By Rajan Philips –
The stories about Indian Prime Minister Modi’s roving success, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s legal troubles, and the disgraceful slapping feat of a Sri Lankan presidential pipsqueak – are as much about personal character as they are about political circumstances. Modi is a quintessential political being, but he did not get where he is now on a sudden flight but at the end of a long road of political training, toil and trial. That is also the root of Modi’s remarkable performance and success so far as India’s Prime Minister. For Jayalalithaa, political office fell on her lap as a result of her acting partnership with MG Ramachandran (MGR) in the Tamil film world. It was easy come just as in a movie, and now it seems it could be a tough go just as in real life when luck runs out and one has to account for one’s actions. As for the New York slapper, the less said of his career climb, the better. While characters respectively account for the success, the pathos and the slapping disgrace, the political implications could be quite far reaching; more so, given the inextricable triangulation involving Delhi, Chennai and Colombo.
At this stage, Prime Minister Modi looks stronger and more successful than what anyone could have imagined before the Lok Sabha election. And there is no indication that Modi’s honeymoon with India’s voters is going to end abruptly, or, in the near future. This is not to say that there are no domestic issues or challenges, but on the external front Modi has so far been a singular success. I do not think any Indian Prime Minister has had the same reception in the US like Modi, since Jawaharlal Nehru visited America during the Eisenhower era. For someone who was denied US visa in 2005, Narendra Modi has done well to co-author an op-ed piece with President Obama for the Washington Post. Not just the US, Modi has had successful engagements so far with China, Japan and the fellow members of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) club of emerging economic powers.
At the same time, while he has been cleared by courts and judicial inquiries, Modi cannot shrug off the shame of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat. At the least, he should be criticized for his indifference, as Chief Minister, during the riots, even if he cannot be prosecuted for any alleged involvement in them. Modi appears to have developed his own method to deal with the accusation over Gujarat that follows him everywhere. There were protesters outside New York’s Madison Square Gardens while Modi was inside mesmerizing a full house of fawning Indian Americans. First, Modi seems to have broken away from the standard BJP playbook of disowning every aspect of the Nehruvian and even Gandhian legacy that is part of India’s post-independence make-up. On the contrary, he has signaled that regardless of changes in government India must and will abide by its constitutional foundation, the federalist superstructure and the spirit of secularism. Second, Modi has vowed not only to digitize India and end its image as the land of “snake charmers and semi-naked fakirs”, but also to clean up India’s filth by providing toilets to the vast majority who do not have any and put an end to open defecation. In his Independence Day speech, breaking with the tradition of hypocritical solemnity, Modi said, “People may criticise me for talking about toilets from the Red Fort. But I am from a poor family and I have seen poverty first hand. For the poor to get dignity, it has to start from here.”
Prosecution or reward for corruption?
Modi seems prepared to be swayed by the objective circumstances of his country and his office in spite of his subjective make-up stemming from his long apprenticeship under institutional RSS and association with the Hinduthva ideology. Although his secular-elitist detractors remain unconvinced, Modi could ultimately prove them wrong by building a clean and egalitarian India that would make secularism more meaningful than being a lofty abstraction atop a mountain of filth. Another aspect of his personal character that is germane to the theme of this article is the ascetic in him, his sartorial fancy notwithstanding. There has hardly been an over-indulgent Indian Prime Minister, and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself was an exemplary ascetic. But unlike his see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil predecessor, Modi seems to mean business when it comes to insisting on honesty, probity, and the eschewing of nepotism in public life. Whether Modi can make a significant dent on the behemoth of Indian corruption is an open question, but his asceticism would certainly give him both a moral and practical advantage in making and enforcing political as well as diplomatic decisions.
By that standard, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in her current legal predicament should end up cremating all her political capital. On the contrary, and in clear illustration of the paradoxes of Indian and Tamil Nadu politics, Jaylalitha’s legal troubles are simply boosting and solidifying her popularity among her supporters. People have sacrificed their lives to protest against her incarceration. Suicide, always a worrisome phenomenon and never the expression of a rational state of mind, is indicative of the social circumstances that provide low tipping points to vulnerable individuals. Insofar as Tamil Nadu is known to have a higher proportion of social triggers and individual vulnerability than other states in India, the suicides over Jayalalitha’s imprisonment should be seen as a worrisome social phenomenon than a vindication of her actions.
Nonetheless, despite her legal difficulties and the possibility that she could never return to office as Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa appears to be stronger politically than she has ever been in Tamil Nadu. Her Party could still win the next state election due in 2016, and with a puppet Chief Minister, the remote control of the Tamil Nadu government could still be in her hands. But it will turn out to be pyrrhic power as the Tamil Nadu government under remote control from a prison cell will have no credibility in federal-state transactions, not to mention the upshot of administrative chaos and governmental paralysis within Tamil Nadu. There is no easy way out either for Jayalalithaa or for the Tamil Nadu government who are caught between an assertive judiciary holding court in a different state (Karnataka), on the one hand, and loyal political supporters in Tamil Nadu who do not seem to be ready to give up on their leader in a hurry.
Subramanian Swamy, who is the original complainant in the judicial trail that finally ended in the guilty verdict against Jayalalithaa, has called for the imposition of President’s rule in Tamil Nadu and the arrest of trouble makers as national security threats. This is typical over-the-top Swamy advice which, hopefully, will be ignored by the Modi government. The best way out would be for Jayalalithaa herself to take time out of politics and let her Party select a new leader to head the Party and run the government, while she looks after her legal battles whether from jail, or out on bail. But that is not likely to happen, and the state that produced the likes of Rajaji, Kamaraj, Bhaktavatsalam and Annaduari as Chief Ministers may find itself in rather dire straits for a while before it could have normalcy restored.
Whether the Sri Lankan government will try to fish in the troubled waters of Tamil Nadu, or choose to play it honest and straight with the Modi government in Delhi remains to be seen. As veteran journalist Lucien Rajakarunanayake perceptively noted in Saturday’s Island, the judgment against Jayalalithaa may trigger calls for similar prosecutions of corrupt politicians in Sri Lanka. But there is also the risk of corrupt Lankan politicians taking their own cue from Tamil Nadu and whipping up their supporters to pre-empt such prosecutions. And need we compare the state of the judiciary in India to that in Sri Lanka? Left to themselves, corrupt politicians will never change their ways. Corruption comes in many forms and it was home-grown corruption of a violent kind that landed as a slap in distant New York. True to form, there has been no question or reprimand of the perpetrator, but only the reward of a flight to Rome even though the coveted Papal audience for the villain is said to have been thwarted.