Rana Doodh Wala Dhaba does brisk business in the semi-rural outskirts of Chandigarh, in an area that has for long been on the radar of land sharks. His speciality is doodh wali chai—a typically Punjab concoction that involves boiling tea leaves with thick milk and sugar. This week, as he hosted a diverse group of thinkers and professionals in his mud-plastered yard, surrounded by fields and a noisy link road busy with farmers taking produce to the markets, Rana listened in to a chai pe charcha on one year of the Narendra Modi government.
Consensus on anything that Modi does is rare, but as the charcha swirled, there appeared to emerge a grudging admiration, even from his strongest critics, that the prime minister has got some things right—for instance, his foreign policy initiatives, designed to enhance India’s position as a regional power, and his economic diplomacy.There is appreciation for campaigns like the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and Modi’s avowed stance against corruption. But some feel such grandiose enterprises are doomed to fail because people fail to walk the line with him on this. “The question to ask is: How have we, as Indians, responded to these well-meaning initiatives?” says Manmohan Singh, who set up the iconic Aroma, Chandigarh’s first hotel. “Corruption,” he says, “has become more expensive during Modi raj.”
Sitting as we are in India’s wheat bowl, it is crucial to listen to the farmer’s voice. Many say agriculture is not on Modi’s agenda. Manvendra Singh Sekhon, who manages a 100 acre ancestral farm in Sangrur, says Modi has messed up in handling agriculture. “During the wheat-growing months of December and January, urea was unavailable—right when we needed it.” A black market sprang up: desperate farmers ended up paying double the price for fertiliser. Says Sekhon, as a koel sang in the neem above, “It makes economic sense to have a low MSP at a time when you have abundant wheat, but the government was unable to explain all this to the people. That is where it has failed, because the poor farmer is continuing to produce in the hope of selling it at a good price. MSP eventually went up by only Rs 50—even that was subject to strict quality control due to damage by unseasonal rains.”
The thread of unease that ran through the discussion could be attributed to the RSS worldview now being increasingly articulated in this part of the country. “Modi has failed to honour his responsibility to protect everyone. He is good at marketing India abroad, but what is happening back home? Love jehad and ghar vapasi have heightened social tension,” said Dr Simmi Waraich, a psychiatrist.
Kishie Singh, a retired professional in his seventies, says, “Though as a Sikh I feel safe, yet it is plain that if Muslims and Christians are at the receiving end today, it could be us tomorrow.” There was near-unanimity in the group that communalism is inmical to our well-being even if we are not being targeted. “It is a monster that can undo all the development and good work that the Modi government might accomplish and is not tradeable for all the manufacturing that Make in India might bring to India,” said an anguished Manmohan Singh.
The Modi government’s controversial land acquisition bill drew much criticism, particularly from young lawyer Harish, who saw in its trajectory a scant regard for democratic norms and constitutional provisions. Haryana saw massive land acquisition during the UPA rule—the state is a classic example of private enterprise acquiring more land than they need and making windfall gains by trading in development licences. “Now, Modi is making it even easier for industries like Reliance, which already has a land bank of 10,000 acres in Haryana, to acquire more. Has anyone thought of the poor farmer who knows nothing else but farming?”
And yet, when Pushpendra Singh, a retired major-general, gave Modi 9/10 for sincerity of purpose and six on overall performance, few differed. Utsav Bains, a young activist-lawyer, sees Modi as a leader who is learning and changing before our eyes. “He is a pragmatist who will project whatever is necessary to win elections. His responses have already changed from those of the Modi who began one year ago, and by the end of the second year, and will see an evolved persona.” The discussion wound up with a consensus that Modi might be a hypocrite but he is not dishonest. He may be an idealist, but is a misfit who is uncomfortable with civil society norms and a normal rule-driven constitution. Rana, the doodh wala, who came by with a plate of milk barfi, nodded his head in agreement.