When the history of this period of Indian politics is written, October 2013 will be remembered as the month when the intelligentsia and the commentariat decided that it was inevitable that Narendra Modi would become the next prime minister.
Till October, opinions were divided and doubts were often expressed. Would the BJP win enough seats on its own? Would Modi be acceptable to allies? Wasn’t a Third Front a more likely outcome? And so on.
But last month, the commentariat made up its mind. The doubts were laid to rest. And much of the educated middle class began preparing for a Modi prime ministership.
Experience has taught us that the middle class is not always right. In fact, when it comes to Indian politics, the commentariat is frequently wrong. The example of the last general election should still be fresh in our minds.
Virtually nobody, including the pollsters, believed that the UPA would return to power with a larger majority. And, at the election before that, the re-election of AB Vajpayee’s NDA government was treated as a foregone conclusion by nearly everyone, including the BJP itself.
And yet, none of this has prevented people from making up their minds about the inevitability of a Modi victory. This is reflected in the assessments of credit-rating agencies. Till about a month ago, a likely post-election scenario seemed to be the formation of a chaotic Third Front government, which further dampened investor sentiment.
But now, global investors and institutions are coming around to the view that a BJP government led by Modi will take office.
According to a Goldman Sachs report, there is “optimism over a possible political change led by BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi coming to power”.
Another institution, Nomura, says that it is the “possibility of positive surprises on the political front” which is responsible for the surge in the markets.
In fact, brokers will tell you that one reason why the Sensex shot up during October was because foreigners believed that India would boom with the exit of Manmohan Singh and the ascension of Modi.
It is a pretty damning commentary on a prime minister whose primary claim to fame was that he enjoyed the confidence of the global financial community. Now, the premise seems to be that the only chance India has of attracting foreign investment is if he is turned out of office.
But investors and businessmen fell out of love with Manmohan Singh a long time ago. Why do they now regard it as inevitable that Modi will replace him? What happened to the old doubts and reservations?
There are two components to the answer. The first is that Modi’s campaign is proving to be far more successful than the sceptics had predicted. He is attracting large crowds in North India and while he is still an old-style demagogue, all dramatic gestures and rhetorical outbursts, the public mood seems to favour demagogues.
Nobody is looking for substance in his speeches or for evidence that he has the intellectual dexterity or experience to lead India in the 21st century.
What is the point of intellectual dexterity, they ask. This is a government led by guys from Cambridge, Harvard and Oxford and look at the mess they have got us into!
India needs pragmatism and direction. And Modi provides that.
Moreover, Modi’s campaign strategists have finally got the message right. As long as their man talked about Hindu nationalism it was easy to oppose him or to build up a minority coalition against him. But Modi has found the government’s weak spot: its inability to lead. His speeches now focus less on his old divisive agenda, and take a more centrist line with an overwhelming emphasis on governance.
The second component of the rise of Modi is the utter and complete failure of the Congress to gets its act together. When Modi was anointed the BJP’s candidate, many liberals thought: ah, now that he has declared himself, let’s see how the Congress rips him to shreds.
Actually, the Congress has done nothing of the sort. Not only has Modi had a free run but the Congress has failed to project itself and its new generation of leaders as viable alternatives. Nobody knows what the Congress will do if re-elected. And soon enough, nobody will care.
The Congress’s problem is that it is weighed down by the record and unpopularity of its own government. It is impossible to overstate the anger and the contempt with which the educated middle class regards this regime.
The bitterness stems from a sense of betrayal. People feel that a government that was reelected with a larger margin and had everything going for it has let India down: first, by refusing to reform and then, by failing to govern. So great is the disappointment that the prevailing sentiment is: anything is better than this crowd.
I’m not sure the Congress gets it. It may take comfort in the latest opinion polls which, while suggesting that the Congress will lose at least three of the four assembly elections, do not reflect any kind of national Modi wave.
But it is easy for trends to turn into waves if the same conditions persist. And the danger with predictions about the inevitability of Modi’s ascent is that they are self-fulfilling. Once the conventional wisdom has it that Modi is the next prime minister, he begins to seem more acceptable and less of an ally-repellent.
For the Congress, all is not lost. It still has a few months to launch an effective counter-attack. But for that offensive to succeed it will have to provide firm and decisive governance.
And I’m not sure it remembers how to do that. Nearly two decades ago, somebody asked Mani Shankar Aiyar why Narasimha Rao’s government seemed paralysed.
“Paralysed?” responded Aiyar. “It is not paralysed. Rigor Mortis has set in.”
History is repeating itself all over again.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)