BJP's Image Problem: Broken Promises, Drifting Flagships and Bahubalis Defying Modi’s Call

Contrary to the rosy image woven by godi media, the Modi government has left a trail of half-abandoned flagship programmes, broken promises and chaotic decision-making in crucial areas like defence.

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In more democratic times, the BJP’s national executive (NE) meetings were known for lively and fearless debates. Decisions were often left to the next meetings. On P.V. Narasimha Rao’s economic policy, a sharply divided NE at Sarnath (March 14-15, 1992) decided to hold wider consultations. Modi has changed all that. Now, the media is briefed about what the PM said at the meeting, or there’s a pep talk by party chief J.P. Nadda. What the NE members said, if anything, hardly goes on the record.

At the NE meeting on January 16-17, participants had to deposit their mobiles with the staff, to prevent them from recording the PM’s address. Even the routine interpretations of the supreme leader’s address were censored. The entire party machinery was deployed overnight to ensure the media did not play up PM’s tactical shift towards a soft line on minorities. The fear that hardselling any softening would alienate the BJP’s core supporters.

Later, Anurag Thakur was deployed to firefight “negativists”. Clearly, the PM is determined to ensure that hardline Hindutva groups don’t harm his electoral calculations with the majority of voters. The Assam chief minister swiftly did an overnight U-turn, but there’s large-scale defiance by groups like the Bajrang Dal. The Pathaan release encountered scattered protests, chants and minor vandalism. In Faridabad, nine Bajrangis were held. Protests were widespread in Madhya Pradesh.

Contrary to the rosy image woven by godi media, the Modi government has left a trail of half-abandoned flagship programmes, broken promises and chaotic decision-making in crucial areas like defence. Former Army chief M.M. Naravane says that theaterisation before formulating a national defence strategy was like putting the cart before the horse.

Look at the broken promises. At his Agra rally on November 22, 2013, PM candidate Narendra Modi had said that he would create 1 crore jobs every year. Former PM Manmohan Singh said Modi had offered to create 2 crore jobs.

Ten years later, in November, CMIE reported over 5 crore unemployed. During the last few years, the unemployment rate averaged 7.5%, surging to 25% during the first lockdown. Incensed at this revelation, the government put out its own ‘authentic’ data in April to claim that the labour market was recovering. Economists said the official figures were outdated.

On August 15, 2020, Narendra Modi vowed to connect all of India’s six lakh villages with optical fibre by 2023. Finance minister Nirmala Sitaraman later highlighted the PM’s flagship scheme in her Budget speech. However, with hardly a year left, the PM’s target is nowhere in sight. The rollout is slow and the goalposts have moved.

The project has also faced strong resistance from farmers and tribal villages, especially in the Palghar district of Maharashtra. Credit: PTI/Files

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe. Representative image. Photo: PTI/Files

On September 21, 2018, Modi vowed to make India a $5 trillion economy by 2022. He also assured an 8% growth rate with “massive” employment generation in IT and retail. The PM’s deadline passed last year in deathly silence, amidst massive dismissals in IT and retail. But railways minister Ashwini Vaishnav released a report projecting India as a $26 trillion economy in 2047!

On August 15, 2018, Modi thundered from the Red Fort that India would send astronauts to space before Independence Day, 2022. The Department of Space’s allocation was was hiked 23% and ISRO came under tremendous pressure to fulfil the PM’s promise. The deadline passed, and the hiatus between the PM’s dreams and India’s capabilities was realised.

At Gondia on April 4, 2019, Modi promised to double farmers’ incomes by August 15, 2022. He said the government was already giving Rs 75,000 per year to 12 crore farmers under the Kisan Samman Yojana. As the deadline passed, agitating farmers ridiculed the claim. At Gondia, Modi also coined a new name for the opposition: “tukde-tukde gang”.

In Doha on February 12, 2018, the PM said the 508 km Sabarmati-Mumbai bullet train, his dream project, would be a reality before August 15, 2022. His rail minister Ashwini Vaishnav says a ‘curtailed run’ of the bullet train between Surat and Billimora was likely by 2026, four years after Modi’s deadline.

On July 28, 2018, Modi flamboyantly announced a house for every Indian by 2022 ― 54 lakh houses new units in urban areas and 1 crore in rural areas. The housing shortage remains.

“I promise to provide 24×7 electricity to every home in India when the country celebrates its 75th Independence Day in 2022,” Modi told school students on Teacher’s Day. The pledge is nowhere near realisation.

In July 2014, two months after taking over as PM, Modi declared: “We will build 100 smart cities outfitted with high-tech communication capabilities… cities in the past were built on riverbanks. New ones will be along highways and based on the availability of next generation infrastructure.”

A week earlier, he had announced an additional $1.2 billion investment for the sector, with fundings from private sources and abroad. Based on this, McKinsey had projected that India would add a Mumbai every year, in terms of commercial and residential space. Thrilled at the business prospects, Singapore and Japan offered anticipatory aid. The UK foreign minister offered GBP 1 billion in credit. Modi’s smart city dream was modelled on Dholera, a languishing project in Gujarat propped up by private investment and real estate support.

As early as 2014, the Guardian reported scathingly on ‘India’s Smart City Craze: Big, Green and Doomed from the Start?’ Another study in India found Modi had promised to build 100 new smart cities in five years, but nine months to deadline, only 30% of funds were released.

On the ground, the backlash of the Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh scandal at the Wrestling Federation of India looks more damaging than was thought earlier. The bahubalis need the ruling party’s protection and the latter their vote banks. Singh, against whom there were 30 FIRs, has vote banks spread over three districts. Rape convict Ram Rahim has been in and out of Haryana jail with chief minister M.L. Khattar’s open support. Noida’s Srikant Tyagi and the main accused in the Kanjhawala atrocities also claimed they were BJP activists. Recently, in BJP-ruled Haryana, the CM was forced to sack a minister charged with rape — because the victim went public and demanded action.

Misdemeanours have surged across states, and the opposition has been whipping up a moral backlash against the BJP in, for instance, Betul, then in Chennai (see here and here), Uttar Pradesh (Unnao) and Jharkhand. This random sample illustrates the severity of the BJP’s image problem. And now, the PM has told the bahubalis to go easy on the minorities. Coupled with his broken promises and drifting flagship projects, it’s a fairly difficult problem for the BJP.

P. Raman is the author of Tryst with Strong Leader Populism.