Harish Khare, former media advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh between 2009 and 2012, is a distinguished senior journalist and commentator. His new book, ‘How Modi Won It: Notes From the 2014 Election’, is a masterful personal account, laced with diary notes from the months leading up to elections, and insightful analysis of where the Congress slipped and Modi succeeded. In an exclusive interview, Khare speaks to HT about the book and Indian politics. Excerpts from the interview:What made you write this book?
I think I was very disturbed by the fact that the media had become so biased, or had given into what are legitimate devices on the part of any candidate to manipulate the media discourse in his favour. Media had abandoned that obligation to be fair and objective in its reporting. I started feeling that there was something unwholesome about the whole thing. The book began as notes to see how that process was working out. The strength of the book is that the diary entries (during the campaign) capture,--though only partly,-- the fine and nuanced hijacking of the discourse by the Narendra Modi campaign.
The 1984-2014 comparison has often been brought up in the context of two elections producing an absolute majority for a single party. But in 1984, after Rajiv Gandhi’s victory, you wrote in New York Times that this is a product of neo-Hinduism. In 2014, you write Modi instigated a Hindu uprising. What do you mean?
When I wrote that piece, I was in an absolutely hopeless minority and was widely castigated. My argument was simple – here was a case of a party and leader invoking a majoritarian sentiment against a minority. Since we are a Hindu majority society, this was an invocation of the Hindu majority. Any student of history will tell you consequences follow from what you say and what you preach. And consequences followed. Having tantalized the Hindu majority, the so called young, new and modern Rajiv Gandhi had to make concessions to Hindu sentiment, as it were – we had the opening of the locks in Babri Masjid and a new era of Hindu Muslim tensions began.
And how does 2014 compare with it? What do you think will be the consequences?
I am fairly clear in my mind that the 2014 vote was a communal vote. In 1984, it was overt majoritarianism; in 2014, it is covert communalism. In 84, it was more positive in a sense of invocation of Mother India. But in 2014, the election came down to creating not animosity but a degree of resentment, what the Europeans call the politics of ressentiment - you derive your political identity by invoking a degree of negativism towards another group or country. We are already seeing the consequences. Those forces which helped Modi come to power are demanding a voice, and we hear those not pretty voices every day.
There is another school of thought, which believes that Modi narrative prioritised development, jobs, progress. So it was a campaign infused with that positive element. Are you discounting that entirely?
The easy answer would be to raise the counter question why did Modi’s narrative not work in West Bengal, Odisha or Tamil Nadu? Surely, the middle classes in India – which I call the Manmohan Singh constituency – and corporate India were important factors. There is a wonderful essay by Professor Partha Chatterjee invoking how the dominant professional middle classes tend to become spear- carriers for corporate interests. So there was more to his communal agenda. Since 1971, for the first time, the business classes so overwhelmingly, in so one-sided a manner, intervened in a national campaign. In 71, there was business class on one side and the rest of India on the other. But since then, we have a vastly expanded middle class which does not have much sympathy for the less fortunate people of society.
Why did corporates get into the political fray in such a manner? Was it out insecurity or benefits?
Their basic interest is profits. They are not votaries of Hindutva or A B C D ideology. Their only ideology is profit and more profit. Just on the eve of the 2009 elections, a stimulus package was given. I have not studied that election very closely but I think that was one of the reasons why businesses were happy at the prospect of Manmohan Singh returning to power. They felt that Singh should be doing much more for " us", which meant more privatisation. But, no political party has the luxury to pursue that kind of agenda [of privatization]. It was the corporates who began this talk of policy paralysis – what was the paralysis? Decisions were not taken in their favour. The pink press coined this phrase. Then they were writing letters to the PM about ‘governance deficit’, as if the corporates are any greater practioners of governance virtues. Now, there is sufficient evidence that some people who joined the Anna Hazare movement came from that line of thinking; the RSS too infiltrated the ‘movement’. The whole purpose of that movement was to delegitimize the Singh government and that was successfully accomplished.
Harish Khare with former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. (HT file photo)
Do you have any evidence to show that the Hazare movement was backed by corporates?
I am not at liberty to take names. But recall the context. The movement happened in the wake of the 2G affair. For the first time in the history of the country, corporates had to go to jail. Something had to be done to slow the government down. Corporates are good politicians too. They know if there is noise, a certain degree of political correctness acquires its own momentum, and judiciary was happily sending people to jail and middle class was applauding it. There was something bizarre that their own constituency and partners were applauding [this throwing of book at the powerful]. It was bad enough that ministers and bureaucrats go to jail – but corporates going to jail? That was not acceptable. Very soon, the split took place. The day Prashant Bhushan spoke about crony capitalism at Jantar Mantar, the split came. One party emerged and Annaji went back to wherever he came from.
You spend time looking at the inadequacies of the Congress and its leadership, especially Rahul Gandhi. What could the Congress have done differently? What was its big mistake?
The fundamental mistake was committed at Jaipur. Two things happened. A total identification of a great and historical party with one family took place, the mother as the president and the son as the vice president. And then they didn’t follow the consequences of that. If they had to go that way, they should have gone the whole hog. Rahul should have become PM then – many Congressmen thought that was the plan. He would then have had the whole of 2013 and half of 2014 to have his kind of imprint in government. The country would have some idea of how he handles responsibility. This was a slight advantage Modi had. For better or worse, he had a ten year record as CM and was good at projecting it. Gandhi had no record – absolutely no record. His father had the professional reputation of being a pilot and everyday, 200 people’s lives and welfare would depend on his competence. Rahul Gandhi unfortunately did not care to carve out any kind of record for himself.
But people close to the Rahul camp say that the problem was government was dysfunctional, it was a hopeless situation. You talk about the party government divide. Were they undermining each other?
I would be reluctant to say that there was any effort to undermine party or government. There were two different centres of activity; after Jaipur, there was a third centre of activity. And no decisions were being taken. No one knew who had the last word. They were victims of their own politeness. If any of the three had the ruthlessness of Modi, that confusion would have been sorted out. But it was not.
Why did this arrangement work between 2004 and 09 and collapse after 2009?
Partly because between 2004 and 2009, Congress had much less numbers. There was no reason to have any degree of real or presumed arrogance. It also had some kind of partnership with the left front. The presence of a demanding, questioning, dissenting partner meant closing of ranks within the party. There was a Common Minimum Programme. After 2009, there was no CMP. It became more a Congress affair – yet it had to function through the constraints of the coalition.
You were a part of government. Was it a deliberate decision not to place yourself in the book and document the experiences?
This is not a memoir. This has nothing to do with my years as media advisor. My analysis and understanding of things perhaps were probably affected by experiences I had then. This is not a gossipy book; I am not settling any scores; there are no scores to settle. In my view, this is a fascinating moment in our republic. My basic contention as a political science person is that the basic purpose of Indian politics is to provide a stable and coherent state order, and then the second part of politics comes – you undertake those transformative functions which help a feudal backward looking society become a modernizing force.
The country had come to have serious doubts because of the post- Jaipur three division of power. Stability was there but was there purposive coherence? Congress has a difficult job at its hand now. These are impatient times. All democracies create their own impatience. Look at Obama. In 2008, he was a man with great communicative skills, great innovative use of social media, and there excitement around the color of his skin. Within two years, the negative voices of Tea Party brought Obama to a grinding halt. And he spent the next two years doing nothing but campaigning again. The current buzzword in American politics is effectiveness. All democracies are placing great emphasis on the effectiveness of leaders. This probably means we are able to respect the man not only for his moral and ethical conduct and competence; and but also for his capacity to provide an effective working order. Fortunately or unfortunately, we acquired the worst traits of the American politics after 2009 because parliament was brought to a grinding halt because of a screeching opposition. And the PM got grounded, because of internal clash of ambitions and egos, and he was too decent a man to try to break out of that.
Cover for Harish Khare's book How Modi Won It: Notes From the 2014 Election.
You have worked with the Dr Singh. Why was he so conspicuously silent, and why did he allow this impression to gain ground that he was not present? The buck did stop with him.
I am not sure about that. If I recall correctly, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had only one national press conference. In the first two years after 2009, Manmohan Singh had three formal interactions with the media. The nature of media has changed dramatically and is changing. We demand of our leaders instant answers, instant responses, and that may not always be the wisest thing to do. The Kandahar hijacking incident for example – NDA gave in to the noise created by the media; it allowed the media to set the agenda. They understood that this was not the most prudent course taken. The next crisis came with the attack on parliament. They made noises – but exercised great restraint. It is easier for a populist leader to go along with the popular noise. But it requires a great amount of wisdom, considerable understanding of history, personal conviction and fortitude to exercise restraint. It requires great strength to be responsible and restrained.
But isn’t there a thin line between being restrained and being weak and not asserting authority?
Every day, whoever is the PM of India is asserting authority – by taking decisions by not taking decisions, by not travelling a certain path that may be obvious to A, B, C or D. People are looking at it from a certain perspective but the man who is PM is custodian of national interest. He cannot allow himself to be dictated by the next day’s headlines. That is what leadership is about. Otherwise, the most popular people in the country should be TV anchors because they are supposedly pandering to the prejudice of the day. Being the PM of India is a very difficult job. He has to be extremely circumspect; it is not a daily exercise of bravado.
You were in government for three years of UPA 2. Did you get the sense that things were not on track?
If leaders and decision makers had the absolute clarity of historians who looks at events four years or twenty years down the line, then those mistakes would not be made. Things are much more complicated than we journalists often think. The choice is rarely between black and white but sixteen shades of gray.
Do you think this is a temporary moment where Hindu identity has overwhelmed caste identities or will we see these other identities – backwards, Dalits – reasserting itself, especially in north India?
I will suggest to you to go back. We were having the same arguments in 1971 when Indira Gandhi swept whole of north India; we heard this, again, in 1984 when there was talk of the rise of modernizing India; and we will hear this again. But as a result of the paradigmatic shift in the Indian economy in 1991, we now have a pan Indian middle class, pan Indian information-mandi, and technologies for a sustained and persistent pan Indian narrative. It is information technology that has today brought about a very fundamental structural change in Indian politics. 2014 saw readjustment of some of the structural imbalances in Indian polity, with the help of technology which was devised, honed and calibrated on the east coast of America.
There is a wide social coalition that has brought Modi to power – corporates, middle class, RSS. Do you see contradictions emerging?
Producing a certain kind of harmonization among various sections of society is the primary task of any good leader. It was easy for Modi to become the champion of Gujarati identity, but now he has to go beyond that identity. His basic strength was that he was a Gujarat champion; that he had done magical things in Gujarat and that is now fading. The limits of his ability to harmonise various interests are already visible. Modi successfully replicated the 1971 model of vote for one person rather than ideology and programme. He has reason to be individually satisfied, and that creates certain hubris. This country is too complicated to be sorted out by any one individual; it requires a great amount of collective energy. I am not sanguine it will come easy to Modi.
Do you see Congress in a position to be able to take advantage of Modi’s weaknesses?
It is too early to make a judgment. The problem Congress has today has been in the making for the 15-20 or 30 years. Early next year, there will be organisational elections, a new Congress president, a new team. And a new face generates its own expectations and hopes.
But if the new face is Rahul Gandhi, who has been rejected by the electorate, is a revival possible? In the book, you quote Digvijay Singh as having told someone that the fundamental question is whether Rahul is interested in politics, and an answer to that will lead to its own set of questions.
In a democracy, only one person can win. Someone has to lose. In India, we don’t have a tradition of defeated leaders going home. I didn’t see Vajpayee retiring from politics in 2004; I didn’t see Advani retiring hurt after the 2009 elections. In Tamil Nadu, the two leaders have alternated won, lost, and fought another battle. Winning and losing is a part of the democratic game. Otherwise, winning at all costs becomes a virtue in itself – which is not a healthy republican virtue. I am sure Rahul Gandhi, like everyone else in the Congress party, is revising some of the things the party did or did not do. As historians or journalists, we evaluate only what we know was done; we rarely know what was not done. Only the leader knows the opportunity he had and missed it. Congress party has been around for a very long time, and those who were in a hurry in the past to write its obituary have been proven wrong.
Do you see your book as a corrective to the one sided pro Modi discourse you alluded to?
The deal is done. That’s not the point. The point is that we tend to attribute great virtues to the winner – winner has made no mistake and loser has committed all the stupidities. That’s not the case. As I saw it, the campaign was an open campaign on January 1, 2014. It was what Kejriwal did in Delhi, sitting outside, or what Congress did or did not do at the Delhi AICC. The great story of 2014 was in 2013 when Mr Modi bamboozled his own party. This was the real story, with a number of critical steps on the way which paved the way for Modi’s total sidelining of others. One fundamental strategic mistake Congress made was they thought that other BJP leaders had much more substance, support, much more of a backbone and they would be able to prevent Modi from walking away with the honors.