IT is too early to know if it will be the road downhill for the Narendra Modi government from here on but the tide is turning and there are signs that the BJP leadership itself is alarmed at how swiftly the ground has shifted. The “56-inch”self-congratulatory Prime Minister continues to remain the raconteur of rosy scenarios except that a dwindling number are buying his picture when the canvas is already blotted and soiled.
The ill-effects of a host of rash moves like the rushed implementation of the GST, the hare-brained scheme of demonetisation, the non-action on black money and corruption, the lack of direction on ballooning non-performing assets of public sector banks have come together to give us lesser jobs, lower growth and a weak outlook. Coupled with tall tales and big promises, they make the picture look even grimmer as public patience wears thin, particularly since the nation has been giving, and even forgiving, in allowing the BJP the benefit of doubt in all its adventurous initiatives. The party stands damaged and Modi even more so since his is the face and word that won the votes and gave the BJP a mandate well beyond its own expectations.
Sensing the mood, the Prime Minister is today aggressively trying to defend his government and we can expect him to increase the time spent on story-telling sessions. But he has a tough sell as the national mood moves from blind acceptance to active skepticism if not plain derision.
The immediate test of Modi’s standing will come in Gujarat, which goes to the polls in December and where the political ground has also moved thanks to frustration of the trader community at GST, the Patidar agitation and a state leadership that has little political standing. Opinion polls have predicted a BJP landslide. The BJP still pulls the crowds but there are also reports of the kind seen this weekend that people started leaving the meeting as the Prime Minister spoke. The Congress had its share of the story by playing the image of a newspaper tweet that reported the walkout. The newspaper deleted the tweet but the Congress played along its handles with ‘#DaroMat’. This gentle jab by the Congress is new, again an indicator of some change in the air.
At a larger level, what is happening is in many ways a remarkable about-turn – pent-up energy from the ground is rising to challenge the narrative of the establishment, puncturing particularly the Prime Minister in the unlikeliest of places and on the unlikeliest of platforms – erstwhile supporters, stand-up comedy performers, fact-checkers, poets are adding their voices of protest, subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle. The force of this tide appears to be such that the bhakts and trolls are unwilling or unable to contain the damage; having honed their skills and spent their energy pelting stones and heaping venom on soft targets, these voices stand defanged in the face of what appears to be growing and disparate voices coming out to express their discontent at the national state of affairs. This is a delayed release of pent-up anger and it carries the potential to explode and unleash forces that can challenge and alter the political landscape significantly.
Today, more and more people are engaged in scooping out nuggets that leave little doubt that the party and the person who have come to lead this nation in the 21st century are uniquely unqualified to do so, a combination of ignorance, arrogance and the steadfastness of belief that any policy is good just because it is untried, untested, and even wild.
Bullet train profligacy
A particular clip doing the rounds stands out for what it tells us about the thinking that is at the root of some these steps, the complete subjugation to the idea that myth-making, fairy tales and a muscular presentation are what make for progress and power. This is a clip from May 2, 2013 at an event in Mumbai organised by the Indian Merchants Chamber and the All-India Business Council. Modi tells the audience of the time he had advised the then prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh to launch a bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. And he admits, quite candidly and shockingly, that no one will travel on the train.
He knows that, he says, but argues that India must have the train to “show our strength to the world,” to show that “we are no less,” a position that might fit the textbook definition of a pretender. In his prepared remarks of that day in Hindi, the assertion that no one will travel the bullet train ends with an exclamation mark. The text also compares the need for a bullet train with the Republic Day parade in New Delhi, speaking again of a show of strength and its significance though the video clip that shows him speak does not have the R-Day reference.
What is worse, as the election season nears, the lure to sell more promises combined with an undue focus on selling the message will land the party in more of the same: run with a rhetorical flourish, pack a punch, go for jugular. The lure of this dominating strategy is that it works when there is a sense of listlessness and inertia from the incumbent. But now the BJP is the incumbent.
Equally, Indians may tolerate excesses but only for a limited time and with a limited agenda. When loud talking becomes an end in itself, when power is centred around a few and responsibility is given the go-by, initial acceptance will turn to fatigue and then anger. This is because the DNA of India is democratic; India can progress only through an “innate belief in democracy” and not through “dictatorship” or “a powerful person who believes in concentrating power at one place”. And guess who said that. Was it not Narendra Modi, mouthing punchlines for a ‘Time’ magazine cover? Old habits, they say, die hard! Billion Press