Surprises which shock and extravagant celebrations are a crucial feature of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strategy for governing India. He has taken policy decisions his predecessors baulked at. He has run risks no other prime minister has run. He has made appointments which seem deliberately designed to shock.
When he surprisingly chose Yogi Adityanath, renowned for his communal statements, to be chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, a leading Muslim from the state told me, ”It seems Modi has done this to shock us.”
The surprises Modi has sprung have been designed to promote his image of being the strong decisive leader who is at last going to make India great – and to make sure politics remains focused entirely on him.
Shock and awe
Modi started his first term in office with a spectacular celebration. The BJP won its first absolute parliamentary majority – certainly a landmark in the history of modern India – and Modi had every right to celebrate his remarkable achievement. However his swearing-in ceremony was so spectacular that it seemed more like a coronation than the institution of the prime minister of a Republic. The spectacle symbolised the birth of a ‘new India’ ruled by a dynamic new leader. The surprise came with the invitation to the then prime minister of Pakistan to attend the event along with the other leaders of SAARC nations.
The next year there was Modi’s arrival at Nawaz Sharif’s granddaughter’s wedding near Lahore which shocked India. Then external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj said Modi’s decision to make the surprise visit was “just like a statesman”.
That is how Modi intended it to be seen. At this stage, he was creating the image of a leader strong enough to start meaningful negotiations with Pakistan because of the support he enjoyed among a large section of the population.
But then came the attack on the brigade headquarters at Uri. So Modi changed course and surprised India by ordering the army to cross the line of control in Kashmir to make what was described as a ‘surgical strike’.
That strike erased the memory of Modi’s failed flirtation with Nawaz Sharif.
This is one such instance where we can detect Modi’s ‘surprises and celebrations’ strategy. Often, they are intended to take people’s minds off the failure or limited success of an earlier decision. This seems to be one of the links between demonetisation and the hasty introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST).
On November 8, 2016, roughly half way through Modi’s first period in office came a big shock – the demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. Typically, Modi broadcast to the nation saying, “There comes a time in the history of a country when a need is felt for a strong and decisive step.”
That step was demonetisation and he made it clear that he was the strong leader making these decisions. Modi said the intention was “to break the grip of corruption and black money”. He gave assurances that no one would be inconvenienced, that the transfer to new money would be smooth.
But because demonetisation was badly planned, the supply of new money didn’t reach the banks nearly fast enough. The public was severely inconvenienced.
One of the purposes of the hurried implementation of GST only seven months later was surely to take the public’s mind off the botched exercise of demonetisation.
For maximum impact, the launch was modelled on the historic occasion when Nehru announced India’s tryst with destiny at midnight on August 15, 1947 in the central hall of parliament. GST therefore was launched at midnight on the night of July 1, 2017 in the central hall. It was intended to be an all-party session of both houses, but Congress and a few other opposition parties boycotted the ceremony. Rahul Gandhi dismissed it as a “tamasha” and a “self-promotional spectacle.”
Modi called the GST the ‘Goods and Simple Tax’.
Unfortunately, it was anything but simple. In the rush to secure a deal with states across India, and enjoy the triumph of an achievement which had eluded earlier prime ministers, Modi allowed too many concessions to be made – leading to too many levels of tax.
Other complications also arose and made doing business more difficult rather than easier. So a ceremony which Modi must have hoped would diminish the memories of the problems created by demonetisation only added to the woes of large sections of the public.
Many economists now put a lot of the blame for the current economic crisis on the shock of demonetisation and the spectacular launch of the flawed GST.
Faced now with an economy slowing down on all fronts Modi’s finance minister has hurriedly introduced measures designed to convey the impression that the government is on top of the crisis.
However, it appears that the highest profile measure might have little impact and could even once again damage the economy. The mergers of several government-owned banks has been dismissed by no less than a former governor of the Reserve Bank, D. Subbarao, as “meant to be seen as a big bang response to the slowdown, which on the contrary, are a needless distraction”. Former chief economic adviser Shankar Acharya has described the consolidation of the public sector banks as “a seemingly pointless and possibly damaging exercise”.
The trump card
Although poor planning and hurried implementation have diminished the impact of many of the surprises Modi has sprung and the spectacular celebrations he has mounted, the event which shook India on the eve of the general elections was an outstanding success from Modi’s point of view.
He needed an episode which would blot out the memory of the promises he had made when he first came to power and was not been able to deliver on. He needed to prevent the electorate from asking when ‘Achhe Din’ were going to arrive, why their pockets were not stuffed with black money recovered from abroad, where all the promised jobs were, why the Ganga and indeed India herself was not clean.
But the Balakot airstrikes gave Modi a nationalist card which trumped all other previously played hands. He went on a non-stop election Bharat yatra as the “Chowkidar of India”. All Rahul could find to challenge him unconvincingly was alleging that “the chowkidar is a thief”.
Modi has started his second spell a prime minister in a typically sensational style. The decision to revoke Article 370 was sprung on the public without any warning and was accompanied by a crackdown in Kashmir of spectacular ferocity, which has still not been lifted.
This was once again a demonstration of Modi being a strong decisive leader. It boosted his nationalist credentials too, and caught the opposition on the wrong foot because it turned out to be a popular decision outside Kashmir. But the difficulty the government is having in restoring normal life in Kashmir indicates that there is no exit plan; that once again, a Modi surprise has been sprung without its consequences being thought through.
The anger in the Valley suggests that the region will remain militarised for a long time to come, much to the shame of India.
And the world will not accept Pakistan as solely responsible for that.
Mark Tully is an author and the former BBC correspondent in India.