Above: PM Narendra Modi coming out of the Kedarnath Temple during his recent two-day pilgrimage to Himalayan shrines in the Rudraprayag district of Uttarakhand/Photo: UNI
By Inderjit Badhwar
Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi’s well-wishers should appropriately advise him of William Shakespeare’s famous line from King Henry IV: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” This pearl of wisdom conveys to a person with great responsibilities, such as a monarch, that his days of sleeping soundly every night are over. Modi’s second electoral victory is huge. But so are the thorns that stud his crown. And they are also sharper. As he enters the next five years of his premiership, he will be scrutinised with far more critical intensity by the same voters who gave him his resounding majority. And history has proven that the Indian public, which has acquired a voracious appetite for the ballot, is prone to mercurial shifts in its mood.
This election seemed to show that the public viewed Modi’s first five years as a trailer—a preview of attractive promises to be kept after the actual show begins. In that sense, the prime minister’s second term is the beginning of the real movie and, as the voting percentages and voter turn-outs indicated, it is house full. There are no more excuses now. Grave policy and administrative lapses will no longer meet with benevolent acceptance on the ground that a first-time prime minister with little experience of running anything larger than the state of Gujarat should, at least, be given a second chance in case, despite his best intentions, he goofs up.
He now has no opposition from within his own party, from the Sangh mothership RSS, or from the brutally mangled Opposition in which family-led parties will either disintegrate or even see their factions merge or ally with the BJP. And that is why the burden rests even more heavily on Modi to pull the country out of the quagmire into which it has fallen in the last five years. In 2014, blaming the Congress or previous parties which ran India for its problems, was a credible excuse. But in the last five years, the difficulties besieging the nation can only be blamed on the prime minister and the party which ran the government during this period.
Since most of the national press has virtually stopped playing the role of critical watchdog, and most parties have been rendered politically impotent in mounting credible agitations against misgovernance and malfeasance—witness the flop show on making the Rafale fighter plane purchase a national issue—the responsibility of taking up reform, restoration, and revival rests only with the leader during whose previous regime these crises were exacerbated. And the burden will rest squarely on the shoulders of Modi.
Event management, as Modi has shown during his Madison Garden foray and other foreign trips, his donning of fancy headgear, his splendid isolation in a Himalayan cave and his provocative harangues instigating majoritarianism have combined to bind their spells. But how long can you keep a country beleaguered with crises and setbacks mesmerised by bread-and-circuses routines?
Post-independence India’s history is replete with examples of the political chickens coming home to roost at both the state and national levels. And Modi, more than most politicians, must surely be aware of this historical certitude. One major takeaway from this election which Modi’s own die-hard supporters admit is that he over-promised and under delivered. Most of the welfare schemes he promised remained stuffed as paperwork in bureaucratic drawers and cabinets as the promotion of cultural nationalism took pride of place over rapid economic development and poverty alleviation.
Still, his supporters, and those whom he drew towards his political bosom through charisma, polarisation, electoral arithmetic, and his larger-than-life all-India presence, appear to believe that no other leader was more capable of solving India’s problems as decisively as Modi and therefore he must be given a second chance lest a hodge-podge alliance comes into power and makes things worse than they already are.
And herein lie Modi’s challenge and opportunity. Will he ensure that things get better during his second coming or will he let matters slip much to the disappointment of his supporters, among them the severest critics of his non-performance who still voted for him? The latter was a combination of those who really believed he would be a better leader than anybody in the Opposition, as well as those who believe that nationalism requires all other issues be sacrificed at the altar of Hindu majoritarianism.
It was heartening to hear Modi, during his first post-election speech, swear his allegiance to the primacy of the Constitution. One can only hope that after the heat and dust of communal campaigning and anti-minority dog whistles, this signalled a continuing adherence to the founding fathers’ vision of a multi-cultural, multi-religious nation. Is Modi also signalling a renewed commitment to help to restore the credibility of institutions like the CBI, the Election Commission, the RBI, the CAG, as well as non-interference in the Judiciary? Will he stand by his commitment to disengage with those who have raised Nathuram Godse, the assassin of the Father of the Nation, to an iconic figure of worship?
The affairs of this nation will improve only when the leadership publicly acknowledges and enunciates the issues. Nobody’s purpose is served by running away from them or arm-twisting government agencies to juggle statistics. The challenges are daunting. Modi’s economic advisers admit that the nation may be slipping into a situation where middle class purchasing power which stimulates the economy has flattened out. The liquidity crunch and palpable economic slowdown because of demonetisation and uncertain indirect tax policies show no signs of abatement. Rising unemployment, reverse migration and severe under-employment are breaking the backs of the rural poor. SMSEs and the unorganised sector are reeling under the weight of increased petroleum prices which could damage India’s entire economic infrastructure in the face of the impending Iranian oil crisis caused by the US-Iran standoff.
The faith of the public in the banking system is eroding because of financial strains, the drying up of rural credit and the scandalous rise of NPAs. New investment in the manufacturing sector is at a standstill. Ease of doing business remains a slogan. Pledges to protect the environment and clean up our rivers have remained hollow. There is total confusion on the issue of reservations across the board ever since the announcement of the 10 per cent quota for upper castes.
It is not as if the public was unaware of these problems. Nor did it ignore them. You don’t need the Opposition or the Congress party to tell a hungry, suicidal peasant that he needs a solid meal. The truth is that the voters believed that Modi would be better equipped and capable of solving these problems than any other leader competing with him. So they have put the burden back on his shoulders. And this needs solid performance. Not event management.
Housefulls can empty out pretty fast if the feature presentation doesn’t match the trailer. Remember, India is the biggest film-going nation in the world.