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The Imperial Prime Ministership may begin to seem much less imperial

So, who really won the 2024 general election?

Well, isn’t that obvious? The NDA. We know that Narendra Modi is Prime Minister again, holding office for a third term, equalling the record set by Jawaharlal Nehru.


But did the Opposition really lose? Well, not exactly, according to the Opposition. Their contention is that while they did not win an overall majority, neither did the BJP. Given that the Prime Minister had bragged about surpassing 400 seats and acted as though the next 1,000 years would belong to the BJP, the results were less a defeat for the Opposition and more a setback for the BJP.


   This characterisation infuriates the BJP. Its members and supporters now expend a lot of energy telling us that Rahul Gandhi has led his party to a third consecutive defeat and that the Congress, with less than a hundred seats in the Lok Sabha, has no real reason to celebrate; they insist that, overall majority or not, Modi remains the once and forever leader bringing joy to the nation though his strength.


   This stark divergence in views best explains the events of the past few days.


   From the moment the results were announced, no matter how privately disappointed he may have been at having misread the mood of the nation, PM Modi has worked overtime to present his coalition-building efforts as a victory for the BJP that he had predicted. He has promised his allies (certainly Chandrababu Naidu, if not the house-trained, easily manageable Nitish Kumar) all kinds of assistance from the Centre for their states. These promises are especially appealing to Naidu, eager to be seen as the father of the new (post-Telangana) Andhra Pradesh with a glorious new capital and a revitalised state treasury after the profligacy of the Jagan years.


   With the allies taken care of, the Prime Minister swore in roughly the same Cabinet as before to emphasise continuity and to assert that, despite the results, nothing had changed. Even allies expected to receive major portfolios accepted lesser posts, reassured by promises of future generosity toward their states.


   With the ministry formation out of the way, the Prime Minister and his party are signalling a return to business as usual. There will be no rollback of their lock-them-up policy. The decision by the Lt. Governor of Delhi to prosecute author Arundhati Roy for her remarks made over a decade ago, though likely legally unenforceable, sends a clear message: we will come after you and we can still get you.


   And then, there is the saga of Arvind Kejriwal. When a trial court judge, Justice Niyay Bindu, granted him bail, the internet faithful were sent in to launch a blitzkrieg against her. Rarely in the history of India has a sitting judge faced so much abuse on social media for simply doing her job. In what the Supreme Court later called an ‘unusual’ move, a judge of the High Court rode to the regime’s rescue and stayed the bail order.


   Fearing that the Supreme Court might overturn the High Court’s ruling, the Modi government had Kejriwal re-arrested (this time by the CBI; he was first arrested by the ED) hours before the case reached the top court.


   The BJP leadership is smart enough to recognise how vindictive this looks. But it doesn’t care. The message is the same: there is no escape; we will get you somehow.


"The lives of ordinary people are not greatly affected by the denial of bail to Opposition politicians or the targeting of honest judges."

   There is another consideration. Sections of the judiciary have provided covering fire for the government’s punitive measures. If a junior judge can be seen defying the government, others might think that in the post-election atmosphere, they can  actually take the Chief Justice’s speeches about the importance of personal liberty more seriously.


   The controversy over the appointment of the Lok Sabha speaker follows a similar pattern. The Opposition offered to support a BJP Speaker if the Deputy Speaker came from their ranks, following an older precedent. Not only did the government turn down this request, but it also re-appointed Om Birla, whose single greatest achievement may be the way he silenced, suspended, or expelled Opposition members during the last Lok Sabha.


   Will all this re-assert Narendra Modi’s strength and make people forget that the BJP did not win a majority?


   It might, in the short term.


   But as the last fortnight has made clear, the newly energised Opposition seems determined to fight the government every step of the way. The Imperial Prime Ministership may begin to seem much less imperial.


   Ultimately, all these events exist — for many Indians, at least — in some parallel universe. The lives of ordinary people are not greatly affected by the denial of bail to Opposition politicians or the targeting of honest judges. Nor does it really matter to them that the government would not accept a Deputy Speaker from the Opposition.


   What matters to them is governance, and in that regard, at least so far, the government is not doing particularly well. The train accident on 17 June, when the Kanchanjunga Express collided with a goods train resulting in 10 deaths and many injuries, shows that the government cannot guarantee rail safety. A year ago, on 2 June 2023, a crash involving three trains in Odisha led to 296 deaths.


   Does the government have a handle on rail safety and the safety of its citizens?


   And then there is the examination fiasco. Opinion polls are starting to suggest that, unlike in earlier years, when he was a hero for the youth, the Prime Minister’s popularity with younger people does not match his appeal to older voters. The spectacular screw-ups with competitive exams will further alienate the young people who are crucial for Modi’s support base.


   And that’s before we even get to the big issues: rural distress, unemployment, etc. The government may succeed in jailing Opposition politicians and playing games with the appointment of the Speaker. And perhaps this will help reinforce the feeling that nothing has changed; that Narendra Modi is still all-powerful. (Or perhaps it doesn’t; let’s wait and see).


   But on the big issues that cost the BJP so many seats in the general election, the ruling party is still as befuddled as it was when it went into the election campaign, confident it would achieve its target of “400 paar .”


   And that, ultimately, may prove to be its critical vulnerability.



Posted On: 27 Jun 2024 11:57 AM
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