Narendra Modi: The Limits of a Political Rock Star

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Narendra Modi: The Limits of a Political Rock Star

After a soaring 2014, this was the year the Indian prime minister and the BJP fell to earth.

Narendra Modi: The Limits of a Political Rock Star
Credit: REUTERS/Justin Tallis/Pool

If 2014 was the year that saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity soar to an all-time high, events in 2015 underscored rising voter disillusionment. While Modi is still India’s most popular political leader, his government’s disappointing performance over the past year has impacted the electoral fortunes of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Eighteen months after the BJP’s spectacular victory, Modi and the BJP no longer appear invincible.

The “great expectations” that were triggered when Modi became prime minister in May last year have not been fulfilled and the achche din (good days) he promised Indian voters have yet to come. Indeed, as 2015 draws to an end, the excitement and optimism that greeted Modi’s government last year has ebbed considerably.

Modi swept to power on the plank of good governance and a strong economy. He promised a raft of measures to push economic growth, encourage investment, and create jobs. To make India a manufacturing hub, he called on foreign companies to “Make in India.” However, Modi’s achievements on the economic front are more in the realm of intent than concrete action.

Nitin Pai, policy analyst and co-founder of the Takshashila Institution, an independent public policy think tank based in Bangalore, observes that “Modi’s primary economic achievement has been psychological. He has taken the initiative to signal to the world that his government is committed economic growth. This has created a favorable sentiment that creates the opening for further economic reform.”

Concrete achievements “remain elusive as the big bang reforms to kick-start growth are yet to come,” observed one Mumbai-based industrialist, who spoke to The Diplomat on condition of anonymity.

Two important reform bills – one to streamline India’s federal and state sales tax and the other to facilitate land acquisition – hang in limbo. The government has blamed opposition obstructionism in parliament for blocking the legislation. But it has only itself to blame. Not only did it subject the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government (2004-2014) to similar obstructionism, it has also arrogantly attempted at pushing legislation down the opposition’s throat.

Even Modi’s much-trumpeted “Make in India” initiative has evoked skepticism among economists, including Raghuram Rajan, governor of the Reserve Bank of India. In the words of the industrialist, Make in India is “just hype.” Growth in the manufacturing sector during Modi’s first year in office was sluggish. Job creation, which was to follow on from an invigorated manufacturing sector, has thus stalled.

Preoccupied with travelling abroad to woo investment, Modi has given less attention to domestic issues such as the crisis in India’s agriculture. Rural distress has intensified and farmers’ suicides, which are one indication of the depth of this anguish, have soared over the past year.

The BJP swept to power in the May 2014 general election. Its victory was historic. With 282 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament, it won a majority on its own – the first party to do so in 30 years. Despite its stand-alone majority, the BJP formed a coalition government with its pre-poll allies of the National Democratic Alliance.

The BJP’s winning streak continued through the rest of 2014, as the party won a string of elections to state assemblies in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir and Haryana.

Then came a stunning blow. In February, the BJP was flattened by a relative greenhorn, the Aam Aadmi Party, in elections to the Delhi assembly. In fact, the BJP won just three of 70 seats. BJP supporters dismissed the Delhi debacle as an aberration. But they were in for another shock. In November, the party was routed in the Bihar assembly election.

Close on the heels of that crushing defeat was a setback in elections to local bodies in Gujarat. Here the BJP lost control over rural bodies and the iron-grip it once enjoyed over municipalities weakened. This setback was all the more painful for the party as Gujarat has been its impregnable fortress, with the party having won every election in the state since 2000. Importantly, this is Modi’s home state.

As prime minister, Modi began well. He reached out to India’s neighbors and the priority he accorded the neighborhood was widely applauded. On the domestic front, his government swiftly set up a Special Investigative Team to unearth and bring back black money stashed abroad. Amidst much fanfare, Modi announced a string of initiatives including a “Clean India Mission,” under which toilets would be constructed in rural India, a plan to clean the filthy River Ganges, and another to provide a bank account for every household to end “financial untouchability.”

Assessments of Modi’s first 100 days in office were generally positive; many welcomed his strong and decisive leadership. Economist Rajiv Kumar exulted over India finally having “a ‘real’ prime minister with his hand firmly on the steering wheel.” Modi’s “leading from the front and laying down the behavioral norms, targets and programs, has shored up sagging morale and ostensibly brought new purpose to the government machinery,” he said.

‘Worrying Signs’

But even in those early months, there were “worrying signs” of Modi “already treading the thin line between decisiveness and authoritarianism” and his government’s “hostility to diversity, especially religious diversity.”

Such “signs” have since become alarming features of Modi’s rule.

Modi’s decisive image stems from the fact that he makes decisions quickly and that is because he makes them on his own, a retired bureaucrat based in Delhi said, adding that Modi is the undisputed boss of the government and the BJP. All decisions related to policy and programs are made by him. Rarely are his ministers consulted or even kept in the loop. Meetings with ministers and BJP parliamentarians are monologues with Modi doing all the talking. Nobody disagrees with him. Or rather they don’t dare air their differences with him.

Even more troubling is Modi’s intolerance of criticism from civil society. This has resulted in his government cracking down systematically on non-government organizations that are critical of his economic policies or have campaigned against his shabby human rights record as Gujarat’s Chief Minister.  Their licenses have been cancelled and dozens of activists have been threatened with arrest. Not surprisingly, Modi’s style of functioning, and intolerance of dissent and criticism are drawing criticism that he is authoritarian.

Critics like historian Ramachandra Guha have described the Modi government as “anti-intellectual,” having “absolute contempt for scholars, literature and the arts. It is not contribution to the field but proximity to the Sangh Parivar, a family of Hindu right-wing organizations of which the BJP is a part, that determines appointments to key posts. Yellapragada Sudershan Rao was appointed head of the prestigious Indian Council for Historical Research, although he is not a respected historian and Gajendra Chauhan, an actor in soft porn films, was named chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India. While Chauhan is a BJP member, Rao is a member of its ideological fount, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Most alarming is the Modi government’s failure or rather reluctance to address mounting communal violence being unleashed by members of the Parivar. Churches have been attacked and violence against Muslims has increased. A Muslim man was accused of eating beef and lynched. Parivar activists have targeted Muslims, accusing them of ‘love jihad’ i.e. conspiring to seduce Hindu girls into marriage with Muslim boys in order to convert them to Islam.

Hate Speech

Those inciting communal hatred are not fringe elements but governors, union ministers, chief ministers, parliamentarians – all belonging to the BJP or subscribing to its Hindutva ideology. Their hateful speeches are made in the chambers of the Lok Sabha, in front of television cameras, and at public rallies. Yet they have gone unchecked.

Modi has refrained from restraining or even reprimanding his ministers or Parivar members orchestrating the communal attacks. This reluctance to rein them in has drawn the ire of India’s secular-liberals, intellectuals, artistes, religious minorities, and others. It has undermined his government’s image abroad and could impact investor confidence in India. This could severely undermine Modi’s grand plans for the economy.

Although Modi’s ratings in opinion polls remain high, his party’s electoral debacles signal that the Indian voter cannot be taken for granted. The “rock-star” receptions that the Parivar organized for Modi during his visits abroad may have impressed his die-hard fans at home and his cheerleaders among the Indian diaspora, but for millions of voters, mere pledges aren’t enough.

That was the message of the BJP’s recent electoral debacles. But is it reading the writing on the wall? It doesn’t seem to be, if its response to the Bihar defeat is any indication. At a meeting to assess the party’s performance in the state, the BJP’s top decision making body was more anxious to shield Modi than to understand the cause for its defeat.  It simply refused to recognize that the “Modi magic,” which played a major role in propelling the BJP-led NDA to power in 2014, isn’t working anymore.

In the 18 months since he became prime minister, Modi has been preoccupied with building his image in India and abroad and in electioneering. Political commentator Shekhar Gupta says that he needs to get out of campaign mode and get down to “calmer, old-fashioned governance.”

But will Modi listen?

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues and can be contacted at [email protected]