Spot the knives, if you can

The best way out for Modi would be to retire to a cave in Kedarnath and devote the rest of his life to prayer and austerity

Chandrababu Naidu and Nitish Kumar with Narendra Modi at an NDA meeting on 5 June
Chandrababu Naidu and Nitish Kumar with Narendra Modi at an NDA meeting on 5 June

Rashme Sehgal

For someone who mocked and disparaged coalitions as an indulgence of the ‘weak’, Narendra Modi finds himself at the receiving end of his own barb. Large sections of the electorate have unambiguously declared that they have no faith in Prime Minister Modi. Deserted by both Lord Ram and Ganga maiyya, he must rely on the two ‘unnatural’ allies who have bitterly criticised him in the past.

Modi himself never made any secret of his contempt for Chandrababu Naidu and Nitish Kumar, who he was forced to embrace in January this year. How long their uneasy marriage of convenience will last is anybody’s guess.

As prime minister for the third time, he will have to deal with the demands of his coalition partners, TDP leader Chandrababu Naidu, JD(U) chief Nitish Kumar and other smaller NDA partners. A section of BJP MPs may also find their voices and start questioning him and Amit Shah.

Some observers believe that Modi can be flexible when the situation demands it. For instance, when he tendered an apology on live TV and withdrew the farm bills or when he gave up trying to replace the Land Acquisition Act, opting for diluting and defying the provisions instead. However, most observers think he is too inflexible and full of himself to be able to follow the ‘coalition dharma’.

His relationship with both Naidu and Kumar has been fractious. In 2018, Naidu severed ties with Modi over his government’s refusal to grant special category status to Andhra Pradesh. Modi, who is known to call all and sundry ‘urban Naxalites’ and other pejoratives, was taken aback when Naidu called him a ‘hardcore terrorist’ in return.

Nitish Kumar, known to have long nursed prime ministerial ambitions, snapped ties with the BJP in 2014 when the party decided to nominate Modi as prime minister. He re-entered the NDA fold in 2017 only to step away in 2022 when he formed the state government with the RJD and Congress. In January 2024, he was welcomed back to the NDA, clearly because Modi-Shah believed they would need his support.

Already there are rumblings within the JD(U). Members claim that Kumar will make a more ‘balanced and experienced prime minister’ than Modi. Naidu has demanded nine plum posts including that of the Lok Sabha Speaker’s. JD(U) has demanded three ministerships. LJP and Shiv Sena (Shinde) have their own shopping lists. There will be conflicting demands from other BJP leaders in a bid to cash in on Modi-Shah’s vulnerabilities at this juncture. The window for manoeuvring may be small because neither are likely to lick their wounds for long.

Awake to the vulnerability, Modi is clearly in a hurry to take the oath for the third time as PM. Even before the BJP parliamentary party could meet and formally elect him as the leader, he has announced that he would be taking over as prime minister.

He got himself endorsed in a meeting of NDA leaders, apparently secured their letters of support and called on the President with Naidu and Nitish in tow.

So eager is he to become PM for the third time that he organised a victory celebration at the BJP party office without even waiting for the results to be officially announced. The pre-emptive celebration was a way of nixing challenges to his position from within the party or from RSS headquarters in Nagpur.

Why Modi should be worried about RSS reactions is mystifying. BJP president Jagat Prakash Nadda had unambiguously announced that the BJP no longer needed the RSS. This announcement, at the tail end of the elections, was extremely ill-timed and served the BJP poorly. How could they have forgotten that the party’s success in the last three decades has been largely due to the hard work put in by the RSS karyakartas?

Modi is a very different political animal from Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the earlier generation of BJP leaders. From the time he won his chief ministership in Gujarat in 2001, the BJP has succeeded in getting a brute majority under his leadership.

This election has changed the scenario. Parliament will have a strong Opposition for the first time in 10 years and chants of ‘Modi-Modi’ by obsequious BJP MPs are not likely to rend the air.

Will Modi in his third avatar be able to paper over the catastrophic decisions that have marked his two tenures? His first term saw him announce the ill-conceived demonetisation which failed onall its stated objectives including combating terror funding, fake notes and black money. In fact, it was followed by hordes of high-value defaulters fleeing the country. Neither the CBI nor the ED were able to stop that exodus.

The second term saw his inept handling of Kashmir. In 2020, the people witnessed his mismanagement of Covid. Documented figures are still not available as to the number of Indians who died in that calamity. Modi’s handling of the farmers’ crisis showed his absolute insensitivity towards the poor and vulnerable. (The same attitude was fully demonstrated in his indifference to the plight of the Manipuri people.)

Farmers voted in large numbers against the BJP. The NDA lost 44 seats while the INDIA bloc gained 77 seats in rural areas. Modi’s economic policies favoured the wealthy and wrecked the poor, and they weren’t going to take any more of it. A farmer, when interviewed in Amethi, commented on the young and wealthy breed of BJP politicians who have gained power and pelf in the last decade: “Yeh log hamare khoon ki roti kha rahe hain (these people are living off our blood).”

Modi has thumped his 56-inch chest at every opportunity but capitulated to the Chinese, allowing them to take over 1,800 sq km of Indian territory. What’s worse, by bringing down Indian troops who had successfully taken over the Kailash and Trishul Range, he frittered away both the advantage for disengagement on the north bank of the Pangong Tso lake and concessions in the Depsang Plains.

By doing so, he forsook India’s claims over the entire swathe of land stretching past the Sirijap plain, which was as good as invit-ing the Chinese to occupy right up to the Khurnak line. As if this had not demoralised the army enough, the Agniveer scheme was introduced which damaged the regimental system, hitherto the backbone of the Indian army. Did a compliant media raise its voice over this crucial security issue? No.

The nation has paid a heavy price for one man’s hubris. The Opposition fought this election minus resources or media support. It was left to a courageous band of YouTubers to present alternative points of view.

The results could not have been better timed because the Modi–Shah duo had been threatening that come Modi 3.0, they would clamp down on social media. So prickly is Modi about criticism that even a children’s show spoofing demonetisation in a school in Tamil Nadu was stopped after objections were raised by vigilante groups.

This election that the BJP fought on ‘Modi ki Guarantee’ has shown that there are no permanent guarantees in politics. ‘Modi’s Guarantees’, the so-called BJP manifesto that invoked his name 57 times, was soon discarded as a worthless piece of paper. Having already lost his self-proclaimed ‘Modi magic’ and aura of invincibility, there’s only one way he can maintain the remaining shreds of dignity and self-respect — by retiring to a cave in Kedarnath and devoting the rest of his life to prayer and austerity.