IN NORMAL circumstances, there is no special significance attached to a ninth anniversary. In the political life of a democracy, especially one where (usually) elections are conducted every five years, the ninth anniversary assumes a particular importance as the last anniversary before the electorate will decide if there is going to be an 11th anniversary, or the 10th will be curtains.
The Narendra Modi government’s ninth anniversary wasn’t marked by any spectacular extravaganza. Much of the celebrations—and, inevitably, the associated controversies—were reserved for the grand opening of the new Parliament building, an important event that, alas, didn’t turn out to be a non-partisan affair thanks to the boycott of the event by many opposition parties. However, despite this grand distraction—not quite a distraction since the iconic building adjoining Sir Herbert Baker’s circular creation was blended into the government’s long list of achievements—the ninth anniversary was significant since it coincided with the de facto beginning of the campaign for the General Election scheduled for April and May next year.
Going by past precedents over the past seven decades in the life of independent India, only four governments have had the luxury of celebrating ninth anniversaries: Jawaharlal Nehru observed it in 1961, Indira Gandhi in 1976, Manmohan Singh in 2013 and, now, Narendra Modi.
Indira Gandhi’s celebration in 1976 was exceptional since it happened bang in the middle of Emergency where the electorate was unsure whether or not there would be another parliamentary election. The “era of discipline”—as Emergency was described on hoardings and on the back of the blue inland letter forms—was also accompanied by a one-sided discussion on the virtues of a presidential form of government. Consequently, the message that India would re-discover its mojo only when it was being run with an iron hand resonated across the land and was symbolised by the claim that the trains were now running on time and “hoarders”, “black marketers” and “rumour mongers” were being harshly dealt with. There was another claim that to check the population explosion, people were responding to the five-point programme of heir apparent Sanjay Gandhi and offering themselves for voluntary sterilisation. As far as my memory serves me, there were no contrarian voices to be heard, the opposition leaders having been indefinitely incarcerated.
In more normal times, Nehru’s ninth anniversary was observed by the Congress establishment holding forth on the merits of the Second Five Year plan which would trigger India’s road to heavy industrialisation, à la the Soviet Union. There were creeping food shortages and the early signs of stringent import control, but these were always projected as targeting unscrupulous profiteers and those who mixed stones in sacks of rice. The Nehru government’s economic achievements didn’t amount to much. Yet, these were better talking points than the crisis on the eastern borders with China breathing down and our forces unprepared to defend the motherland. Nehru’s advantage was that the opposition was fragmented, with the Communist Party and the Jana Sangh-Socialist-Swatantra Party combine pulling in different directions.
Yet, Nehru’s ninth anniversary was much more politically comforting than the one experienced by Manmohan Singh’s UPA 2 government. By 2013, the government was in a shambles, overwhelmed in a large measure by mega corruption scandals. There was still some doubt in the minds of the editorial classes if the opposition NDA, then still led by LK Advani, was in any comfortable position to provide an alternative, but it was clear that the Singh government needed the gentlest of push to keel over completely. There was a leader-in-waiting in Gandhinagar whom the ground-level workers of BJP wanted, but he was resolutely opposed by those who feared that the resulting polarisation would be unacceptable. Nevertheless, the impression that the Singh government had become a lame-duck dispensation was all pervasive.
Contrast the previous ninth anniversaries with what we see around us. Despite Rahul Gandhi describing Modi as a ‘spectacle’ who believes he knows more than God, the reality is that India has achieved a high comfort level. There is a recognition, both enthusiastic and grudging, that Modi has transformed the face of India in the past nine years. There is also, in many quarters, a sense of manifest destiny that has bred both a missionary zeal and a measure of complacency. I think the sense of challenge prevails in most quarters but I could be mistaken. Among a large section of the intelligentsia and the chattering classes, Modi is an object of derision but that is because they have been exiled from the corridors of power, but they may be in a minority.
Overall, I get the feeling that India is readying for a presidential election whose outcome may well be too one-sided.