Even as Akhilesh free falls, Modi is being forced to change his costume

In India, the leadership options are either effete, muscular or sinister. But, there’s a twist in the tale.

September 20, 2013 in Columns
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Most days, this feels a really dark season in India. In a country hungry for leadership, there seem to be only three meal combos going: the effete and the silent; the muscular and the sinister; or the excessively corrupt and excessively chaotic. Akhilesh Yadav has now placed a fourth choice on the menu: the sauce of juvenilia added to all of the above.

Over the past 10 days, while the western border of his state burned with unprecedented riots, Akhilesh did almost nothing to stop the mayhem. Instead, he allowed cynical games to proliferate. For instance, some Muslim boys were arrested for the murder of the two Jat boys at the very beginning, but, shockingly, they were allegedly let off on the instruction of his party stalwart Azam Khan, and FIRs were filed against relatives of the dead boys instead. This apparently became the real trigger for the escalated violence. Hours later, the district magistrate and SP were transferred while the new officers lost precious time acclimatising. Other horror stories abound: how the Jat Mahapanchayat was deliberately allowed; how the police stood around watching; how forces could not get to villages on fire because they lost their way; how politicians across the board fanned the flames; and how Akhilesh’s government had been repeatedly warned that a communal flash was brewing, but did nothing about it. By some estimates, there have been almost a 100 low-intensity riots since Akhilesh came to power 18 months ago. The question everyone is asking is: is this a sign of colossal incompetence or is it sinister design?

Both allegations would have been damning enough for any leader, but with Akhilesh, the damnation goes one notch worse: no one in his state takes him seriously. Cops, bureaucrats, ministers, detractors — everybody dismisses him as a mere toddler. His father and uncles are the real source of power. For Uttar Pradesh, the betrayal couldn’t be worse. Akhilesh was voted in with a huge mandate because he was young and hopeful. People believed he would change the rules of the game. Instead, even his well-wishers are shocked by his capitulation. According to them, he still behaves like the head of his party youth wing rather than a chief minister. He spends more time with his cadres than with officers. He’s full of knee-jerk reactions. He does not read government files, is constantly fiddling on his phone, and he’s given such a free rein to his party foot soldiers that no officer or bureaucrat dares to stare down a Yadav. This state of bathos is not what the voter had bargained for. Indians are accustomed to cursing the leaders that lead them. But imagine the bewilderment of having evil and chaos rain down on you and the only remonstrance available is to say, “He’s just a boy.”

Yet, the beauty of India is that it’s never all dark season. Even as Akhilesh is free-falling into spectacular implosion, another leader is being forced through a fascinating costume change. This week, Narendra Modi was finally declared his party’s official PM candidate. With the announcement, a process that was already underway has found sudden acceleration. Modi is brandishing a whole new résumé in the making: he is making a show of reaching out to Muslims (enforced dress code at rallies: skull caps and burqas); his speeches make no reference to hard Hindutva, only the malfunctioning UPA and promises of a governance utopia; his language has skidded down a few levels, hovering almost at the moderate; and suddenly, even Pakistan deserves compassion. He may have tripped badly recently with his taunt about the “burqa of secularism” (leopards do not easily change their spots) but his associates say he has been advised that the language of 2002 cannot serve in 2013. Both Arun Jaitely and Sudheendra Kulkarni have also spoken publicly about how Gujarat is not India; and any leader who wants to lead at the Centre must be inclusive, plural, democratic and capable of taking both allies and peers along. In short: Modi is not being allowed to fight the most crucial election of his life in his natural medium: the stridently polarising Hindu Hriday Samrat. The “iron man” has been forced to seek a new mould.

Clearly, this is cynical tactic. Beneath the surface, the old tricks continue. Take the BJP’s role in the Muzzafarnagar riots. Not once has Modi spoken of it or condemned the foot-soldiers who stoked fires there. His chief lieutenant Amit Shah, accused of complicity in false encounters and communal excesses in Gujarat, now reigns supreme in Uttar Pradesh. But, for the moment, it is irrelevant to wonder how genuine any of Modi’s carefully crafted new persona is. The very fact that seeking power at the Centre has demanded a new optic; the very fact that this new grammar is being forced on to him is the triumph of India. It is also a triumph for all those who have doggedly resisted his excesses. If the journey is real, it would be nothing short of a miracle. If not, even the pretence is a victory.

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