Can PM Modi emerge unscathed from Covid crisis?

Chitragupta | Updated on May 02, 2021

Covid conundrum All eyes will be on PM Narendra Modi AP   -  AP

The Covid crisis has handed the biggest political challenge to the Modi government.

How culpable are prime ministers when they land their countries in a huge mess? Though ‘the-buck-stops-here’ principle applies, it is not as easy a question because hindsight always induces wisdom.

However, it also simply cannot be a coincidence that virtually every head of government who has won a huge majority, not just in India but in other democracies as well, has often come down with a thud.

Indeed, it seems as if huge electoral majorities induce a sense of invincibility in politicians that makes them forget that the unexpected is always lurking just round the corner. That neglect has been the Achilles’ heel of many such politicians.

Let’s start with India and five instances of massive majorities that ended badly.

Thus, in 1962, when the Lok Sabha had only 494 seats, the Congress won 361 of them. The Prime Minister was Jawaharlal Nehru.

In 1971, there were 518 seats and the Congress won 352 of them. The Prime Minister was Indira Gandhi.

In 1977, there were 542 seats. The hastily formed Janata Party and its allies, the anti-Congress front, won 345 seats. Morarji Desai was the Prime Minister.

In 1984, there were 542 seats and the Congress won 414 of them, the highest ever. The Prime Minister was Rajiv Gandhi.

Now see what happened to each of these prime ministers.

Unforeseen events

The defeat in the war with China in October-November 1962 finished off the Nehru government. He died in May 1964 and the successor governments never really recovered from that debacle.

Next, the adverse decision by the Allahabad High Court in June 1975, in an electoral malpractice case, finished off the Indira Gandhi government. The loss of legitimacy led her to impose Emergency.

In 1987, the Bofors payoffs, which were revealed in April that year, finished off the Rajiv Gandhi government politically.

None of these events was foreseen. So, when they happened they took the wheels off all these governments.

As a result, the Nehru government of 1962 became lame duck only six months after it was formed.

Indira Gandhi’s government of 1971 was luckier: it stumbled through four years from 1971 to 1975 before being delegitimised by the Allahabad High Court. Emergency prolonged her rule by 20 months.

The Rajiv Gandhi government came somewhere in-between, becoming lame duck halfway into its term. The Congress has never recovered from that debacle.

Abroad, the same sort of thing happened to Richard Nixon in 1974 after his huge victory in 1972. In his second term, Nixon became a victim of his own arrogance and hubris.

Then it happened to Margaret Thatcher in 1990 after her massive win in 1987. Her own party, which she had controlled as tightly as Narendra Modi now controls the BJP, revolted against her.

She and Nixon both fell victim to perceived infallibility. They forgot that they were human and could make costly mistakes.

I will not burden you with examples from other countries because the pattern must be clear by now, namely, that (a) the bigger they come, the harder they fall, and (b) it is the completely unexpected events that fell these governments.

Déjà Vu

It is in this sense that we have to view Narendra Modi’s second government. It meets both our criteria of a huge win and a totally unexpected development, namely, the novel coronavirus that disables it.

Thus, although he himself didn’t quite expect it, Modi won a huge victory in May 2019 with 303 out of 543 seats. But he also didn’t expect that the virus would reduce his government to near-impotence and make India an object of neighbourly schadenfreude, global pity and domestic ridicule.

Each such case of a highly adverse chance event deflating a prime minister is similar to the other.

Thus, Nehru and his Defence Minister, VK Krishna Menon, were taken completely by surprise by the strength of the Chinese attack. Like this government they too were totally unprepared for it and India very nearly lost Assam.

In 1975, Indira Gandhi didn’t even for a second think that the Allahabad High Court would disqualify her over what was, in the end, a very minor transgression of the election law. But that’s what happened.

In 1987, Rajiv Gandhi had no clue that the news that Bofors of Sweden had paid off some people to win the howitzer contract would eventually usher him out of office.

Nixon never thought the arrest of the men who broke into the Democratic Party’s office would result two years later in his resignation. Margaret Thatcher was caught off guard when the split in her party over the poll tax led to her defeat in an internal party election to choose a new leader.

The big difference

But there is an important difference between India and other democratic countries. Whereas elsewhere the parties quickly choose a new leader, in India they don’t.

That’s why, despite everything, the Congress has persisted with members of just one family. Like Modi is for the BJP, these people are seen as vote getters.

There’s been only instance of a successful revolt. In 1987 VP Singh broke away from the Congress and went on to become Prime Minister. But in general and since then, revolts in the Congress don’t succeed.

Which leads to a question that might be stirring in many minds now: could there be a successful revolt in the BJP?

There’s no way of telling just yet. Also, it does seem most unlikely because a challenger would have to be sure of both money and non-party support which may not be available. But in politics, as Thatcher discovered, things can change very quickly.

A great deal will therefore depend on how quickly Modi recovers politically from this debacle. The record shows that he loves political challenges and that he must not be underestimated. He has shown many times over that he overcomes the odds. Can he this time?

One final question remains: can he successfully choose someone to take the blame?

Published on May 02, 2021

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