The authoritarian Modi will have to learn compromise
5 mins read

The authoritarian Modi will have to learn compromise

Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to allies from the National Democratic Alliance in the Central Hall of the old Parliament building, days before taking oath. His message was that he would remain prime minister for another 10 years (he didn’t say how he knew that), but to be fair, it was only mentioned in passing. His main message was to tell his alliance not to pay attention to the news. From now on, there will be reports about their government, but alliance partners should ignore these reports and not trust anything without checking it. Why would he say that? Of course, because things will start to be reported in a way they haven’t been reported for the last decade. We have just come out of an era of total secrecy.

Modi’s cabinet ministers did not know that demonetization was coming. We know this because it was later reported that the cabinet was called into a meeting hours before Modi addressed the country to authorize demonetization, but ministers were told to leave their mobile phones. This was to prevent them from transmitting messages outside. Since the ministers did not know this until this moment, their services also did not know and were not prepared. A similar situation occurred during the nationwide lockdown in 2020 due to Covid-19, which came from a blue sky for all of us, including members of the government. Something like this will no longer happen. The transition from collective responsibility of the cabinet to one person has ended and the transition back has begun. This is a good thing.

There is a reason why media speculation occurs in all democracies. The fact that it shows a free press at work, which can freely speculate about those in power, is just one aspect. The second is that things that were said behind closed doors or cannot be said at all, people let in to gain an advantage. This is normal in all democracies. Only in authoritarian places is there no knowledge or speculation about what is happening. Where there is fear of surveillance and danger of punishment for speaking out.

We should therefore expect that such a change will affect at least one part of the media, and the Prime Minister notices it. What’s less certain is why he thought his allies wouldn’t listen, because of course they would listen to what concerned them.

Modi has an advantage over alliances that began just after the fall of the PV Narasimha Rao government. And the advantage is that it has 240 MPs. His predecessor as NDA leader, three-time Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, had just 180 MPs in his last term. This meant greater vulnerability to allies, to the point that the alliance itself became news.

In February 1999, a fascinating report emerged that Vajpayee had sent Defense Minister George Fernandes to pacify AIADMK leader and NDA partner Jayalalitha. After arranging the meeting, George Fernandes flew to Chennai to her Poes Garden residence with Pramod Mahajan of the BJP. However, they did not get an audience. Instead, Jayalalitha admonished Fernandes over the intercom and they left. Another news article in November 2001 titled “Mamata sulks over PM’s refusal to take cabinet post” reported that the TMC had boycotted the cabinet meeting after joining the NDA. The then BJP president Jana Krishnamurthy said, “How can anyone expect to become a minister straight away? There are our parliamentarians who aspire to be ministers and have been waiting for it for quite a long time.” The reference was to two BJP Lok Sabha MPs from Delhi – Madan Lal Khurana and Sahib Singh Verma – who were waiting for ministerial posts and also sulked.

That’s what alliances are all about, and that’s what it’s always been about. The last decade has been an aberration in India’s give-and-take politics. Vajpayee was a pragmatist and an old-school politician, willing to accept discomfort, irritation, and even the occasional humiliation. Even though he was outnumbered, he had an advantage over the inherently authoritarian Modi (I know him personally and can confirm this) and he will have to learn to compromise. Hopefully, Modi will not be put in a position as frequently as Vajpayee, given his larger number of seats, but there will be times when what happened over the last decade from 2014 to 2024 will not happen. When his will to impose something on the heads of his cabinet will be put to the test.

We can be absolutely sure that it will be reported because allies or people in the BJP who want to prove themselves will want it. Telling people to ignore the news won’t work. The word “ally” in coalition is misleading because it suggests someone who is always there for you and for you. This is incorrect. They are always there for each other and sometimes with you. In perfect relationships, such moments of difference do not happen. But this only happens in the land of fairy tales and divine beings. For us, mortals, the world is a real place and we need to face it, not ignore its unpleasant reality, because it will surely come to light. For those who write, report and consume news, it will be an interesting, fascinating and often entertaining five years.