Modi’s love for selfies
It would be a mistake to believe that Narendra Modi was unaware that he was treading a thin line on the model code of conduct when he displayed the BJP’s poll symbol at a press conference immediately after casting his vote in Ahmedabad.
Although he has received a clean chit from the police on the grounds that he was not inside the ‘restricted’ area when he flaunted the lotus, the Election Commission’s decision to ask the state government to file an FIR against him appears to have irked the chief minister. Hence, his sarcastic observation that while FIRs usually target those who brandish a gun, he has been pilloried for showing the party’s symbol. In a typically brazen show of arrogance, he has also given ‘permission’ to the commission to file another FIR against him for accusing the institution of failing to prevent the rigging that took place in West Bengal, Bihar and UP.
This isn’t the first time that Modi has spoken derisively of the commission. The most notable occasion earlier was when he took care to enunciate the full name of the then chief election commissioner, James Michael Lyngdoh, at public meetings before the 2002 assembly elections. The articulation was meant to remind the audience of the commissioner’s Christian background, which made him an ‘alien’ in the Hindutva lexicon since, according to V D Savarkar, Muslims and Christians do not belong to the same category as Hindus since their punyabhoomi or holy lands – Mecca and Rome – are outside India. Modi was hinting that since Lyngdoh was an ‘alien’, he could not be trusted to hold a free and fair election in Gujarat because of his suspected bias against the ‘Hindu nationalist’ chief minister.
To drive home his point, Modi told an election rally that some journalists had asked him whether Lyngdoh was from Italy. Following these acerbic observations, Atal Behari Vajpayee had to step in to condemn such ‘insinuations’. Evidently, the need to observe raj dharma during the riots was not the only advice which the prime minister gave to Modi in 2002.
If Modi is still trying to show the poll panel its place more than two decades after his run-in with Lyngdoh, the reason probably is that he is sending a message to the bureaucratic establishment as a whole that his authoritarian reputation is not a figment of the imagination of his critics. Instead, it is very much an integral part of his persona where he will not like any section of the officialdom to step out of line where his preferences are concerned.
Considering that Modi is likely to keep the police and the civil services completely under his thumb, it is the independent institutions which must be a cause of concern for him. Foremost among them are the judiciary, the media and the supposedly autonomous organisations like the Election Commission, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Central Vigilance Commission, etc. While the media can be expected to fall in line without much resistance – a phone call from Amit Shah to the owners and editors will suffice – and Modi is likely to leave the judiciary alone for some time (unlike Indira Gandhi during the Emergency), it is the Election Commission and similar other bodies which he will want to mould according to his likes and dislikes.
In other words, he will like them to be like a ‘caged parrot’, to quote the Supreme Court’s memorable description of the ‘autonomous’ CBI. To be fair, Modi is not the first politician who may want to tame the Election Commission. For much of its earlier history, the commission was unable to check rampant booth capturing and manipulation of voters lists because of interference from its political bosses, mainly the Congress and the regional parties. It was only the arrival of the doughty T N Seshan as the chief election commissioner in 1990 which made the politicians back off. Even then, the Congress tried to curb Seshan’s authority by appointing two deputy commissioners, but, by then, the tradition of the commission functioning without fear or favour had been established.
The latest incident shows that it may face another attack on its independence. It is not surprising that the commission should arouse the wrath of the politicians. While they are used to the police and the officials do their bidding without caring for the legality or otherwise of the political diktats, the poll panel’s autonomy is irksome because a free and fair poll can achieve the seemingly impossible – put an end to a draconian Emergency and oust a well-entrenched cadre-based party from power after three decades.
No ruler, therefore, can sleep peacefully towards the end of their term in office. It is to put an end to such an uncertainty that Modi demonstrated, according to one of his biographers, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, ‘a weak spot’ in his ‘persona: his possible disregard for institutions he intends to have under his command in less than a fortnight’. Like the old fable about the groom killing his newly-married wife’s favourite cat on the first night to show who is the boss, Modi did not want to waste time. IPA