The Diminishing Returns of Modi-Shah’s Masterstrokes

The routine of sudden, shock moves that take everyone by surprise has not only become predictable, but also frayed.

It is almost a formula now – a sudden, shock move that takes everyone by surprise and completely changes the scenario. This is the Modi-Shah style, from demonetisation to Kashmir to so many political manoeuvres which have caught the opposition flat-footed, in states as far as Assam and Goa.

After every such action, the praise singers, whose job is to compose and sing ballads hailing the chief, express their admiration on social media, on television channels and in the newspapers—masterstroke, surgical strike and, of course, Chanakya, the epithet for Amit Shah, now being mentioned in the same breath as Narendra Modi. The hyperbole is overwhelming but has also become somewhat repetitive and predictable; but look closely, and it is also looking frayed.

Maharashtra was to be another of those swift operations. The manner in which the swearing-in of Devendra Fadnavis in the early hours of November 23, was choreographed had all the hallmarks of the shrewd political strategists of Delhi, in short, Modi and Shah. Not just the front composed of Shiv Sena, NCP and the Congress, which was all set to stake its claim the same day, but also the general public was left agape when the news broke on social media. Modi and Shah had struck again. There was some unease even among ‘neutral’ observers, who otherwise have a grudging admiration for the BJP’s political adroitness.

Also Read: BJP, Serial Betrayer of Allies, Has Got a Taste of Its Own Medicine in Maharashtra

Getting the Indian system to move at any time is a difficult task—it is slow, ponderous and process-driven, which can be frustrating but, seen holistically, also designed to curb over-enthusiasm. Yet, as this duo has shown, these processes can be short-circuited whenever needed and this time round, each step was speeded up to ensure that the objective was met: Devendra Fadnavis had to be sworn in before the other parties reacted, nay, even woke up.

President’s rule was revoked by the governor at 5:47 am and the swearing in began at 7:50 am, and at 8:40 am, Modi had tweeted his congratulations. A few hours before, the need for cabinet approval was bypassed by invoking a special provision of the Government of India (Transaction of Business) Rules, which gives the prime minister special power. President Ram Nath Kovind signed the proclamation which was sent to the governor. All this was done overnight to enable the swearing-in at that early hour.

It couldn’t have happened without Modi and Shah’s involvement, consent and blessings. In the end, though, Fadnavis took the fall by saying it was all done at the state level, as if he could sway the president and the prime minister, leave alone the governor.

Narendra Modi (left) and Amit Shah (right). Credit: PTI

Ring-fenced from criticism

Had the operation been successful, Modi and Shah would have been hailed for pulling off another great feat. Their earlier ‘masterstrokes’ have been commended by not just their hardcore followers but also their fans in the media. This time around, initially there was some jubilation among the bhakts – he was once again hailed as Chanakya for pulling off the brazen subversion of constitutional norms. But as it became clear that the operation was doomed, there was silence, and the names of Modi and Shah disappeared from any references to the goings-on in Maharashtra. No fingers were pointed at them and nor did they make any public comment.

Modi and Shah, it appears, are always ring-fenced from direct criticism by their followers – successes belong solely to them, failures are everybody else’s fault. Not surprisingly, therefore, after the Supreme Court’s order to hold a transparent floor test in the assembly, Fadnavis had to speak to the press and take the blame.

Also Read: One Battle Won But Several Others Remain for ‘Maha Vikas Aghadi’ in Maharashtra

The entire surreptitious drama of getting all the paperwork done to push through the swearing-in at dawn came to nought – the putative masterstroke had failed. This is one more example of how the efficacy of these masterstrokes is declining. On the political front, many of the stunts that the BJP, under Modi and Shah, has pulled off, are now unravelling. Allies everywhere, brought over to the BJP via a variety of means and incentives, are feeling disgruntled after realising that they are not equal to the big brother.

Other big bang events too have failed, whether the leaders and their followers admit or not. The formula is just not working any more, not the least because there was no plan beyond the first step.

Demonetisation, NRC and Kashmir

Let’s talk about demonetisation. Whatever the reasons – and a new one was trotted out on a daily basis – it has turned out to be a disaster. In those heady early days of the Modi regime, his aura was not yet undiminished and even learned economists welcomed the move rapturously. Today, they may be silent, perhaps too embarrassed to acknowledge they were wrong, but the devastating effects of that one thoughtless action are there for everyone to see. It did not just harm the economy – it was an inhumane act that caused misery to millions. And even the simplest effect it was supposed to have – removing black money from the system – did not pan out.

The same with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), first rolled out in Assam with the stated objective of rooting out ‘foreigners’. Though not announced in such stark terms, it was to turn large numbers of Muslims into non-citizens. But it spectacularly backfired when the final list of 19 lakhs had many Hindus in it too. Now the BJP’s own government in the state is objecting to it.

Activists of the Hindu Yuba-Chattra Parishad burn copies of NRC list in Guwahati on August 31, after it was revealed that a large number of Bengali Hindus were left out. Photo: PTI

Modi 2.0, in which Amit Shah has a bigger official role as the home minister, started with a bang with the dilution of Article 370, which guaranteed Kashmir a special status. The manner in which it was done – while Kashmir was under President’s rule – makes it very dubious. It was totally in keeping with the Modi-Shah template—without consultation and without consideration to how it will affect ordinary citizens. They like to appear tough and resolute and they locked up everybody, Kashmiris and also the state’s leadership.

As news about hardship and repression in Kashmir began coming out, it became clear that life in Kashmir was anything but ‘normal’, as the official version had it. The government’s narrative quickly slipped out of its hands. A video of Ajit Doval enjoying street food looked so staged that no one believed it. Intrepid journalists found their way in and came back with heartrending stories about life in Kashmir; soon, Kashmiri journalists, long used to working under threats and pressure from the establishment and the militants, began sending despatches.

When the international media began its coverage, the world got to know that the government’s moves in Kashmir were nothing less than house arrest of an entire people. It was terrible publicity, not for the Modi government, but for India, because the respect everyone had for this country was because of its commitment to democracy and diversity.

Bungled once again

The master planners had bungled once again. Like in many other situations, this government had no blueprint, no plan, no next steps like in other cases. The idea is to announce a big decision and then scramble to manage the fallout as things go along, in the jugaad style in which we Indians take so much pride.

With a burgeoning image problem worldwide – the Congressional hearings in Washington were scathing – the Modi government had to bank on a shady NGO to bring over ultra-right Members of European Parliament for a tour to show them how peaceful Kashmir was. No one was convinced. Amit Shah’s ‘masterstroke’ of doing away with Article 370, that was greeted all over India when the headlines broke, has turned out to be yet another catastrophe at the cost of millions of Indians.

Also Read: Shrinking Saffron: How India’s Political Map Has Changed in the Past 18 Months

Maharashtra falls into that bracket of ill-thought-out plans with little follow-up planning. So desperate were the BJP bosses to capture the richest state and so averse to the idea of letting anyone else form the government, that they bent every rule and subverted every convention to get their way. But, in their desperation and urgency, they did not do the diligence of checking if Ajit Pawar actually had the numbers. Sharad Pawar of course gets the credit for thwarting Modi and Shah, but they have really been done in by their own over-smartness. They couldn’t see their way out of the tangled web they had woven.

Demonetisation, the NRC and the Kashmir decision have caused untold misery to millions. The whimsical and secretive way decisions are taken has real and brutal consequences. They cannot be laughed off, however much anyone may want to relish the prospect of egg on the establishment’s face.

People gather at the entry gate of a bank to exchange and deposit their old high denomination banknotes in Jammu, India November 15, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Mukesh Gupta

But will it stop?

More worrying is that such capricious decision making is not likely to stop—this is what they know and prefer. They have no time for consultation, sagacity or patience. Shock and awe is not just the preferred method, it is the only one. Rolling out the NRC on a national level is now on the cards—clearly the Modi government has not learnt its lessons from Assam.

Also Read: Nationwide NRC: Here’s a List of Documents You May Have to Furnish if Assam is the Model

But, it is becoming more evident that the government is facing resistance and pushbacks. From the students of JNU, to Mamata Bannerjee in West Bengal and now Maharashtra, where the voters – and the Pawar-Thackeray combine – have stopped the BJP juggernaut show that people are not going to just accept whatever is thrown at them.

Even those who have been diehard supporters of the party and had hopes that Modi would change things for the better, such as businessmen, both small and big, are now wondering if the government has something more substantial to offer than just headline-making events. The economy is in shambles, growth has slowed down alarmingly, jobs are being lost and no foreign investment seems to be on the horizon. These are real problems that a government is expected to solve but it appears clueless—hence the need for masterstrokes. But that formula has no steam left in it anymore.