A few years ago, I was sitting next to Manohar Parrikar on a flight. The defence minister was then Goa chief minister and was travelling economy, dressed in trademark half-sleeve shirt, trousers and chappals. When we landed, he waited for his suitcase to come on the conveyor belt, and then pushed the trolley on his own. No retinue of personal attendants accompanying him, nothing that would remotely suggest a VIP culture. His parting shot as he exited the airport, “all of you think only Arvind Kejriwal is an aam aadmi chief minister.
Heads of our soldiers are being cut but we are feeding their prime minister chicken biryani. This country is ruled by weak leaders,” Narendra Modi speech in May 2013.
“Mr Prime Minister — No dialogue over dead bodies. Please cancel your meeting with Nawaz Sharif,” Sushma Swaraj tweet in September 2013.
News channels always face a ‘dharam sankat’ when Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi speak at the same time. In the last few years the tendency has been to relentlessly focus the cameras on Mr Modi while the Congress leader’s speech is routinely muted or becomes a deferred telecast in what might be seen as an accurate reflection of the two leaders’ contrasting political fortunes.
In a wonderful television series on the great boxing fights, Joe Frazier is asked on his legendary match-ups with Mohammed Ali. “I guess it wasn’t just about boxing, it was personal, we just didn’t like each other,” is Frazier’s candid reply.
What is true of Ali versus Frazier could well be said about politics in this country at the moment. Narendra Modi versus Sonia Gandhi is a battle of political heavyweights that is sharply personal as much as it is a clash of party leaderships.
It was a picture that perhaps best captured the angularities of Indian secularism: AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal and Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien in a topi even as Delhi lieutenant governor Najeeb Jung and vice-president Hamid Ansari preferred to be bare-headed. The occasion was an iftaar party organised by the Delhi chief minister. Perhaps Kejriwal and O’Brien (an Anglo-Indian from Kolkata) had taken their cue from Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who once said, “To run the country, you have to take everyone along ... at times, you will have to wear a topi, at times a tilak.”
The only thing certain about Indian politics is its constant edge of uncertainty. If in the summer of 2010, you had suggested that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) would hurtle to an ignominious defeat in the 2014 general election, you would have been a certified lunatic. The Congress was so convinced by its seeming invincibility that it quickly lost the plot. Today, amidst the 365-day celebration blitzkrieg, the Narendra Modi-led government's position seems equally unassailable: a victory in the 2019 general election appears very likely.