Bihar has reintroduced a healthy balance in our polity

The Modi presidency is over
Illustration by Sandeep Joshi

The clever and the cunning among the Modi ‘bhakts’ were prescient enough to enter a caveat by way of  an insurance: the Bihar vote would not be a verdict on the Prime Minister. True, every analyst knew that whatever be the Patna outcome, the Lok Sabha numbers would remain unchanged. But there is a message way, way beyond Patna because he opted — so breathtakingly and so recklessly — to stake his shirt in Bihar, the Prime Minister’s  image and stature stand considerably diminished.The trend that began in Delhi early this year has now consecrated into a new, definite mood.  But there is no joy in all this. Indeed the Bihar outcome has hoisted the nation, to use a very old cliché , on the horn of a dilemma.

Narendra Modi is the only Prime Minister we have, he  still has three and a half years left in his term and, yet, it would truly be a national tragedy if his government gets rendered  a  hors de combat.It is sobering to observe that a sensible section in the country was hoping that the Bihar voters would rebuff Mr. Modi, which in turn would, hopefully, induce him to reinvent himself. But it is too hopeful a hope to expect Mr. Modi to change his stripes.  This pessimism suggests itself on three counts. First, what the people of Bihar -as also in the rest of the country-saw was the real Narendra Modi. Abrasive, abusive, acerbic, cheerfully acrimonious, a bruiser, a street-fighter with a preference for the knuckle-duster.

A leader who is refusing to grow up. Perhaps that is the only trip he knows.  During the 2014 parliamentary campaign his massive media machine was able to bewitch the middle classes as also the leading liberal intellectuals to make them believe that Modi had put “2002” behind him; that he had grown into a sober, rounded personality. Of course, even in 2014, the voter in UP, Bihar, Rajasthan and Gujarat was wooed, subtly, to see him in the old familiar garb of an anti-Muslim, Hindu partisan. But the post-victory narrative grafted a modernising halo around him.The middle classes opted to overlook this unpleasant part of his political persona and, instead, applauded because he had promised to slay the “mother and son sarkar.” 

In the 2015 Bihar, there was neither a ma nor a beta for him to gore, though he did try to resurrect them as the ‘enemy.’ Meanwhile the country had become wise to Modi’s  techniques and tricks. The Bihar political antagonists led by Nitish Kumar had read Modi loud and clear and were ready to repay him in kind: insult for insult, slogan for slogan, gali for gali. Second, the BJP campaign in Bihar has done enormous damage to the idea of economic growth. The choice got narrowed down to the ‘social justice plus development’ of the Nitish Kumar variety or the ‘development plus communalism’ of  the Modi-Amit Shah version.

It is most regrettable that ‘development’ as the national agenda stands discredited. It was all so needless but Mr. Modi himself abandoned it; he did not stay with the message. That too is no surprise.  Because being who he is, Narendra Modi put  ‘vikas’ on his rhetorical back-burner and began trading in communal metaphors. He had no qualms in invoking “the other community.”  

In case anyone missed the communal pitch, his comrade-in-chief, Amit Shah, made it explicit  when he argued that Pakistan would be celebrating a BJP defeat. This was back to the familiar Gujarat rhetoric of 2002.This cultivated regressive relapse has taken the sheen off Mr. Modi as a new messenger of a new era of national prosperity. The prolonged Bihar spectacle has defrocked this self-promoted messiah of techno-nationalism, a man who can effortlessly woo the CEOs and other technocrats in the Silicon Valley and still practise pre-Partition politics. 

Thirdly, Bihar also highlighted Narenda Modi’s  single-minded preoccupation with the relentless accumulation of power. After Bihar, it would have been UP, then West Bengal. The unspoken message was clear: Control the Rajya Sabha, become invincible, answerable to none, or maybe, if at all, only to the Nagpur bosses. Bihar was invited to pay its democratic obeisance to the new Mughal. The invitation was spurned. When even so mature a political leader like Mufti Mohammed Syed allows himself to suggest that Mr. Modi would be Prime Minister for the next ten years, the Indian people’s democratic soul became restless.     

All these three counts add up to a larger message: Mr. Modi  has lost two major institutional  assets  — trust and moral licence — no Prime Minister can do without. A political figure becomes a leader when the citizens come to feel that he can be trusted to take life-and-death decisions; that he has that elusive but critical capacity to strike a balance between short-term advantages and long-term interests; when the leader is able to induce  hope and confidence that he would “do the right thing;”  The nation has to trust its leader to summon the necessary wisdom  to reject extremes and to encourage moderation without losing vitality and energy. Only a trustful leader taps the very best in each of us. Once a leader acquires that trust a moral licence accrues to him. Such a trustful leader can seek the willing acquiescence of the congregation in changing its outlook, values and meta-ideological propositions. Only a trustful leader can become a transformative figure because of his ability  to extract cooperation and compliance in rebuilding a society. 

For a while Modi had both trust and moral licence; for instance, when he wielded a broom and led the nation to clean our streets and mohallas, he was exercising a moral licence; what he was asking of the citizens was totally impersonal; the leader was not seeking any glory for himself, only some contribution to the collective good. In Bihar, Mr. Modi squandered it all away. It is still open to Mr. Modi to redeem himself.

The only painful question is whether he would belatedly understand that he was not elected to an all-powerful  presidency but to the office of Prime Minister. India has become too argumentative and too democratic a nation to pay homage to an emperor. Mr. Modi can still salvage his government’s efficacy and respectability if he is made to realise that a Prime Minister cannot demand or dictate conciliation and cooperation from all stakeholders in the polity. The Modi presidency is over. Our democratic equanimity stands partially restored.