Can the leopard change its spots?

History has shown that a weakened autocrat becomes desperate and that desperation leads to downfall

PM Modi at the NDA meet in New Delhi, 18 July 2023
PM Modi at the NDA meet in New Delhi, 18 July 2023 NH

On 9 June, Narendra Modi took oath as the prime minister for a third consecutive term. Easy compared to the tightrope walk that lies ahead. The autocratic style he adopted during his Gujarat chief ministership (2002–2014) was all very well when his party had an absolute majority. With the survival of his government in 2024 dependent on allies, it isn’t going to be a breeze.

Will Modi mellow down? Can the leopard change its spots?

The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) with 16 MPs and the Janata Dal(U) with 12 MPs are the two pillars propping up Modi 3.0. Chirag Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party with five MPs, H.D. Kumaraswamy’s Janata Dal (Secular) and Jayant Chaudhary’s Rashtriya Lok Dal with two MPs each are the other parties of the NDA.

TDP and JD(U) have been given two positions each in the 71-member Modi cabinet while other parties have been given only one berth each. Modi somehow seems to have persuaded the two key allies not to demand any of the big four ministries—home, finance, external affairs and defence—nor the Lok Sabha Speaker’s post. Instead, they seem content with assurances of adequate funds (for Amaravati, the new state capital for Andhra) and special backward area status for both states.

The formula devised by the BJP for cabinet formation was one minister for every four MPs. This entitled the TDP to four berths and the JD(U) to three. The cabinet can, at most, comprise 15 per cent of the total strength of the House. That means there is still scope to induct 10 more members in Modi’s cabinet. As per BJP sources, both the TDP and JD(U) have bought the reassurance that their remaining members will be inducted in the first Cabinet reshuffle.

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Does that mean they have lost their bargaining power? Will Modi be as ruthless as he was in his earlier two stints as PM? What are the options before the two parties now? Both TDP supremo N. Chandrababu Naidu and JD(U) chief Nitish Kumar are astute politicians. Instead of pressing demands with hammer and tongs, they might simply rake up issues that are unpalatable to the BJP. The two leaders are certain to demand a countrywide caste-based census already done in Bihar by the Mahagathbandhan government.

Though the BJP is now a coalition partner in Bihar with JD(U), it is not at all comfortable with the project at the national level as it might give rise to several demands for quota and sub-quota reservations. The Women’s Reservation Act will delimit seats for women based on the census, and is hence likely to be delayed, unless the government relents and holds a mid-term census in 2025. (The next decennial census is due only in 2031)

Another contentious issue could be the demand to legalise Minimum Support Price (MSP) for all prominent crops, as per the M.S. Swaminathan Committee report. The Modi government has, so far, not acceded to this demand, which has repeatedly been raised by farmer leaders. But it might find itself in a quandary if the demand is raised or supported by the two prominent constituents of the government.

JD(U) general secretary K.C. Tyagi has already demanded that the Agniveer scheme (four-year contract-based hiring of soldiers for the Indian defence forces) be scrapped or amended. He also claimed that the INDIA bloc had offered the prime ministership to Nitish Kumar if he crossed over. Though the Congress made it very clear that no such offer was made, Tyagi’s statement is an indicator of things to come. It’s a signal to the Modi–Shah combine that if Nitish is not accommodated adequately, he will walk.

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Will Modi buckle before ‘political blackmail’? Or will he live up to his self-proclaimed invulnerability: Modi jhukega nahi, bhale hi toot jaye (Modi will rather break than bend?)

Those observing Modi for the last 25 years know he is far too clever not to adapt. Phrases like ‘Modi ki Guarantee’ have already vanished from his vocabulary. In his post-poll speeches, be it at the BJP headquarters, Rashtrapati Bhavan or the NDA MP’s meeting in the Central Hall of Parliament house, Modi hasn’t referred to himself in the third person even once. He has been careful to talk only of the ‘NDA government’.

What’s interesting is that the NDA has been defunct over the last decade. It has no convenor, no chairman, no secretary, no secretariat and no office. NDA meetings have been called only before or after elections, and sometimes during a crucial parliamentary session, the invitations going out from the BJP president’s office. Thus, it also remains to be seen how serious Modi is about reviving the NDA. Is he only playing to the gallery?

Despite what seems like a readiness to compromise with NDA partners, Modi will not miss any opportunity to get back at his opponents, and even associates. The Shiv Sena, JD(U), LJP, Mehbooba Mufti and so many others would confirm he is a consummate opportunist. He ‘endured’ Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray for over five years before splitting his party. He welcomed Bihar chief minister and JD(U) president Nitish Kumar into the NDA fold, not once, but twice.

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Similarly, Modi displayed his political legerdemain when he withdrew the Land Acquisition Bill in 2015, and the three contentious farm bills (passed in 2019) after yearlong countrywide protests. He also deliberately delayed implementing the CAA and NRC for over four years, not because he was afraid to do so, but because he was looking for an opportune moment.

Meanwhile, Naidu and Nitish might demand (further) distancing from the RSS and its agenda. The RSS, probably in anticipation of a hung verdict, had already put off its grand centenary celebrations due for next year. In a statement released a day before the first phase of polling on 19 April, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, said his organisation doesn’t believe in chest thumping and would carry on selflessly and quietly.

More importantly, a resurgent Opposition with 234 MPs is unlikely to make things any easier for the Modi government. Rahul Gandhi as possible Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha would be much more belligerent than the arm-flailing Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury. Three important Assembly elections— Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana—are due in the next 4–5 months. These are also likely to decide the fate of the Modi government.

Going by the results of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP (beg your pardon, NDA!) is not likely to win any of these states. That would further weaken Modi’s hold. History has shown that a weakened autocrat becomes desperate, and that desperation leads to downfall. That is the biggest question: will history repeat itself?

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