If there is one thing that even the strongest detractors of Narendra Modi acknowledge, it is his mastery over politics. He is a political animal of the old school — he breathes, eats and sleeps politics. He follows it intricately, monitors its nuances and applies it to his decisions. He understands political implications of decisions.
It is this mastery that has helped him not just win elections — for elections are only one part of the political game — but also move to the very top, jettisoning odds that would have overwhelmed anyone else. A stain such as the 2002 riots in a state that he had just taken over would spell the end of a political career and, for some time, it looked like he too would not survive it. But not only has he left it far behind, he has done so without ever giving any detailed explanation, much less apologising for it. People now know him as decisive and action-oriented, not wishy-washy and defensive.
It is thus all the more surprising then that the very same Modi now looks all hemmed in and unable to push his way politically on some of his most marquee legislations. There is a sense that he has not been able to deliver on his promises and the much-vaunted Acche Din are nowhere on the horizon. Moreover, many of his promises remain unkept.
The bigger problem is his inability to gather more political allies to ensure that his government can fulfil its agenda. With a handsome majority and a host of allies to buttress his administration, he doesn’t really need more support, at least not in the Lok Sabha. But he is short of numbers in the Rajya Sabha and that is where he would love the backing of the AIADMK, the TMC and others. They have not yet fully indicated that they will offer that support. Indeed, his own partners in the NDA, such as the Akali Dal and the Shiv Sena are restive; the latter missing no opportunity to take jibes at him and his party. Modi, who has never run a coalition, has not mastered the art of keeping allies in good humour — he doesn’t take to opposition well.
On the electoral front, his record is impressive. Soon after May 2014, when the BJP romped into power crushing the opposition, he led his party to even more victories in the states. The BJP came tantalisingly close to being the solo party even in Maharashtra, no small achievement. But the loss of Delhi — in national terms an insignificant state — to the AAP in such a brutal fashion seems to have stunned Modi. In the post-Delhi scenario, Modi is tending to play safe and does not want to take any bold decision that could anger vast constituencies such as the farmers or the middle-classes. Rahul Gandhi’s comment in Parliament that he could not understand how, despite being a shrewd politician, Modi was pushing through a legislation (Land Acquisition Bill) that would upset 67 per cent of the country’s citizens (farmers) is noteworthy in this context. The spate of farmer suicides continues and he has not been able to reach out to them to convince them he is addressing rural problems.
Meanwhile, it has not gone unnoticed that his government is cutting allotments to social welfare schemes or renaming old schemes that were set up by the UPA, such as the Atal Pension Yojana which used to be the Aam Aadmi Beema Yojana. The move to replace heads of cultural institutions with those who have the backing of the RSS has not gone down too well either. Most worrying has been the rampant communal statements of MPs and others from the Hindutva parivaar that the Prime Minister has been unable to stop, though it couldn’t have escaped his attention that such incendiary comments could cause social turbulence. The most charitable explanation is that Narendra Modi cannot afford to open one more hostile front while he tackles the main task of pushing his programmes.
Ultimately what the populace cares for the most is governance. That includes not just economic growth — which is crucial to provide for jobs, education and social security — but also a peaceful, secure and healthy life. Citizens pay close attention not just to intentions but also to outcomes; mere slogans do not impress them. They want to see results.
Modi is going round the world to raise India’s profile and bring in much-needed investment; if that comes in, and brings with it jobs and prosperity, they will praise him for it. Else the trips will be seen as a vanity-building exercise. Modi has shown he can achieve results — the land deal with Bangladesh is a triumph of diplomacy and deft political management. The passing of several bills in Parliament shows that properly handled, bipartisanship can be achieved. Of late, the hate mongers too have been quiet.
It has just been a year, too soon to see long-term results (though he had raised super-high expectations.) But danger signals are visible — the economy is refusing to rev up, the stock markets are sliding rapidly and the rupee is going into free fall; his own promises are beginning to sound hollow. Even business tycoons, his greatest supporters, are expressing fears about the advent of good days.
Possibly the only way out of this would be for Modi to shed his newfound timorousness and once again assert himself. He has to go on an overdrive, not a difficult task when your entire party is behind you and the opposition poses little danger. The next general election is four years away, enough time to take bold decisions. And that can only be done if Modi the politician rises to the fore again.
Sidharth Bhatia is the founder-editor of thewire.in