(The article was originally published in Times of India on June 7, 2022. Views expressed are personal.)
Politics is about leadership and narrative. Jawahar Lal Nehru, the longest serving Prime Minister of India, who held that portfolio for seventeen years – “six thousand days” as Amiya Rao and B G Rao called in their book – had both. He was a charismatic leader with a mass appeal comparable to none of his contemporaries except Gandhi. He rode to power over an equally powerful narrative of the leader of a party that had won freedom for India.
Nehru was lucky in many ways. Country lost some of its best leaders in the immediate aftermath of independence. Gandhi was killed in less than six months. Sardar Patel too passed away in a couple of years. Nehru became the sole torchbearer of the legacy of independence movement.
Gandhi was opposed to anyone using the freedom struggle for electoral benefits in post-independence India. India’s independence was the result of a confluence of many different ideologies and organisations, the singular objective for all being freeing the country from the British yoke. Once that was achieved, leaders belonging to different organisations proffering disparate ideologies naturally chose different paths.
Gandhi was conscious of it and hence insisted that the Congress should disband itself after independence. In a draft resolution he dictated a few days before his unfortunate killing, which was later published as “His Last Will and Testament”, Gandhi categorically stated that: “Though split into two, India having attained political independence through means provided by the Indian National Congress, the Congress in its present shape and form, i.e., as a propaganda vehicle and parliamentary machine, has outlived its use. India has still to attain social, moral and economic independence in terms of its seven hundred thousand villages as distinguished from its cities and towns. The struggle for the ascendancy of civil over military power is bound to take place in India’s progress towards its democratic goal. It must be kept out of unhealthy competition with political parties and communal bodies. For these and other similar reasons, the AICC resolves to disband the existing Congress organization and flower into a Lok Sevak Sangh…”.
But the tag of the ‘party of the freedom movement’ was too enticing for the Congress leaders to forego. Nehru’s rise on the Indian political horizon was essentially due to this narrative as the sole political heir of Gandhi and freedom movement. It gave him such an unassailable political advantage that in his life time, there was no other leader in the country who could come anywhere near him in popularity and public support.
Exactly five decades after Nehru came Narendra Modi, with a similarly massive popular goodwill and support. But there is a qualitative difference. Unlike Nehru, Modi didn’t have any illustrious father and godfather, nor did he inherit any independence movement-like aura. He is completely a self-made leader. He did have the backing of the Hindutva movement but that movement could take Lal Krishna Advani, one of its tallest leaders, only to 140+ seats just five years before Modi.
India has had twelve prime ministers before Modi. Three of them – Nehru, Indira and Manmohan Singh – had longer tenures as Modi. They all had their political highs and lows.
Nehru’s years as prime minister saw India industrialising. Massive infrastructure, industry and scientific projects were set in motion for the nascent nation. But he ended his tenure as prime minister leaving India more impoverished than what he inherited. After eight years, in 1958, India’s constitution faced its first serious challenge when Nehru dismissed the Communist government in Kerala to make way for a Congress one. A few years later, India faced a humiliating defeat at the hands of China and Nehru himself became a broken man towards the end of his career and life.
Indira Gandhi became famous for her resoluteness, but her political graph was mired in countless controversies, the infamous Emergency topping the list. Indira’s era ended with the rise of the new demon of terrorism. Manmohan Singh presided over an uneventful and corrupt ten years. Modi came in as a whirlwind in 2014. Once ticked off by world powers for Gujarat riots and written off by the Indian political establishment as an inconsequential regional satrap, Modi carved his way through the national politics in the last two decades in a most determined and diligent manner. Using his popular goodwill, he made it a fait accompli for his party to anoint him as the prime minister.
Modi’s rise to power in 2014 was due to his own popularity coupled with the support of his party and the ubiquitous Sangh Parivar and the strong anti-incumbency against the UPA government. But his continued dominance after eight years is due singularly to him. Everything about last eight years was about Modi. He gave a transparent government, delivered goods to the masses and effectively handled crises, including the recent pandemic that leaders of many developed nations failed to do. Most importantly, he reached into the houses, kitchens and mobiles of millions and millions of Indians and captured their mind and heart spaces.
Controversies, like the one about statements by some party spokespersons, are not new to Modi. Over decades, he has waded through them and mastered the art of converting them to his political advantage.
Dev Kant Baruah’s “India is Indira” was an exaggeration in 1970s, but “Modi is BJP and government” is no exaggeration today.
The heights that Modi scaled in these eight years can be gauged from the fact that there is no leader domestically today who can compete with him, and there is no leader globally who doesn’t want to court him.
Modi is not just a person, but a phenomenon. It’s not easy to halt a phenomenon. The Modi juggernaut might continue to roll on for many years to come. No surprise if he breaks Nehru’s record too. The only challenge to it could be Modi himself.
Vajpayee’s poetic lesson in political morality: मुझे इतनी ऊँचाई भी मत देना की औरों को छू ना सकूँ must continue to guide him.