The 2019 verdict will as much be a verdict on the performance of North Block as it will be on the achievements of South Block.
The Congress Party seemed on the edge of irrelevance, if not extinction, after the Lok Sabha polls in 2014. During the poll campaign, there was a steady barrage of allegations of corruption against the top leaders of the UPA government. After the polls, it was expected that the country would before long witness a series of trials of the UPA grandees, in which they would face charges of misuse of office and the securing of illicit wealth. Such trials never took place, and not surprisingly. The new government handed over power to the civil service on a scale seldom seen in the country’s history. Civil servants have the primary responsibility for governance, acting under the directions of the Prime Minister’s Office. The Modi PMO is headed by the formidable duo of Ajit Doval and Nripendra Misra, both loyal to—and in sync with—Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Not surprisingly for the traditions of his cadre, Doval has relied overwhelmingly on the Indian Police Service (IPS) in matters relating to security and Misra on the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). While the UPA chaired by Sonia Gandhi involved civil society to an extent in the framing of policy, such division of responsibility (for policy analysis and discussion) between the civil service and civil society was dispensed with by Prime Minister Modi. Even in the appointment of the Lokpal, the only “lok” under consideration for membership in this latest of anti-corruption watchdogs has been the tiny fraction of the population comprising former members of the civil service and the higher judiciary. Entrusting even a few responsibilities within the governance mechanism to those outside this tiny subset of India’s 1.27 billion people was a leap too far for the present government, which has followed the example of its predecessor in filling even the Right to Information boards with those whose entire career has been marked by the keeping away from the public of information relating to the processes of governance. In other words, selections to RTI boards have been made from those who have spent their working lives in the executive and the judiciary. The public are, as usual, looking in from the outside, following the practice inherited from the days of the British colonial period and retained and added on to since the departure of the former colonial masters to the UK. As the very civil servants who assisted UPA grandees in their fund collection continued in office undisturbed by the change in the leadership of the Central government that took place on 26 May 2014, it is no surprise that none of the UPA grandees serially accused of serial wrongdoing by the BJP during the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign have had to spend a day in prison. Prosecuting them would have led to questions about the role of certain prominent civil servants in facilitating their activities. Today, to take just a single example, the absence of any prosecutorial action since 2014 against the DMK top tier by the present government (indeed, the post-2014 exoneration of DMK bigwigs including Dayanidhi Maran and A. Raja) could put that party in a position to (along with the Trinamool Congress, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party) make the difference between majority and minority status in the next Lok Sabha.
In the next Lok Sabha, it is as close to a certainty as is possible in politics that the Congress Party will emerge as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha after the BJP. Its regional allies would like the Congress Party to gain enough seats to ensure that a non-BJP government takes office, but would be almost as dismayed as the BJP were the Congress LS tally to cross 110 seats. Even if a generous portion of seats had been given by Congress to the BSP (if not the SP, whose influence in these states is slight), the Congress Party would have secured more seats in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh than it eventually did, thereby not simply bruising the BJP, but humiliating it at the hustings, the way that took place during the Bihar Assembly polls. Given the reality of the threat that a BJP led by Narendra Modi would pose to the Congress were it to return to office, it would have made strategic sense to have cut a generous deal with the BSP and even allocated a few seats to the SP in the three states just mentioned, rather than enter into a situation where most of the votes secured through the charisma of Priyanka Gandhi will come from the SP-BSP rather than from the BJP kitty. There is logic in the attacks being made by ruling party campaigners against Rahul and Priyanka, for making them and not the rest of the opposition the main focus of negative attention (in states where there is no seat adjustment between 24 Akbar Road and other anti-BJP parties) will ensure that the Congress Party polls more anti-Modi votes at the expense of other anti-Modi parties. Prime Minister Modi has a mind and a memory that is remarkable for its depth and intensity, and it is likely that he has understood the error made through listening to those Union Cabinet colleagues who urged the PM to be “statesmanlike and not vindictive” and abstain from prosecuting UPA-era grandees, in the belief that they would never (at least in 2019) pose a threat to the BJP majority in the Lok Sabha. BJP rhetoric about hyper-graft during the UPA days is met by the retort that “nothing was proved over the last five years”, thereby considerably weakening the effectiveness of a line of attack that was central to CM Modi becoming PM Modi. The opposition parties, should they come to power, will not be as forgiving of the BJP in terms of enquires and prosecutions as the present ruling party has been of them during its term.
Modi is far and away the most popular leader in the country, but so was Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he battled Sonia Gandhi in 2004. The performance of North Block during the term of the present government has not been anything to write home about, although several of the officials who have so clumsily handled important responsibilities during this period have been given generous promotions. The 2019 verdict will as much be a verdict on the performance of North Block as it will be on the achievements of South Block, which is why it is too early to bring out the champagne in the BJP’s new headquarters.