Winning was easy last month for Narendra Modi against a fragmented, clueless opposition.
But he now faces perhaps the most difficult part of his remarkably successful career. The Prime Minister knows, however, that he has had a series of lucky breaks as when his opponents shot themselves in the foot even when the going was good for them in 2011-12 because of the policy differences between then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
Modi took full advantage of this hara-kiri by offering his vocal support to the Congress’s own programme of economic reforms which was in disfavour with Sonia Gandhi’s kitchen cabinet – the national advisory council – comprising crypto-communists. It was the promise of reforms which would rev up the economy and provide jobs which led to Modi’s spectacular victory in 2014 and the Congress’s decimation.
What went wrong for Modi afterwards was his inability to push forward with the reforms for two reasons. One was the ideological resistance to the pro-market measures from within the saffron camp from the anti-capitalist and protectionist Swadeshi Jagran Manch and the RSS/BJP’s trade union wing, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh. And the other was the less than congenial atmosphere for domestic and foreign investment created by the rampaging Hindutva lynch mobs targeting hapless Muslims on the suspicion of consuming beef or transporting cattle which, the assailants thought, were for slaughter.
The prevailing sense of fear and intimidation created by these lawless groups was also reflected in the attacks by self-appointed moralists on films which they did not like and by the trolls in the social media with their vitriolic diatribes against the Muslims. The end result was that Modi had to fall back on micro-economic initiatives like providing subsidized cooking gas to the less privileged and building houses with toilets for them.
In the absence of what is known as “big bang” reforms, for which the corporate sector and the job-seekers had been waiting since Modi’s assumption of power in 2014, the micro measures were described, charitably, as “incrementalism” and, uncharitably, as “tinkering and tokenism”. It is the less than wholesome fallout from “incrementalism” evident in the unemployment figures touching a 45-year high and the growth rate falling below six per cent (notwithstanding the World Bank’s more optimistic assessment), which Modi has to tackle now on a war footing.
He knows that he cannot win another election by providing cooking gas and building toilets. Instead, what he needs is a buoyant economy where his earlier promise of turning India into a manufacturing hub and constructing “smart” cities will come true. To achieve this objective, Modi has set up powerful cabinet committees to boost growth, investment, employment and skill development. He has also reached out to the Muslims by adding the phrase sabka vishwas (everyone’s trust) to the earlier pro-development mantra of sabka saath, sabka vikas.
But will the Muslims (and Christians) place their “vishwas” in a government by a party which is under the tutelage of the Hindu supremacist RSS, whose aim is to usher in a Hindu rashtra or a nation of Hindus ? Only time will tell. But Modi knows that his latest victory was something of a fluke since virtually no other government has been able to sweep the polls against a background of a stagnant economy and high unemployment. Clearly, his avuncular personality reassured those looking for jobs.
They unequivocally placed their “vishwas” in him in the hope that he will not let them down a second time. So high is the faith in him that Modi may now wonder whether it was necessary for him to whip up the jingoistic sentiments against Pakistan or foment Hindu-Muslim divide to garner votes. He is, therefore, perhaps aware that just as “incrementalism” will not help him in 2024, nor will jingoism and communal animosity. The last two cards may have lost much of their utility as the people realise their cynical use by the politicians. It is probably the same with the Ram temple, on which the RSS sets much store.
As of now, therefore, when it will take some time for the economy to recover – if it responds to what the cabinet committees will propose – and the issues of jingoism, communalism and the temple losing their zing, Modi’s only hope is that the opposition will continue to be in a state of disarray. Of considerable consolation to him will be the Congress’s pathetic plight with it steadily losing members to the BJP and Rahul Gandhi unable to make up his mind about his replacement in the party president’s post.
The other opposition parties are also in dire straits – the Trinamool Congress of Mamata Banerjee, the Samajwadi Party of Akhilesh Yadav, the Telugu Desam of Chandrababu Naidu and the Nationalist Congress Party of Sharad Pawar. All eyes will now be focussed on the forthcoming by-elections in U.P. and the assembly elections in Haryana and Maharashtra a few months later. They will show the durability or otherwise of Modi’s latest achievement.
(The writer is a former Assistant Editor, The Statesman)