Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP appear to be pushing a cocktail of aggressive nationalism with a heavy dose of welfarism to mask their many failures so far.
Governance in India has entered a very interesting phase where even the pretence of cooperative politics may be abandoned. The Budget session of parliament will reflect this new phase of combativeness in our polity. The churn among students across universities over the definition of “desh bhakti” and the essential freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution reflects just one aspect of what lies ahead. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent statement that the opposition is trying to destabilise his government is the first indication of the nature of politics being stoked at present.
In a recent interview, BJP President Amit Shah had spelt out this strategy when he claimed that Modi, like Indira Gandhi four decades ago, had come to acquire a political stature which was a replay of “Indira Gandhi versus the rest” contest. One is not surprised that barely a few weeks after Shah likened Modi to Indira, the PM made a statement that bears such a strong resemblance to the her ‘I versus the rest’ politics. She was also prone to invoking the ‘foreign hand’ threatening India’s integrity from time to time, particularly when she felt a sense of being under siege due to failures on the economic governance front.
So will Modi succeed in playing the Indira of today? Quite unlikely. Indira, with all her fatal flaws, had successfully established a pro-poor image among the people. In politics, brand perception is very important. For instance, the southern states saw her as ‘Indira Amma’ and this helped her win the south even in the post-emergency elections in 1977.
In comparison, Modi is struggling with an image problem. In recent public speeches, whether to farmers in Madhya Pradesh or Orissa, the PM appeared rather defensive as he emphasised he was not ‘pro-industry’ and that no one had done for the farmers as much as his government. Modi has repeated this on many occasions. Indeed, if this were true, it would not need restating so many times.
In fact, Modi stayed away from directly addressing the farmers for nearly a year when farmers across the northern and some southern states were facing their worst crises in decades. After a long time, he chose to address farmers in MP last week. Addressing a rally in Odisha on Sunday, February 20, he claimed his government was the “most farmer friendly since independence”. One does not know how the audience received such hyperbolic claims but the Hindustan Times quoted a farmer in the rally as saying, “The PM did not say a word about our farm crisis”. Odisha has seen a large number of farmer suicides in recent times.
It is at the same public meeting that he attacked the opposition parties and NGOs for “attempting to destabilise his government.” Any detached political observer would react to Modi’s charge with bemusement. It is possible that he is feeling a sense of siege because the government is unable to implement policies at the pace desired. This may be inducing a sense of paranoia. He has even blamed the bureaucracy and his senior ministers for not moving the wheels of the government fast enough.
The problem, however, is that Modi chose to attack the opposition on the eve of the Budget session of parliament, which is expected to take up crucial economic reforms legislation. So does this mean he has given up the hopes of conducting any serious business other than passing the Budget? How else is one to read the political situation as it is developing?
If we take Shah’s political construct of ‘Modi versus the rest’ seriously, we can pretty much bid goodbye to any form of cooperation between the BJP and the opposition. Indeed, a pattern has emerged during the last two sessions of parliament where all business gets disrupted and opposition parties unite on account of some needlessly aggressive actions by the government. In the last session it was the CBI raid on the office of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, which backfired on the centre. All regional parties stood solidly behind Kejriwal then. The opposition could argue that the centre is trying to destabilise the governments in states, going by what happened in Delhi and Arunachal Pradesh.
During the monsoon session in 2015, the BJP formally announced the launching of investigations on one count or the other against several Congress chief ministers just as parliament opened. This was seen as a retaliation against the opposition’s demand for the sacking of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje over the Lalitgate controversy, and of MP Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan over the Vyapam scam. Besides, whatever happened to the CBI investigation ordered by the government to probe Vyapam?
This time around the BJP has consciously provoked the opposition by bungling the handling of the entire chain of events starting with the JNU students’ meeting and by abusing instruments of the state to quell political dissent. So it appears that Modi, besides making token gestures seeking the opposition parties’ cooperation, is not really keen on thrashing out with them a consensus on various issues.
At an inter-personal level too he has not been very communicative in his meetings with opposition leaders. In a recent interview to India Today, Manmohan Singh gave an interesting insight on the PM: when Singh and Sonia Gandhi met Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley over tea to resolve the GST deadlock, Modi hardly spoke; it was Jaitley who did all the talking. Similarly, in an all-party meeting Modi convened last week to seek the opposition’s cooperation against the backdrop of the JNU events, he was mostly silent. While the PM’s public silence over the JNU events is known, he has also been silent in private meetings with the opposition leaders, letting other ministers do the talking.
Modi has not yet evolved a personal communication with key opposition leaders. It is mostly Shah and Jaitley who articulate his thought process. Going by their latest pronouncements, one’s reading is that Modi is already feeling immense pressure on account of the lack of progress in job creation and new investments. One can also read something from Modi’s recent attempt to address farmers directly in various states even as his party whipped up hyper-nationalism at the centre. It appears Modi wants to push for a cocktail of aggressive nationalism with a heavy dose of welfarism that may be introduced in the budget, and whose politics is being largely crafted at the PMO. National socialism, anyone?
In short, Modi wants to reboot his image to cover up for his many failures so far.