By Sandip Roy and Lakshmi Chaudhry
Modi proved a far more agile campaigner than he had first appeared as he transformed himself from the chief minister of Gujarat into a national leader. That he had the bumbling UPA and Congress party as handy targets certainly helped.
More importantly, his message of can-do aspiration delivered with sure-footed assurance came as a beacon of hope to a nation weary of a government that had long outstayed its welcome. And he certainly worked on his “charm deficit disorder” to project a brand of folksy humour that helped him connect with the very constituencies that a populist UPA had hoped to retain.
So many of us got it wrong. But, as it turns out, we have also been proven right in a different way.
Now as he approaches one year in office, the PM is starting to face rumbles of discontent, and not just from the usual suspects. Prominent voices who had cheered his ascent and declared him the much-needed antidote for a UPA-plagued nation are beginning to worry, and loudly so.
Explanations for the Modi sarkaar’s ‘policy paralysis’ — as it is now dubbed — abound in the op-ed pages. It’s abundantly clear, however, that PM Modi’s problems of governance have their roots in the very same issues that bedeviled Candidate Modi. The euphoria of the sweeping electoral victory eclipsed them for a while, but clearly did not nullify his inherent disadvantages.
Petty in pink (well, saffron): Modi as PM has tried to project a more statesmanlike persona than the Candidate Modi who egged mammoth crowds on with jabs at shehzaada and Madam (deliciously drawn out for effect). Modi wants to put the old vindictive image behind him at least during photo-ops. L K Advani might not speak at the BJP National Enclave but he’s seen on stage and — as a BJP official proudly told the media — even spotted clapping during Modi’s speech. But that old pettiness slips out at other moments, and to the detriment of his government.
There were many ways to honour Atal Behari Vajpayee without trying to shoehorn Good Governance Day on top of Christmas. It caused an entirely unnecessary row and forced the government to defend itself against charges of being the Hindutva Grinch who tried to steal Christmas. Modi has won the election and won it convincingly, but it’s still hard for him to stay gracious in victory. If Candidate Modi was snidely calling the press “news traders” now PM Modi cannot resist a broadbrush dig at activists as “five star activists” as if only Modi can stay a humble “sevak” of the people despite wearing his name all over that exorbitant pin-striped suit.
Divide and fall: Modi and Amit Shah were supposed to have milked the divide and rule strategy into the Kamdhenu that keeps on giving. Voter polarization yielded rich results in fracturing longstanding electoral loyalties especially in states like Uttar Pradesh where Amit Shah did that sleight-of-mouth between badla and badlav. The victory in UP was especially sweet as it turned Modi’s supposed weakness as a polarising figure into a major electoral dividend.
But the last year has also shown that polarisation is no magic formula. A hue and cry about loudspeaker volumes during a taziya procession in Bawana in Delhi or a communal brawl at a roadside shrine in Trilokpuri backfired mightily, as did the loose mouth of Sadhvi Jyoti. All that ‘reverse polarising’ helped deliver Delhi wholesale into the Aam Aadmi Party’s grip.
But Modi has made his base and now he has to lie in it. The greater toll imposed by its Hindutva-driven electoral strategy is reflected in the presence of hotheads and loudmouths like Giriraj Singh in his cabinet. As a representative of the Bhumihar community and an early Modi loyalist in Bihar — a state that’s about to test the Modi-Shah wizardry soon — Singh will pretty much get away with saying what he likes.
And while BJP may well win in Bihar, the price tag of the UP model is beginning to show on Modi’s ability to lead in other parts of the country. His inability to keep the saffron brigade in check also makes him look like he can’t keep his own troops in line, eroding his image of absolute authority.
Does not play well with others: Narendra Modi has never been good about sharing the sandbox with others. No one, not even BJP loyalists in Gujarat, deny that. Whether right or wrong, Modi has made it clear that it’s always his way or the highway. Fortunately for him, his impressive electoral victory meant he did not have to be rely on coalition dharma, or placate tempestuous and demanding allies, unlike Manmohan Singh.
But all that electoral clout in the Lok Sabha has meant little in terms of legislation. Arun Jaitley can complain about the “sadistic thrill” of “obstructionism” but the Modi-Shah combine has managed to unite a fractious opposition eager to exploit his vulnerability in the Rajya Sabha. Even sworn enemies Trinamool and the Left came together to oppose some of his educational appointments recently.
As M K Venu points out in Firstpost when an Amit Shah turns up the heat on the Mamata Banerjee government in Bengal, Trinamool retaliates in the Rajya Sabha, whether it’s on land reform or black money. “The more Amit Shah makes accusatory statements against regional leaders, the more the opposition will get inspired to come together to thwart Modi’s reforms agenda in Parliament,” writes Venu. And the more Modi is desperate to win in the states so as to seize control of the Rajya Sabha, the more Amit Shah goes on the offensive, the more the opposition unites to stymie the government’s bills. The PM is trapped in this vicious circle of his own making, and one that makes him look incapable of passing any major piece of legislation.
Hardball works on the electoral trail, but not so much in the corridors of Parliament. And a Janus-faced Modi sarkar that reaches out to even Sonia on one hand, while trashing Congress elsewhere in the country, finds itself stumbling on its own contradictions.
India is not Gujarat: Narendra Modi is realizing this every day as the Prime Minister. A state that’s much more homogeneous was easier to bend to Modi’s will. Ruling India is a bit more like herding cats. Modi had made it sound as if every problem could be solved by a pithy acronym. But as T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan points out in the Business Standard (http://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/t-c-a-srinivasa-raghavan-the-passing-of-slogan-murugan-115040300924_1.html) even his “name for him last year – Slogan Murugan – has worn thin now. Only the slow is left, the guns having fallen silent.”
As a result, in the place of bold new policy measures, Modi is tomtomming increasingly bizarre examples of his leadership. As when he told a Jat delegation who asked him to consider their appeal for OBC benefits if they would promise first to stop female infanticide. “But what did not seem to occur to anybody, least of all to the prime minister, was the shockingly unethical implications of such a bargain – the promise not to kill female foetuses and murder baby girls was extracted in exchange for the hope of a restored quota ” writes The Telegraph condemning the “immoral logic of such a bargain”.
But more than anything else the offer indicates the desperation of a government that is scraping the bottom of the barrel, dressing up bargain basement barter as public policy leadership.
Waiting on the PMO:
The biggest problem with the Modi government is that it has always been built around an image of him as the Supreme Authority of Gujarat. And Modi has been loath to puncture that hype. As Srinivasa-Raghavan points out, he has tried to create via his PMO not just “mere old-fashioned centralization” but a “top down execution system… in which ministers carry out instructions from on high.”
To his supporters, that authoritarian streak fostered hopes for efficiency and fast results. A one-track window to double digit growth. But in practice, centralisation — as epitomised by the all-powerful Prime Minister’s Office — has proved to be bit of a disaster. The man who as a candidate promised the country less government and more governance is now finding out the hard way that less of one does not necessarily mean more of the other.
While everyone is waiting on the PMO, a slew of organisations are headless, and ministers are unwilling to stick their neck out on anything other than the already blessed “PM’s projects” writes Mihir Srivasatav in Outlook.
Srivastava points out that the number of vacancies at the director and joint secretary level have crossed 80, the Cabinet Appointments Committee has been rendered redundant and “a hyperactive PMO seems to have put off a section of bureaucrats, who are now reluctant to leave states and move to the Centre in a reversal of the earlier trend of bureaucrats lobbying for central deputation.”
That single track window has proved instead to be a roadblock to progress.
Now, none of this means that the Modi sarkar is doomed by his disadvantages.
The Prime Minister has long proven himself as a swift and canny learner. But that giant electoral victory may have lulled him into viewing his handicaps as his greatest assets. His first year in office has swiftly disabused him of that fanciful notion. A disillusioned Modi may well prove to be a better, wiser leader than a deluded one.