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Sunday Sentiments


    Posted On June 9, 2024

    By Karan Thapar

    No doubt you’ve heard this aphorism before but that’s because it’s undeniably true. The marvel of democracy is that the collective wisdom of the voters can resolve seemingly intractable situations. It happened in 1977. It’s happened again on 4th June. And although many were hoping for the outcome few actually thought it would materialize.


    No doubt Narendra Modi has been restored to office but in circumstances that are dramatically different to what he envisaged. The BJP has ended up with its worst election result in a decade. It’s over 30 short of a majority. To form a government it needs support from allies whose loyalty will always be questionable. They’ve deserted the BJP on earlier occasions and you cannot rule out their doing so again.


    This raises several questions about Narendra Modi’s third spell as Prime Minister. As yet we don’t have the answers. Very possibly, even Modi doesn’t know them. But the questions delineate the challenge he faces. Their answers will reveal a lot about him. They also spell out the risks or, at least, the issues awaiting India.


    Modi began by predicting the BJP would win 370 seats. After the fifth round of polling he told the Economic Times the Party had already crossed 272. It ended up with just 240, way short of a majority. So, today, is he an embarrassed man or thick-skinned enough to brush it off?


    What about his personal performance in Varanasi? In 2019 he had a 4.8 lakh majority. It’s been slashed to just 1.5 lakh. How will a man who last month claimed “Ganga meri maa hai, mujhe Ganga ne god liya hai” (Ganga is my mother, Ganga has adopted me) handle this very personal reversal?


    However, the key question is can Modi, temperamentally and psychologically, adjust to the very different circumstances he now faces as Prime Minister? Or is he ill-equipped to handle a coalition government, where he needs to reach out to his allies, often give-in to them and always keep them content and satisfied?


    Remember, for 13 years as chief minister of Gujarat and 10 more as Prime Minister of India he did not need to do this. Instead, his wish was everyone’s command. He ran a centralized government where ministers did what the Prime Minister’s office required. None dared to demur.


    What about his attitude to autonomous institutions like parliament, the judiciary and the media? The old Mr. Modi often ignored parliament, held up judicial appointments and was dismissive of the media. But now the weaker Mr. Modi will need to adopt a more consensual approach. Or he could annoy his allies and endanger his alliance. Is he willing to do that?


    And then there’s his attitude to criticism and dissent. It’s no secret the old Mr. Modi disliked both. The new Mr. Modi must learn not just to tolerate and accept but to live with both. How easy will that be?


    The questions, of course, go further. Some have to do with his recent pronouncements. He may hope they’re forgotten but I doubt they will be. Not in the political climate that prevails.


    For a start there are things he said during the campaign that could haunt him unless he learns to smile and deflect.  But is that what he’ll do when claims of his non-biological birth are thrown at him as taunts? And mark my words, they will be. When that happens will he bristle?


    More importantly, can he resist the temptation to demonize Muslims? His allies are unlikely to accept further occasions when Muslims are called infiltrators or accused of benefitting from reservations snatched from OBCs, SCs and STs. But if such language comes to him instinctively can he resist it? Remember, it’s been part of his rhetoric since 2001.


    The truth is everything I’ve raised can be reduced to one simple question: can old Mr. Modi become new Mr. Modi? His government depends on it. Our governance depends on it. So, too, does his political future. But what’s the answer?

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