By Swapan Dasgupta
As a rule the media thrives on hyperbole and generalisations. Often, this is most pronounced in the wrap-up that is obligatory at the end of the calendar year. The tendency to characterise a year that is entering into the past as ‘momentous’, a ‘landmark’ or ‘turning point’ and even—to use the description employed by the British monarch in 1992—‘annus horribilis’ is often irresistible.
A catch-all label does occasionally serve an immediate need for aggregation. However, as history has only too often demonstrated, the importance of a year can only be gauged in hindsight. The many thousands of young men who flocked to the recruiting centres in August 1914 probably imagined that their noble endeavour to serve the King and Country (or, indeed, the Kaiser and Fatherland) would involve a short adventure that would end by Christmas. Contemporaries were scarcely aware that what began as competitive patriotic euphoria would result in a horrible four-year war that would devastate Europe, lead to the annihilation of an entire generation and destroy an entire way of life. Little did they realise that the Great War would also sow the seeds of another conflict that would usher a fearful atomic age.
When millions of Indians queued before their local polling booths all through April and early-May this year, they were exercising individual political choices born out of very different compulsions and considerations. For some it was exasperation with a state of affairs marked by economic under-performance, listless leadership and shrinking opportunities; for others it was the heady expectation of change, an inspirational leader and even peer group pressure; and for still others it was the sheer excitement of being able to determine the country’s rulers. The post-May 16 rationalisation of the vote as either a ‘conservative revolution’ or a conclusive rejection of dynastic politics was inevitably post-facto. Till 10.30am on May 16 neither the people nor the pundits who pontificated in the studios were sufficiently aware that India would break a jinx and create a single-party majority government for the first time since Rajiv Gandhi swept the board 30 years ago.
Pedants will doubtless argue that there was a mismatch between the collective sentiment and the outcome. The BJP and its allies won a comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha with just over 38 per cent of the popular vote and benefited from the first-past-the-post electoral system that exaggerates majorities. Simultaneously, the Congress was so conclusively defeated that it couldn’t muster the necessary 54 MPs to claim the Leader of Opposition post.
The hair-splitting apart, the verdict was truly spectacular in one major respect: for the first time Indians elected a party that had no organic relationship with the Congress and was in fact bitterly opposed to the old consensus. Subsequent state elections appear to have reinforced the pattern of the general election. The BJP is gradually easing out the Congress as India’s principal national party.
The belief that the results of the 2014 general election marked a revolutionary rupture and heralded a new beginning resonated throughout the political world. International leaders who had become accustomed to viewing India through the prism of a dynastic democracy suddenly woke up to the need to discover and understand the outlanders in Lutyens’ Delhi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi responded to this curiosity by encapsulating his mission into two unexceptionable themes: improve the ease of doing business and ‘Make In India’. To this he added a social mission: swachch Bharat. And in his maiden Independence Day speech from Red Fort, he pleaded for a 10-year freeze on contentious issues—a message that a clutch of impatient Hindu nationalists have chosen not to heed in entirety.
After six months of being in office, there is a growing realisation that comparisons of Modi with a Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan are facile. It is indeed possible that a decade later Indians will look back to 2014 as a decisive turning point. For the moment, however, the revolutionary impulses appear to be subsumed by a generous dose of incrementalism. Modi, it would appear, is proceeding with extreme caution—much to the irritation of his more ideologically-inclined supporters some of whom feel that the moment is opportune to settle some old scores.
It is not that India has effortlessly reverted to the ‘chalta hai’ attitude that many feel constitutes the essence of the Hindu way of life. There has been a greater emphasis on efficiency and a purposeful language of modern management has entered the lexicon of governance. The lavish disbursement of patronage to reward political support has been lessened drastically. But overall, the thrust has been on laying the foundations of a capacity building exercise. There are many facets of governance that seem to exasperate the Prime Minister but for the moment he has chosen to not bite more than he can chew.
Has the incremental approach been necessitated by the BJP’s uneven bench strength? Is Modi preparing the groundwork for a show of audacity after mid-2016 when the balance of forces in the Rajya Sabha begins to tilt in his favour? How do we reconcile the fact that while the government is still fixing the leaks in the system, the BJP under Amit Shah has moved into top gear and audaciously preparing for political expansion in hitherto uncharted territories? Is there a rationale behind the modesty of change in government and the aggressive designs in politics?
As India moves into a new year these are still unanswered questions. Project Modi is still a work in progress. We are at that awkward point when 2014 could well be the initiation of a decisive turning point. At the same time, there are often moments when history just refuses to turn.
Hindustan Times, December 31, 2014