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The year that changed Indian politics after Modi came to power

By Shekhar Gupta

One week may or may not be a long time in politics, but a year can be. A political year, however, doesn’t necessarily follow the Gregorian rhythm, but one that is so schizophrenic, you mostly feel it once it has passed. It also changes from year to year, and not necessarily every year.

Let’s simplify. There can be years at a stretch when our politics remains fundamentally static. The three-year period between mid-May 2014 and late-2017 was like that. These years could be a political commentator’s nightmare, if only the prime minister had not taken pains to light them up with demonetisation etc.


Until the winter of 2017, most analysts would have agreed on three things: That a second term for Narendra Modi was a done deal; that Rahul Gandhi and his Congress were in terminal decline; and that, long after Indira Gandhi’s heyday, India was headed for a long spell of one-party rule, and unipolarity. After the big win of Uttar Pradesh, and the folding in of satraps in the northeast, the BJP had 21 states under its belt and had pretty much set the tone for the rest of the state elections scheduled during the Modi government’s term, and the big test in 2019.

But something had begun to change by mid-December 2017. Yes, the BJP won a remarkable sixth term in Gujarat, but the contest had been closer than anyone had anticipated. It was reflected in the anxiety that both Narendra Modi and Amit Shah displayed in their campaign.

The prime minister’s tears — in victory and relief — at the BJP parliamentary party meeting shortly thereafter, showed what a close call it had been. We had then written that this will bring about a fundamental shift in the Modi-Shah politics. That they will no longer be plugging growth and jobs but a three-point proposition of Hindutva, hard nationalism with welfarism, and corruption-busting crusading. We can look back in satisfaction that we made the right call.

It still wasn’t the most important change and, to that extent, we failed to anticipate it. On 18 December 2017, not many would have said that Indian politics would lose its unipolarity in the next 12 months. That’s exactly what has happened now.

How unipolar our politics had become was evident in that storied, sniggering exchange between Times Now anchor Navika Kumar and BJP general secretary Ram Madhav. Asked what the BJP would do if it fell short of numbers in Karnataka, the ruling party’s most powerful and prominent commissar said, so what, we’ve got Amit Shah.

It was no empty boast. It was conventional wisdom that if the BJP fell short of numbers anywhere, enough of the rest will automatically gravitate to it, as the only pole to go to. Its successes in Goa and the smaller northeastern states, — where it would form a government whether or not it was the largest party (Goa, Manipur) or in a minority of two (Meghalaya) — had shown that numbers no longer mattered to it as there was no competition. Many of these northeastern BJP governments, therefore, were more like leveraged buyouts. That is the leverage Ram Madhav suggested, Amit Shah personified.

It changed first with Karnataka. While the Congress surprised its friend and foe by going against its power instinct to cede the chief ministership to a smaller ally, the seed of a new politics was planted: A growing alliance of all those who were so desperate to keep the BJP out, they would pay any price for now. This challenged the Amit Shah-style politics. His power, of course, came from resources, and that much used word these days, “agencies”.

At some point in the battle for Karnataka, the BJP’s rivals lost their lure for immediate largesse and fear of the agencies. The BJP’s inability to win despite bending every law and morality by getting the CBI to let off the Bellary brothers months before that election was a political setback with lasting implications. Modi’s inability to swing a decisive win despite anti-incumbency and humongous spends, Bellary Mafia power, combined with that formidable show of autonomy by the Supreme Court which sat overnight to prevent a hijack in Bengaluru, had taken away the aura of invincibility from Modi.

First of all, Karnataka proved that Modi and Shah were no unbeatable geniuses, and the Congress still had the guile to defeat them strategically. Further, Modi had failed to win an election where he was the favourite, the powers of resources and agencies had failed to win over MLAs, and institutions, notably the Supreme Court, were defying him. A footnote: This had followed about a year after the first institutional setback to the Modi-Shah BJP, at the Election Commission, over Ahmed Patel’s Rajya Sabha election in Gujarat. It was now becoming clear that you could take the power of the BJP on, and hope to not just survive, but even win.

It set up a different tone for the coming Hindi heartland elections. The Congress and its allies could now believe that Modi was beatable, something they wouldn’t have dreamed of before mid-December 2017. By mid-December 2018, they believed for the first time that power was within their reach. That is why we call December to December, 2017-18, as a most important political year.

On the afternoon the Madhya Pradesh-Rajasthan-Chhattisgarh results came, we had said that Modi’s idea of creating a Congress-mukt India was over. He also acknowledged it indirectly in his now doubly-famous interview to ANI’s Smita Prakash by saying that his idea of “Congress-mukt” India wasn’t that the party was demolished and buried but where its ideology and thought ceased to exist. Then he defined his idea of that Congress thought: Casteism, dynastic politics, undemocratic and nepotism.

Now, with the rise of Rahul Gandhi, a caste-based parties’ alliance (SP-BSP) threatening the BJP in Uttar Pradesh and the Congress counter-attacking him with corruption charges, even if Modi’s definition of the Congress as a thought is correct, it is now back, much stronger than it was at any time after 2010.

This is the second pole Indian politics was missing for at least three years.

You will have to be nuts to say that Modi is now an underdog for 2019. His personal popularity, connect with his audiences and magnetism are largely intact. As we have said before, in India a strong leader with a majority has never yet been defeated by a challenger. He (or she, as with Indira Gandhi in 1977) must defeat himself.

For that three things must happen: One that he should become so unpopular that people will vote against him, no matter who might come to power in his place. Two, that a critical mass of diverse political forces should detest him so much that they will sink their differences and ambitions and come together against him, fear being the glue. And three, that there must be someone, some force for them to gather around, not necessarily a likely prime minister. In 1977, against Indira Gandhi, Jayaprakash Narayan played that role, and in 1989 against Rajiv Gandhi, it was V.P. Singh.

From being a bumbling, fading dynast a year ago, Rahul Gandhi has led his Congress into that second pole position. The game for 2019 is now on — the reason the prime minister has chosen to miss Parliament and launched his campaign already.