Indian Surprise

5 June 2024

Indian Surprise

By Gwynne Dyer

“Pride goeth before a fall”, says the Old Testament, so India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was just begging for humiliation. It duly arrived.

In ten years in office he had never held a press conference and very rarely even gave an interview, but before this election he was so confident that his BJP (Indian People’s Party) would win that he let it all hang out. In a TV interview in his own Varanasi constituency, he revealed that his birth had been a divine event.

“When my mother was alive, I used to believe that I was born biologically,” Modi told the interviewer. “After she passed away, reflecting on all my experiences, I was convinced God had sent me.” And with God’s support, everything is possible.

The ‘Telegraph’ of Calcutta, an excellent paper that has run this column for many decades, observed that “the wily weaving of religion with politics for a country where faith is an inextricable part of everyday life is the BJP’s USP [Unique Selling Point]. Mr. Modi’s claim is the logical culmination of the BJP’s dominant theme.”

Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the opposition Congress Party, pushed back hard: “If an ordinary person had made the statements Modi has been making recently, they would be taken directly to a psychiatrist.” But Modi’s whole point is that he is not an ordinary person: he is the Chosen One, although God has not let Modi in on his grand plan.

“He does not reveal his cards, just keeps making me do things. And I cannot dial him directly to ask what’s next,” Modi told the NDTV news channel last Sunday. Poor fellow, having to run the country without instructions from above if God is busy elsewhere (as He sometimes is, even though He is really interested mostly in India, obviously).

No wonder Modi occasionally makes a mistake, but this time it was a big one. He was convinced that this time the BJP and its allies would win more than two-thirds of the seats in the Lok Sabha (parliament). In fact, his slogan was ‘Ab ki baar, 400 paar’ (‘This time, above 400’), which would make it easy for him to rewrite the constitution.

Why would he want to do that? Everybody assumed (though Modi never said it directly) that he wants to replace the existing constitution, which is strictly secular and treats everybody as equals, with a new one that enshrines Hinduism as the state religion and makes non-Hindus (250 million Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and others) second-class citizens.

This would give Modi total power in the short run, but it would destroy India in the long run. Its billion and a half people are divided not only by religion but by language (22 official languages), class and caste. Only in equality can they all share a common identity.

However, Modi seemed to be cruising towards an overwhelming victory. The opinion polls said the BJP would win in a landslide, the media followed suit, and various pundits began writing about the impending demise of India’s democracy. They were all wrong.

Some voters took the long view and understood the threat Modi posed to India’s future as a united country; others just feared that the BJP was getting too big for its boots and needed to be taken down a peg – and some others, mostly not Hindus, actually feared for their lives. Together they were numerous enough to spoil Modi’s party.

The BJP’s seat count collapsed to 240, and even with its allies it barely has enough seats to form a majority government. Modi’s dream of rewriting the constitution to entrench Hindu superiority has melted away, and even his prospects for a full third term in power are looking distinctly shaky.

If the electoral coalition he formed with two smaller parties holds together, he will be able to form a government with a small majority (292 seats) in the Lok Sabha. But both the Janata Dal (United) party and the Telugu Desam Party are regional parties that tend to lend their votes to the highest bidder.

They made their alliance with the BJP only a few months ago, in the belief that its dominance was inevitable and they had better make their peace with it. They are sticking to their commitment for the time being, and Modi is including them in a government led by a shrunken and much chastened BJP contingent of parliamentarians.

However, the BJP’s smaller partners and their mere twenty-eight seats are now potentially the kingmakers in the Lok Sabha. If they switch sides, the government might change. India’s future may be less stable as a result, but at least the worst has been avoided. The world’s biggest country remains a democracy.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“The Telegraph…theme”; and “Some…party”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Intervention Earth: Life-Saving Ideas from the World’s Climate Engineers’. Last year’s book, ‘The Shortest History of War’, is also still available.