This is an old story with an eternal moral.
When Alexander defeated and captured Indian king Porus in the battle of Hydaspes, Roman historian Arrian writes, the invader asked: “What do you wish that I should do with you?”
“Treat me as a king ought,’ Porus is said to have replied.
“For my part, your request shall be granted. But is there not something you would wish for yourself?” the Macedonian invader asked.”
“Everything is contained in this one request,” Porus replied.
By inviting Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh for chai pe charcha and sending out conciliatory messages during his speech in Parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown, his willingness to try out the political philosophy of being defiant in defeat and gracious in victory.
Though some of his rivals and critics will mock him for smoking the peace pipe with rivals he had promised to smoke out, the only person who stands to gain from the gesture is the PM himself.
Modi’s idea of stooping to conquer is based in political pragmatism. Clearly, his strategy of continued confrontation with the opposition, the background-chorus inspired insistence on Congress-mukt Bharat, isn’t working. Major reforms have failed to take off and important bills are stuck. In the toxic environment of distrust and animus, many issues that could have been resolved through dialogue–non-existent at the moment–escalate into Mexican stand-offs.
In this we-oppose-everything environment, avowed political positions have been ridiculously reversed. We have had the comical charade of the Congress opposing the very laws it had proposed in power just because they are now being promoted by Modi. This cutting off of nose to spite the face had to stop.
There is, of course, a legion of war-mongers, hate-propagators who would want Modi to maintain the pre-election suffocating heat of confrontation in the country. Madhu Kishwar, an erstwhile Modi admire turned critic, laments that the BJP is being discarded in elections because it has failed to go after its rivals and critics. She goes on to cite the Modi government’s failure to act against Rahul, Sonia Gandhi and Robert Vadra for the devastating defeat in Bihar.
Fortunately, Modi isn’t listening to such political sophistry that ignores many crucial facts: One, our legal framework is not subservient to a government’s desire for retribution and law takes its own course. Two, targeting individuals instead of the system ultimately backfires–remember Indira Gandhi, Jayalalitha and Lalu Prasad Yadav? And three, vendetta can never be a substitute for good governance, economic development and social calm and cohesion.
Smart politicians, unlike Quixotic tyros destined to fail, don’t keep flailing their swords at windmills even when the war is over. They know the art of brinkmanship; they realise rajneeti allows them to pick and choose between saam (diplomacy, daam (allurement), danda (punishment) and bhed (spying and taking advantage of secrets) according to their goals and objectives.
Has Modi changed stripes? MK Venu wonders in The Wire, “There is little doubt that this is a major tactical retreat on the part of the PM who is staring at a severe loss of credibility after the Bihar electoral defeat. More than the result of the Bihar elections, Modi must be deeply worried about his image globally as the man who promised to bring big changes in India’s political economy, but could not rise to the job,” he argues.
Whatever be the compulsion, Modi is right in trying rajneeti instead of the danda-neeti that has failed to yield the desired results. When he underlined the importance of consensus against majoritarianism, allayed fears of any plan to tinker with the Constitution and praised the contribution of his current rivals and predecessors, Modi signalled his desire for sabka saath for sabka vikaas.
The ball is in the Congress court now. It can now reciprocate Modi’s magnanimity with the promise of constructive cooperation, a strategy that would create a positive impression and help it regain some of the respect it has lost among voters. Modi has given the Congress an opportunity to act responsibly and salvage its image by reiterating its commitment to some of its own initiatives: GST, disinvestment and administrative reforms.
Alternately, it can continue its policy of you-didn’t-cooperate-then-so-we-won’t-now in Parliament and project the image of an obstructionist, self-centred and vindictive party.
Writing in the Indian Express, Sheela Bhatt argues that for the common man watching the unprecedented scenes unfold on TV, this was the takeaway image: The leader of a majority government with over 40 months to go in power, and whose party currently has 280 seats in a 543-member Lok Sabha, requesting the cooperation of the president of a party with only 44 seats in the same House.
The Congress would do well to not misread Modi’s gesture as a victory for the party and gloat over it. If Rahul Gandhi, who is fond of rubbing it in with grandiose ‘we forced them to do it’ statements, continues with his chest-thumping, he would make the classical mistake of misconstruing the victory of democracy as a Congress triumph and perpetuating an atmosphere on hostility, whose denouement could be devastating for everybody.
If he spurns the gesture, Rahul will only vindicate those who use the P epithet to deride his politics and persona as puerile. But if he holds Modi’s extended hand, Rahul could be taking his first steps on the road to political maturity.
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