Narendra modi has become a prisoner of his own politics

Modi sees any retreat as surrender. Sometimes, not surrendering gets you taken hostage.

(Yamraj at India Gate. Illustration by Orijit Sen)

The ten years the Congress was in power, leading the UPA coalition, it used to be quick in making people resign to diffuse any scandal. Yet no resignation seemed to stem the political decline of UPA-2. Au contraire, the government only looked weaker for it. It looked like the government was pleading guilty and asking for forgiveness.

In the Modi-Shah system, firing people is rare. Even rarer is Modi going back on something because he is pressured to do so by the media or opposition. And apologising? Out of the question. 

In 2013-14, a section of the media was after Modi to apologise for the 2002 riots but Modi refused to do it. He would only have looked weaker for it, and liberals wouldn’t have forgiven him either.

Rare retreats

The incidents when Modi has made a retreat are so rare you can count them on your fingertips. There was the first act, amendments he wanted to make to the land acquisition law, which he dropped after Rahul Gandhi said Modi’s was a suit-boot ki sarkar. Since then, Modi hasn’t dropped any law. He enacts them through ordinance or last-minute surprise in parliament, causing a furore. If the public reaction makes the law untenable, he just doesn’t issue rules, putting the law in abeyance. Technically, nobody can say Modi’s gone back on CAA or the farm laws. They’re just not being implemented. 

When a junior minister, MJ Akbar, faced sexual harassment charges from a number of women journalists, the Modi government tried to hold off on sacking Akbar for many days. Eventually they had to do it only because the headlines won’t go away. The Himachal BJP chief was sacked recently on corruption charges, the Uttarakhand chief minister was changed because MLAs threatened revolt. 

Surrender is suicide 

These exceptions only prove the rule. Even as BJP chief ministers get low popularity ratings, they are not changed. Be it ML Khattar in Haryana, Vijay Rupani in Gujarat, Biplab Deb in Tripura — nobody is a liability for Modi and the BJP. Be it Sadhvi Pragya’s statements against Mahatma Gandhi or Devendra Fadnavis’ nephew getting an out of turn vaccination, nobody seems to have to pay a price. The economy may keep sliding but the finance minister won’t be changed. A Covid second wave may wreak havoc on Modi’s image but the health minister won’t be fired. Yogi Adityanath can oversee an incident like Hathras that threatens Modi’s Dalit outreach but he won’t be changed. Any sacking, any change, would be an acknowledgement of error. It would amount to capitulation. 

The Modi playbook doesn’t allow for capitulation. That makes him look weak. Not retreating makes him look strong. It makes people say, ‘Look how powerful he is, he gets away with so much’. He gets away with demonetisation and a poor implementation of GST, he gets away with unemployment and with hiding away an unemployment report, he gets away with rising fuel prices and with migrant labour dying while walking back home, thousands of kilometres. He gets away because he makes sure he doesn’t buckle under pressure and  finds a scapegoat. He doesn’t stand before reporters to offer a poor explanation. He just moves on to the next jazzy slogan. 

Sometimes you need to surrender 

Yet, Modi has now become a prisoner of his own politics. The idea that one must never come across as surrendering, is behind the crisis he finds himself in with the second wave of Covid. 

As the media and opposition demanded Modi to suspend rallies in West Bengal, he just wouldn’t do it. When people are worrying about Covid spreading through rally crowds, he was praising the size of the crowds. The least he could have done was to not extol the size of the crowd, but then he does it in every rally. In every election rally Modi says this is the biggest crowd ever, like Apple describes every new iPhone as the best iPhone ever. It’s Modi’s way of creating an election hawa for the BJP, so why should he not do it just because a few liberals are screaming about Covid? 

The SARS-COv-2 pathogen is not as predictable as our politicians. The cases and deaths started rising so fast, like a street dog who comes charging at you slyly and bites you from behind. Modi was sure the dog won’t bite because 1.6 lakh deaths wasn’t considered a dog bite. It was considered an achievement.

Modi needed to cut his losses, cancel his rallies for the fifth phase of the West Bengal election. But doing what critics want him to do would be conceding, retreating, capitulating, surrendering. And surrender is suicide. Doesn’t go with the logic of power. 

Yet Modi had to surrender anyway, because power ultimately needs the legitimacy of public opinion.

It was the same with the Kumbh in Haridwar, it was the same with opening up vaccination for 18+ people. The mutant forms of the virus have also upended Modi’s standard playbook. 

This time it’s different

Modi continues to make this mistake with the Central Vista redevelopment. It is clear that the making of a new capital for Modi’s vanity is not going to look good as Covid ravages India for many months ahead. But Modi’s script says he can’t let his critics have their way. It’s bad enough that Rahul Gandhi gets to say Modi is following his advice on Covid. If Modi retreats now on Central Vista, who will think of him as all-powerful? And if Modi doesn’t appear all powerful, how will we say there is nobody to replace him? How will anyone say ‘Aayega to Modi hi’? How will the leader appear invincible, inevitable? 

Yet this time, Modi is over-estimating his playbook. It’s not a lynching or a riot. It’s not one man lynched or even 1,000. This time it’s much, much bigger. And a new house for the prime minister, a new parliament to show off, a new row of government offices is not going to make Modi look powerful. It won’t have the legitimacy of public opinion. If we are still having elections, that will matter.