These are exhilarating times in India. An old political order underpinned by the supremacy of the Nehru-Gandhi family is crumbling before our eyes, and a new order remains largely a matter of speculation.
For a democratic system to remain vibrant and dynamic, such transitions are essential. In fact, most mature democracies experience them on a regular basis. For a whole host of reasons, the vitality of India’s democracy has been sapped, especially over the last decade.
Yet today, when observers are questioning if even Rahul Gandhi will be able to win his parliamentary seat in Amethi, a longtime bastion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, one can safely conclude that Indian democracy has taken a turn for the better. A challenge to the dynasty was long overdue, but that it comes from Narendra Modi, an outsider to the entire Delhi political establishment, makes it even more profound.
After the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao headed the Congress government from 1991 to 1996, but that was largely an accident. He went on to be one of the most visionary of Indian prime ministers, but he could never animate the Indian masses. Moreover, recognizing that Rao might eventually marginalize the Gandhis, the first family of Indian politics quickly came back. They seized control of the party apparatus and sidelined Rao so much that after his death, he was not only denied a state funeral in Delhi — as befitted a former prime minister — but even his body was not allowed to enter the premises of the Congress party’s headquarters in Delhi.
The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 1990s, led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was a milestone, marking the first real national alternative to the Congress party. But Vajpayee was a politician who had grown up under the shadow of Nehru. His ideology differed, but he was part of the traditional Indian political establishment. He gave the Gandhis due respect and was keen that the old political order remained undisturbed.
The period since 2004, when the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) came to power, has been a decade of the Gandhis. Sonia Gandhi ruled with an iron fist, even as all the blame for inefficient governance was laid at the doorstep of Manmohan Singh, a prime minister only in name. Gradually, as Sonia paved the way for her son, Rahul, and anointed him as the heir apparent, Singh’s role shrank even further. The damage this has done to India’s institutional fabric is immense, and the true costs will be fully known only in the future. Over the last five years, the UPA lurched from crisis to crisis, with the Gandhis having all the power and no responsibility, while Singh had to bear the responsibility without any real power. The result was that the India story lost most of its sheen.
The Indian political class has failed to match up to the aspirations of a rapidly changing India, but Modi — an efficient chief minister of the state of Gujarat — fills the vacuum. One of the most talented politicians in the country, Modi has experienced a political rise that is nothing short of extraordinary.
The Indian media and liberal intelligentsia have consistently snubbed him. As Modi single-mindedly focused on making Gujarat a BJP bastion, his critics only talked of the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002. No Indian politician has attracted as much animus as Modi has in recent years: He has been termed a rabid Hindu nationalist, a Muslim hater, a fascist, and even a donkey. But this has only made him stronger.
Modi continued to win election after election in Gujarat, and cases filed against him in the courts collapsed. Modi’s swift rise from the state of Gujarat to the center stage of Indian politics befuddled his critics, who first questioned his ability to make a mark on the national stage and then, when he emerged as a force to be reckoned with nationally, suggested that he would be too divisive to attract the allies necessary to form a government.
In an unprecedented move in Indian polity, the cadres of the BJP forced party president Rajnath Singh to declare Modi the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in September 2013. This was a move fraught with risks — the old guard in the BJP were opposed to it, and there was a danger that the National Democratic Alliance led by the BJP might collapse. But in the end, despite some discontent among the old guard and the departure of Janata Dal (United) — a major ally — from the alliance, the decision to anoint Modi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate turned out to be a masterstroke, as it has changed the character of India’s electoral campaign, perhaps forever.
The Congress party has refused to follow suit by naming Rahul Gandhi as its prime ministerial candidate, for fear that, if it loses, Rahul would not be able to maintain his hold on the party. Where a focused Modi has led a decisive campaign, Congress has found itself in disarray.
Rahul neither has the political sense nor the leadership ability of his main rival. Ironically for Congress, which has conjured up the image of Rahul Gandhi as the nation’s youth icon, it is Modi who is attracting most young voters. India’s increasingly aspirational young find the idea of a dynastic endowment anachronistic, while the story of a backward caste tea-seller working his way to the highest office in the land seems inspirational. It resonates with that basic democratic ideal that every Indian can aspire to the office of the prime minister, whereas in the Congress party that privilege remains reserved for the Nehru-Gandhi family or its chosen ones.
Modi’s rise has shaken the foundations of the Indian polity. You may not like his politics, but you cannot deny his impact. He has broken
old norms, challenging the Gandhis openly, talking about them disparagingly, embellishing his record, sidelining the old guard within his own party, leading a tech-savvy campaign, reaching out directly to the people, and making a strong pitch for national leadership without inhibitions. He wants to be India’s next prime minister, he is telling his countrymen and women, and he is not ashamed to ask for their support. Modi’s ambition is his greatest asset in an increasingly ambitious India.
And it’s precisely because of this that Modi’s rise matters. The liberal intelligentsia continues to sound alarm bells, some even threatening to leave the country if Modi is elected. But they fail to comprehend how radically India has changed. Modi is a product of a contemporary India where the fault lines of religion and caste, while important, are no longer the be all and end all of politics. An absence of leadership over the last decade has led to a craving for decisive leadership. Modi fills that vacuum.
Like other leaders, Modi, too, has many flaws. But politics is not a contest among ideal types. For liberals, spooked by Modi’s rise, it is hard to argue that, at this critical juncture in India, a moribund, decadent, sycophantic, and ideationally bankrupt Congress, or a divided, ragtag coalition of regional parties with more prime ministerial aspirants than followers, is a better alternative than Modi. No wonder liberals are crying in the wilderness, whereas Modi is winning votes. To suggest, as some in India have, that Modi as India’s prime minister will be the beginning of the end of the idea of India underscores not only an arrogance in one’s own political judgment, but also a remarkable lack of confidence in Indian institutions, which have been highly resilient over the past 66 years.
It is quite possible that Modi might not end up becoming India’s next prime minister when election results come out on May 16. Yet, by shaking its foundations to the core, he has already transformed Indian politics. It will never be the same again.
Harsh Pant is a professor of international relations at King’s College London and a nonresident fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.