When Narendra Modi, the challenger, campaigned with sensational vigour in 2013 and the early part of 2014 for the Lok Sabha election in May that year, he said he had a dream of a New India – where farmers’ incomes would double and employment for the youth will be aplenty – to beckon.
Five years on, that spirit is pre-history. There is disenchantment and despair among the owning classes; the toilers have a sense of being sold short. Those in between – the middle classes, who were praised sky high by the prime minister in his New Year’s day interview to a news agency – have been squeezed by joblessness, no tax relief, and petrol rates crashing every price barrier much of the time.
Faith in the regime’s promises has grown scarce. This is the real change from 2014. In order to remain in the hunt, Mr. Modi seeks to use an imagined past – his five years in office – as a crutch to traverse the treacherous terrain of the present since there is no brave new world to credibly project as the country slips into election mode for the Lok Sabha polls in May.
The prime minister misses the irony of his words when he still promises a “majboot” or strong government, as he did at his party’s national convention in New Delhi last Saturday.
But the going is tough. These years have been inglorious. No set of five consecutive years since 1947 has been as flawed – and this country has known famine, war, defeat, times of unsettled political authority, and a suspension of liberties as during the Emergency.
This makes Mr. Modi’s strategy of pumping up the past seem uncaring, and probably self-defeating. But the prime minister appears to be doing just that. In his January 1 interview, he maintained that his demonetisation policy (which was strictly his own, with even the finance minister being cut out of the consultations) and implementing the GST the way his government planned it, was necessary and effective and successful.
This is akin to sprinkling salt in the wounds of the most devastated sections of the country.
Failures and broken promises
The boldest move to emanate – in the closing weeks of the regime – from the most influential office in the land is last week’s offer of a 10% reservation in jobs and higher education to high caste Hindus if their family earnings are less than Rs 65,000 a month. This brings people rich enough to pay income tax into the quota tent, creates yet another creamy layer, effectively sealing the fate of the genuine poor among the upper caste.
Even BJP MPs worry what reaction their constituents might confront them with in respect of what sycophants and time-servers have called a “game-changer”.
Reserving 10% jobs for the poor among the upper castes is not a new idea. It is a failed old idea. It had been attempted by prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1997 in the wake of the backlash to prime minister V.P. Singh’s Mandal policy. The move had been struck down by the Supreme Court for being unmindful of the basic structure of the constitution. And yet the Modi government has played the same card, in full knowledge of the history.
Doesn’t that make it an election-time sleight of hand, a “chunavi jumla”, to recall BJP chief Amit Shah’s counter-famous words about a reckless promise made by Mr. Modi to voters in 2014 that was impossible to fulfil?
If this is how the new year and the BJP’s new election campaign have begun, the saffron party may be called upon to rue its future at leisure should history repeat itself as a tragedy, to quote Marx’s famous words of warning.
Great nations can survive policy failures and broken promises. It’s much harder to repair social cohesion and the nation’s unity when these have been ruptured as a conscious act by the constellation of forces that emerged with the rise of Modi to power, and were permitted to conduct themselves with a rare latitude and impunity.
The cow-related violence was nothing but that. Every act of communal conflagration promoted under the RSS-BJP dispensation points in the same direction. The latest example of causing social upheaval by fiat is the push to amend the Citizenship Act in order to bring aliens into the country on the sole basis of religion.
All of Northeastern India has risen in revolt as a result, in likely electoral terms hurting the BJP more than any other party. A towering Assam intellectual and Cambridge scholar, the 80-year old Hiren Gohain, who has been honoured with the Sahitya Akademi award, has had the charge of sedition pressed against him by the BJP government for opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill at a public meeting.
In today’s climate anyone can be hounded as an “anti-national”, and a collaborator of Pakistan to defeat the present regime.
The regime is in paranoia.
A remarkable thing about each of Mr. Modi’s five years in office – apart from policies that proved to be sordid failures – was the propensity of the leadership to attack and demonise a party that was not in power.
This did not stop the Congress from snatching victory from the BJP in the three Hindi heartland states last month. But the BJP is undeterred. After the tactic so emphatically failed, Mr. Modi continues to believe that an unceasing attack on the nationally out-of-power Congress is the only weapon of defence in the BJP’s depleting arsenal.
Ordinary Indians are aghast at the current goings-on, which seemed bad enough before news about the Rafale-related corruption charge broke.
If the BJP’s political allies of decades are deserting it as the Lok Sabha election looms, presenting a picture which is in such stark contrast with 2014, it is because they have sensed the public mood.
And they are not the only ones. The RSS has too. It can be inferred that the mother-body of all Hindutva outfits has permitted the speculation to grow that Union minister Nitin Gadkari could be a likely contender for Prime Minister, should the BJP have the opportunity to again lead a coalition. And, in an open letter to the RSS, Sanghpriya Gautam, an 80-year old founder-member of the BJP from Uttar Pradesh, has endorsed the idea of replacing party president Amit Shah as well.
These strange twists before the next battle for India is joined suggest the spread of disarray in the saffron establishment.
Anand K. Sahay is a New Delhi-based journalist and columnist.