In his two years in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi never perhaps needed electoral relief as much as he did in May 2016 to reinforce the perception that he is a doer, who can get things done. Not only was some remission needed from the bad press he and his ministers were getting for dismal performance, the unstoppability mystique, muscularly built around Modi during the 2014 campaign, stood decisively damaged with the losses in the Delhi and Bihar elections and needed some salvaging.
No wonder the BJP made an event of a one-out-of-five victory in the recent assembly elections, projecting the impressive 86 seats it won with its allies in Assam as a barometer of its growth across India and, as BJP president Amit Shah put it, “an approval of Narendra Modi’s performance over two years”. The desperation for good press was quite evident at Shah’s three-day media meet, held May 25 onward at the Ashoka hotel in Delhi: Shah was opening up to the media for the first time since taking over as party chief. But the hard fact remained that, other than the Assam victory, there was little to show. Yet, the prime minister and his party managed what they’re best at—winning the perception battle. Projecting the Assam poll results and the voteshare increase in states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, the party managed to position its little victory well. Small gains were mapped out as big triumphs, and, pointing to the Congress losses, the BJP projected itself again as a national party without opposition—the only strategy that was open to it, because Modi’s government struggles to deliver on the governance and legislation fronts.
The assembly results bring no particular relief to the BJP in the Rajya Sabha, where it remains in minority, making legislation that much more difficult for the prime minister. In the Lok Sabha, it’s not just the Congress—or even its mostly non-combative vice-president—and the Left that are criticising the government, BJP MPs too have condemned the government, even in the presence of PM on the floor of the House. The PM can’t really paper over the inadequacies.
In private conversations, senior party leaders have expressed concern over the PM’s waning popularity, asserting that “canvassing must lead to consequences”. They admit the PM’s greatest weakness has been lack of governance and say people are demanding proof of administration on the ground. “People are still looking for jobs. Unemployment is an issue far from getting resolved. Agrarian distress is at an all-time high and will have a huge impact on our future,” says a senior BJP leader.
Surely no amount of poll victory celebrations can drum up support for the PM’s absent policies for rural India. With half the country under the spell of drought, for those living in the countryside, two years is long enough to have waited to see the promised change. No wonder distressed BJP MPs have of late raised issues like the rise in prices of oil and pulses to shake the government. The government’s U-turns on the land bill, EPF rate hike and NREGA offer ready signs of a government not fully in the saddle. A sluggish economy, trade stagnation, the drying up of industry money and the government’s dragging out of the one-rank-one-pay issue have contributed to the general disquiet.
Two years, no doubt, is not time enough for a sea change for a country as vast and varied as India. Supporters of the PM point to how his pet projects have just started making headway and will take time to show results. They speak of flagship schemes like aggregating anaj mandis under E-NAM, which will enable farmers to bypass the tyranny of local mandi jurisdiction and sell produce across India via the internet. They also speak of schemes like the Jan Dhan Yojna, a major propeller of the rural economy, the Atal Pension Yojana and the Pradhan Mantri Insurance Yojana as tools to positively impact the rural populace. And top it off with the PM’s ideas—crop insurance, promoting the surrender of LPG subsidy, upping the budget for rural and irrigation infrastructure, cutting royalty payment for Bt cotton, holding consultations with the states for land-lease holding, enabling small and marginal farmers to raise capital when required. But can the PM alone take credit for all that? Clearly, finance minister Arun Jaitley’s 2016 budget was splattered with RSS ideas and economic ideology.
What’s putting Modi a bit on the backfoot is also the rise of strident and ugly right-wing voices over issues related to atrocities on Dalits and protection of the minorities. Modi’s silence on the killings of rationalists and attacks on minorities by fringe Hindutva groups is deafening: it’s a blemish on his record that no amount of appearance at Sufi summits can cover.
What can also not be ignored is Modi’s apathy to growing dissidence at universities; ironically, the PM swears by students and youth as his greatest support base. The government’s handling of Rohith Vemula’s suicide, the strike at FTII, the closing down of the Ambedkar-Periyar study circle at IIT Madras, the mishandling of the JNU agitation with sedition charges brought against student leaders—all this is being seen as a succumbing to the fanatic, extreme right. For a PM who rode to power on the development and stability plank, it spells betrayal—or worse, confirmation of a negative picture.
In every possible attack, the opposition has targeted the government’s failure to keep promises such as bringing back black money stashed abroad, a land bill, GST and women’s bills, terming the failure as a sign of weakness. Even the India buzz that the PM claims to have created with his innumerable trips abroad is derided as a world tour of a man uninterested in domestic crises. Perhaps the PM has too much on his plate.
There’s also lack of talent in the government. As a minister of state puts it, “Where are the dynamic ministers and leaders who can actually administer change on the ground? And do the few that are talented even have the freedom to do so?” Evidently, Modi’s one-man show, where he is in charge of the government and his party, is beginning to cause resentment.
It’s a resentment that the PM can ill-afford at the moment, considering that 2017 has tough evaluations lined up. Punjab, where the BJP is in power with the Akalis, is in dismal shape; then there are the difficulties of Uttar Pradesh and the anti-incumbency in Gujarat. All three states go to the polls next year. These will prove to be tests by fire of Modi. In the six months that remain of 2016, with no more assembly polls, Modi may finally have time to focus on development. But if he’s unable to change things from his current position of power, the BJP slogan ‘Do saal, bemisaal (fantastic two years)’ may actually come up against the Congress rallying cry of ‘Do saal, burey haal (terrible two years)’. The power to decide which slogan triumphs lies singularly with the prime minister.
Unmaking Of The Madeover Man
- LPG subsidy reforms
- Jan Dhan Yojana
- Atal Pension Yojana
- Pradhan Mantri Insurance Yojana
- Crop insurance
- Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan
- India-Bangladesh land boundary agreement
- Amendment of bankruptcy laws
- Real estate regulation
- No return of black money
- Trade stagnation
- Sluggish economy
- Lack of drought relief
- Industry slowdown
- No check on fanatic right wing
- Apathy towards Dalits, minorities
- Indo-Pak relations
- Indo-Nepal relations
- Dissidence at central universities
- Land bill, GST, Ganga clean-up
By Prarthna Gahilote in Delhi