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  Opinion   Columnists  10 Jun 2024  Aakar Patel | Why PM’s advice to party, allies to ‘ignore the news’ will fail to work…

Aakar Patel | Why PM’s advice to party, allies to ‘ignore the news’ will fail to work…

Aakar Patel is a senior journalist and columnist
Published : Jun 11, 2024, 12:09 am IST
Updated : Jun 11, 2024, 12:09 am IST

Will there be a shift from a decade of secrecy, towards a more transparent era?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumes charge of the office, in New Delhi, Monday, June 10, 2024. (PTI Photo)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumes charge of the office, in New Delhi, Monday, June 10, 2024. (PTI Photo)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to the NDA allies in the Central Hall of the old Parliament building just days before his swearing-in. His message was that he would remain Prime Minister for another 10 years (he did not say how he knew this), but to be fair to him, that was only mentioned in passing. His main message appeared to be to tell his alliance not to pay attention to the news.

Things would be reported about their government from here on but the alliance partners should ignore these reports and not trust anything without it being verified. Why would he say that? Of course, because things will begin to be reported in a way that they were not reported in the past decade. We have just come out of an era of total secrecy.

Mr Modi’s own Cabinet ministers did not know that demonetisation was coming. We know this because it was reported later that the Cabinet had been summoned to the meeting a few hours before Mr Modi’s speech to the country to authorise demonetisation, but the ministers were told to leave their mobile phones behind. This was to stop them from relaying the news outside. Since the ministers did not know till that moment, their ministries also did not know or prepare. A similar situation had arisen during the 2020 nationwide lockdown for Covid-19 which came as a bolt from the blue to all of us, including those in the government. This sort of thing will no longer happen. The shift from collective Cabinet responsibility to one individual has ended and the shift back has begun. That is a good thing.

There is a reason media speculation happens in all democracies. That it shows a free press at work which can speculate about those in power without fear is only one aspect. The other is that things that are said behind closed doors, or cannot be said at all, are floated by people inside to gain advantage. This is normal in all democracies. It is only in authoritarian places where there is no knowledge and no speculation about the goings-on. Where there is fear of surveillance and the danger of being punished for speaking.

We should therefore expect such a change to come over at least one part of the media, and the Prime Minister recognises this. What is less certain is why he would think his allies would not listen, because of course they will listen to what concerns them.

Mr Modi has an advantage over alliances of the sort that began just after P.V. Narasimha Rao’s government fell. And that advantage is that he has 240 MPs. His predecessor as NDA leader, three-time Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, had only 180 MPs in his last term. That meant more vulnerability to allies to the point where the alliance itself was becoming the news. There was a fascinating report in February 1999 about Vajpayee sending defence minister George Fernandes to assuage AIADMK leader and NDA partner Jayalalitha. George Fernandes flew to Chennai to her Poes Garden residence with the BJP’s Pramod Mahajan, after he was given an appointment. But they were not given an audience. Instead, Jayalalitha admonished Fernandes over the intercom and they left. Another news story from November 2001, headlined “Mamata sulks over PM refusal for Cabinet berth”, reported how the TMC boycotted a Cabinet meeting after joining the NDA. The BJP’s then president, Jana Krishnamurthy, said: “How can somebody expect to become a minister immediately? There are our own MPs aspiring to be ministers and they have been waiting for quite a while.” The reference was to two BJP Lok Sabha MPs from Delhi — Madan Lal Khurana and Sahib Singh Verma — who had been waiting for ministerships and they were also sulking.

This is what alliances are about and that is what they have always been about. The last decade was an aberration in India’s politics of give-and-take. Vajpayee was a pragmatist and a politician of the old school, willing to accept the discomfort and irritation and occasional humiliation. Though he had fewer numbers he held this advantage over Mr Modi, who is authoritarian by nature (I know him personally and can attest to this), and will have to learn how to compromise.

Mr Modi hopefully will not be put in such a position as frequently as Vajpayee was, given his larger plurality of seats, but there will be moments when what has happened over the last decade from 2014 to 2024 will not happen. When his will to impose something over the heads of his Cabinet will be tested. We can be absolutely sure that this will be reported because the allies, or people inside the BJP looking to assert themselves, will want it reported. Telling people to ignore the news will not work.

The word “ally” in a coalition is misleading because it suggests someone who is always for you and with you. This is incorrect. They are always for themselves and sometimes with you. In perfect partnerships, such moments of difference do not come. But that happens only in the realm of fairy tales and divine beings. For us mortals, the world is a real place and its unpleasant realities have to be engaged with, not ignored, because they absolutely will come up.

For those who write, report and consume the news, this will be an interesting and fascinating and often entertaining five years.



Tags: prime minister narendra modi, political transparency, bjp-nda government