
This is where the panic driven warped political vision comes into play, thanks to three factors. First, due to adverse international economic scene, India’s economy began to slow down and inflation began to gain momentum. The second factor was the serial exposures of corruption related scandals, as if some pestilence had broken out on the political terra firma; and finally, the rise of Modi as main political challenge, who combined development with jingoism rather too effectively for UPA’s comfort, thus bringing about a seismic shift in the country’s politics. Never before had a demagogue of such potency burst upon the political arena; Advani of the rath yatra fame comes close, but he had an effective counterfoil in AB Vajpayee. Modi makes no such concessions to the traditional political culture. He has the gumption of a street fighter, backed with unbelievable self-belief, which has propelled him from grassroots to top of the political heap in the most dramatic manner. He has cleverly enunciated a development agenda that has special appeal for the middle classes and the youth, even as he tinges it with saffron hues to keep the Parivar happy. Modi touts the so-called Gujarat Model as an ideal worth replicating in the rest of the country. He has caught the imagination of the Middle India. He is all over the media space, confirming his rise as the archetypal rock star of today’s politics. The social media appears to be packed with Om NaMo bhajan singers, who deify Modi as no other political leader in India has been in recent years.
Apparently, these developments have affected the UPA’s reflexes much more adversely than it cares to admit. All attempts to yodel the secular anthem failed to counter the rising chorus in Modi’s favor, hurtling the UPA government into a time warp, signaling its regression towards the pre-reforms era where populism predominated policymaking. They have fast tracked Food Security through an ordinance. In their hurry, the UPA strategists forgot to explain the reason behind covering 67% under the FSB when so far they had been insisting that less than 33% were below the poverty line. Moreover, they have tried hard to paint Modi as the ogre let loose by fascist forces to destroy the country’s social fabric and poison its political eco-system. Whether it is the ‘puppy’ issue or the ‘secular burqa’ comment, every NaMo utterance is blown out of proportion and turned into propaganda. Strangely, Congress strategists avoided all engagement on developmental issues for unduly long time. However, PM Manmohan Singh did the course correction a few days back, and countered all disparagement with statistical presentation of UPA’s track record in keeping the economy stable during eight of its nine most turbulent years.
If they had countered Modi’s developmental discourse by highlighting UPA’s achievements earlier, perhaps he would not have gained the head start that he presently enjoys. Considering the overall situation, and that even “strong, controlled” economies like China, Russia and Brazil have been showing symptoms of fatigue, our economy’s performance has been commendable indeed. But, somehow, the UPA misread the public mood and raised the 2002 riots and Ishrat Jahan issues, with negligible success. Even Muslims have clearly moved on from that phase. Congress had mistakenly thought that it had fine-tuned its communal card fuelled brahmastra to pulverize the NaMo juggernaut, but it proved to be a damp squib. Cascades of corruption related scandals only added to the government’s growing discomfiture. Belatedly, it came up with a flurry of “reformist” measures pertaining to FDI etc, which it had earlier claimed could not be implemented because of the opposition’s obstructionist tactics. Simultaneously, it has been tying itself in knots while retrieving its development discourse; this about turn has been under-articulated, but the question is whether it will gain any traction in the coming months.
Inexplicably, Modi has taken another U-turn and reverted to the saffronite, jingoist “I am a Hindu Nationalist” counterpunch. Although, his supporters among the BJP’s rank and file may take heart from this development, the common voter must remember that tyranny begins with demagoguery. Its fuel is an explosive mix of prejudice and supremacist affinity. Patriotic zeal sends it zooming skyward, and a collective hysteria generated by victimhood discourse intensifies it. Charisma, stirring oratory, and hardnosed sophistry, along with calamitously favorable socio-political and economic conditions, facilitate the birth of a tyrant, who uses every ruse to outmaneuver and eliminate his rivals. This enables him to eventually usurp absolute power and justify it too, a la Adolf Hitler, who took Germany to extraordinary heights of economic and military power. However, his hubris and hate induced vision resulted in Germany’s ultimate doom and mortification. Are our liberal-democratic instincts powerful enough to neutralize such adventurism? Or, must we learn through a harrowing experience? Think it over.
Published in The Financial World dated 25 July 2013