Five years of betrayal

Print edition : April 12, 2019

Narendra Modi addressing a rally that marked the launch of the BJP’s Lok Sabha campaign at Brigade Parade Grounds in Kolkata on February 5, 2014. Photo: SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Agrarian crisis: Thousands of farmers during their long march from Nashik to Mumbai on March 12, 2018. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Manmohan Singh: The BJP made use of resentment against the UPA II government he headed. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

There is disenchantment all around five years after Narendra Modi came to power with a huge popular mandate, won on tall promises. But the seller of false dreams is out again with new slogans.

“Decade of Decay”. This was how the 2014 general election manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) described the preceding 10 years under the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. The manifesto went on to explain: “India had a free fall on all fronts—be it governance, economy, diplomacy, foreign policy, border safety, etc. At the same time, corruption, scams and crime against women have reached unacceptable levels. There has been gross misuse and total denigration of government and institutions.... Runaway food inflation has crippled household budgets and contributed to the overall inflationary trend.... Even worse, the food and nutritional security of millions is threatened.... The country has been dragged through 10 years of jobless growth.”

Five years later, every single sentence quoted above comes back to sting the BJP. For, as the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government completes its tenure and gets ready to face the general election, its record could be summed up with these very sentences. In fact, the record of the Modi government is even more abject, considering the circumstances in which it came to power. The BJP was given a resounding popular mandate in 2014, with greater political leeway and freedom of governance. But it did not stand in the way of the government pursuing misplaced economic priorities, devious administrative plans and a sectarian and divisive social agenda. The five-year record is marked by a unique form of political bankruptcy which has impacted almost all aspects of public life.

The testimonies of this bankruptcy are starkly manifest in many forms and ways; in the unprecedented agrarian crisis that has stifled rural India for the past three years, forcing thousands of farmers to take their lives and impelling hundreds of thousands to take out long marches across vast distances protesting against the government’s policy and administrative inaction; in the persisting and debilitating effects of the ill-advised demonetisation and the implementation of goods and services tax (GST) across sectors as diverse as trade, agriculture, industry and labour; in the promotion of select crony capitalists who have enhanced their wealth multifold even while pursuing policies that push the poor into greater poverty; in the rabid attacks by Hindutva outfits on religious and other minorities on a number of counts, ranging from food habits to the right to worship; in the blatant assault on free speech and expression, including the serial killing of intellectuals who espoused alternative thought; in the suppression of official data highlighting colossal economic failures such as the unprecedented unemployment and reduction in wages in different sectors; and above all in the pathetic security failures leading to repeated terrorist attacks from across the border, including the horrific suicide bombing in Pulwama recently, leading to the highest ever casualty in decades. An objective consideration of all this underscores how the five years of the Modi regime have brought India down to a new, abysmal low in terms of governance, societal interventions and economic performance.

But, in many ways, the seeds of this crippling and ruinous path were ingrained in the manner in which the BJP and its associates in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar captured power in 2014. Indeed, the primary factor that spurred the electorate’s tilt towards the BJP and the NDA was the widespread public resentment against the UPA II government, which was plagued by a series of corruption scandals in its last three years, between 2011 and 2014. The BJP and its allies not only tapped into this resentment but added to their electoral appeal by advancing a clutch of fanciful welfarist slogans such as “Achhe din aane wale hain” (Good days are coming), “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” (Togetherness with all and development for all). The hopes raised by these egalitarian slogans in the people were buttressed further and converted into electoral advantage through the threefold projection of the political personality of the prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi .

Carefully cultivated image

One part of the campaign in 2014 was the carefully cultivated image of Modi as a “development visionary” who had “done wonders” as the Chief Minister of Gujarat since 2002. The second part was Modi’s own self-promotion as having worked as a “chaiwala” (tea seller) once, capable of understanding the plight of the common people. Even as these two political personas were being projected, aggressive, communally polarising manoeuvres, including widespread anti-Muslim riots in north India, were resorted to. This was accompanied by the narrative (at times blatant and understated at others) that Modi and his associate, BJP president Amit Shah, were the original “Hindutva warriors” who had taught Muslims and other minorities a lesson in Gujarat, starting from 2002 when the State witnessed a brutal carnage of Muslims.

The RSS and its 40-odd associate outfits in the Sangh Parivar played an active role in all the three narratives, while the BJP’s allies in the NDA primarily focussed on promoting the “development visionary” and “chaiwala” Modi. Thus, the BJP-NDA and the Hindutva combine employed multiple stratagems effectively to reap a big electoral victory. Broken down into thematic components, three social and political streams dominated this scenario. First, the people’s disenchantment with the UPA II government. Second, the carefully cultivated hope in the “visionary” leadership of Modi and third, the blatant communal polarisation engineered through riots and attacks on minorities.

The contradiction between the brutal communal attacks and killings and the slogan “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” was evident during the 2014 electoral campaign. It had underscored the fact that this slogan would have no place in Modi’s scheme of things when he came to power. At that time, large sections of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar were going about “putting the minorities, especially Muslims, in their place” even as Modi paid lip service to “togetherness with all”.

Yet another pointer to the inherent duplicity of the professed welfarist slogans of the BJP-NDA in 2014 was in the aid the campaign got from corporates. Modi campaigned across India consistently, using aircraft provided by Gautam Adani, industrialist and founder of the Adani group of companies, whose industrial initiatives had repeatedly come under a cloud both in India and abroad. The BJP was the highest spender among political parties and Modi among individual campaigners. Clearly, the great expectations that Modi’s ascent of 2014 generated were destined to self-destruct on various parameters, including the social, political, economic and ideological.

Five years down the line, as Modi and his team get ready to face the election, two of the three factors that dominated the 2014 scene continue to prevail in varying degrees. One is the intense popular disillusionment with the government’s track record, especially in terms of growth, development and social justice. This sense of disillusionment is on a par with or, in some sectors, more than what was faced by the UPA II government. The other factor is the intense communal polarisation generated and propagated by Sangh Parivar outfits. Both these factors have come to the fore in the past few months.

However, there is significant difference between the polarising techniques of 2014 and 2019. While they were essentially advanced by the organisational machinery of the Sangh Parivar in 2014, it is the BJP governments at the Centre and in many States that have actively driven this agenda, with the participation of several government agencies and departments in the last five years. These have taken manifold forms, from attacking and terrorising individuals and communities to suppressing institutions and undermining constitutional and autonomous bodies. The stratagems on this front have intensified considerably in the recent past, evidently on account of the impending election. Illustrations of the popular discontent on the government’s record have also manifested repeatedly. In the midst of this duality, what is by and large absent this time around is the vaulting popular hope and expectations cultivated around Modi’s personality in 2014.

More specifically, in terms of slogans that circulate in the political sphere, the ones that Modi and his team had coined in 2014 and the new slogans they have added recently are part of widespread public discourse. Compositely, the old and new slogans have evoked complex responses from the public.

One of the most palpable elements of this complex picture is the transformation of both the “Achhe din aane wale hain” and the “Sabka Saath , Sabka Vikas” slogans into a colossal public joke at one level and an unmitigated governance disaster at another. A stark revelation of this came when Modi’s Cabinet colleague and senior BJP leader from Maharashtra, Nitin Gadkari, stated during a television interaction in October 2018 that the party and its allies had, in 2014, made “tall promises” that were not implementable or were difficult to implement and “now when people remind us of our promises... we just laugh and move on.” According to Gadkari, these unrealistic promises were made because the overwhelming perception at that time in the BJP leadership was that the party had no chance of coming to power. Officially, however, the BJP’s claim is that it has fulfilled 520 of the 549 promises made in 2014. The party’s leadership asserts that it will come out with details of these promises fulfilled. Apparently, a team of senior BJP leaders is working on collating details, with special focus on employment generation and social security and internal security measures. Akhilesh Yadav, former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and president of the Samajwadi Party, was of the view that this exercise would involve suppressing National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data that came to the fore recently. In his view, the performance of the Modi government qualified for the slogan “more decayed than the most decadent”.

Modi’s failure

The political analyst and strategist Naresh Arora told Frontline that Modi’s failure was a case of lack of vision and inability to scale up when it came to planning and executing at the national level. “Some leaders can work at the State level, but that does not necessarily mean that it can be repeated at the national level.” Even erstwhile supporters of Modi and the BJP have been impelled to look at the government’s performance critically. The yoga guru and billionaire businessman Baba Ramdev, who had campaigned for the BJP in many elections from 2014 onwards, is one of them. Participating in a television show, Ramdev said bluntly: “Mehngai ki aag to Modi sarkar ko bahut mehngi padegi” (the fire of rising prices will prove extremely costly for the Modi government). This remark of Ramdev, in spite of his having a mutually beneficial business-political relationship with the Union government and several BJP State governments, was seen by sections in the BJP and the Sangh Parivar as a major critique of Modi’s leadership.

Not surprisingly, the slogans from his team this time around are less exuberant. The main slogan is almost tame in comparison; it merely states that “Modi hai to mumkin hai” (it is possible if Modi is there). Of course, interpretations such as “Modi makes it possible” and even “With Modi around, the impossible becomes possible” have been interpolated into the original.

As in 2014, an individualised portrayal aimed at churning the emotions of segments of the common people have also been added to this. If it was “chaiwala” in 2014, it is “Main bhi chowkidar” (I am also a security guard) this time around. The context in which this campaign was created relates to the political rhetoric that Modi has unleashed from time to time on national security issues, the reaction it evoked from the opposition, especially the Congress, and the public response to the verbal sparring between the two. Intermittently, over the last five years, Modi stated that he and his government were like chowkidars (security guards) who protected the country from thieves and looters. However, when the controvery about the Rafale deal started capturing headlines in 2017, Congress president Rahul Gandhi came up with the slogan, “Chowkidar chor hai” (the security guard is the thief). The slogan had considerable traction in the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh held in November-December 2018.

The Congress emerged the winner in all the three northern States in that election. The Congress persisted with the slogan in the run-up to the Lok Sabha election too and there was a perception among a sizable section in the BJP leadership that this could impact negatively at the national election too, though neither Rahul Gandhi nor other opposition leaders were as skilled in public speaking as Modi. It was in this context that Modi came up with the “Main bhi chowkidar” slogan, identifying himself with the security guards. He added “Chowkidar” to his Twitter handle and exhorted everyone to follow his gesture. The well-oiled organisational machinery of the BJP and other Sangh Parivar outfits swung into action soon, with millions of twitter account holders adding “Chowkidar” to their handles. Senior BJP leader and Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad claimed that over one crore people had taken up the “campaign”, giving a befitting reply to the “Chowkidar chor hai” slogan of the Congress.

Notwithstanding such claims, there is considerable doubt, even within the echelons of the Sangh Parivar, about the efficacy of the new slogans. The reasons are embedded in the perception of the public about the Modi government’s track record. Frontline met a cross section of chaiwalas and chowkidars in southern, central and western regions of the National Capital Region (NCR) of Delhi and found out that more than half of them viewed Modi’s new slogans and his new “persona-posturing” as tools to hoodwink the people. Sonu Saini, hailing from Bijnor in western Uttar Pradesh, asked how somebody like the Prime Minister of the country could act like a chameleon, metamorphosing from a tea seller to a chowkidar as and when it suited him. “This is nothing but tactics to hoodwink people.” Saini says he fell for this trick five years ago and campaigned for Modi, even describing him as the “moti” (pearl) among politicians. Saini is certain that the chowkidar act would not elicit a similar response from him in April-May this year. Other chaiwalas and chowkidars who interacted with Frontline were less forthcoming than Saini, but there was little doubt that most of them detected an element of the nautanki (farcical theatre) in Modi’s new “persona-posturing”.

These responses were summed up aptly by a senior Sangh Parivar activist based in Meerut in western Uttar Pradesh as he pointed out that the BJP slogans in 2014 had become a damning incrimination of the Manmohan Singh government but it needed to be seen whether the current slogans had the capacity to ward off the anti-incumbency feeling against the Modi government. “At its core, the “Achhe din aane wale hain” and “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” slogans were as potent as the 1965-67 “Jai jawan, jai kisan” of the Congress or the “Indira hatao, desh bachao” slogan of the post-Emergency election in 1977 coined by Jayaprakash Narayan, or the “Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath” of the 2004 Lok Sabha election that inflicted a shocking defeat on the BJP’s overconfident “India Shining” campaign of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA government. That potency was reflected in the 2014 verdict. The popular response to the current BJP slogans is, at best, lukewarm.”

The leader added that the “extremist nature” of the 2014 slogans and, as pointed out by Gadkari, the inability to live up to them were forcing the leadership of both the government and the party to tone down and reinterpret the promises. He said: “A strikingly extremist slogan, even though it was possibly stated inadvertently in the ‘heat of a speech’ was the one that promised Rs.15 lakh in each Indian’s bank account by repatriating black money from Swiss banks. When it was clear, two years into governance, that this was not happening and after the loss in Delhi to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Modi sought to coin a new slogan in the form the call to create a ‘New India’ through ‘Make in India’. This did result in outstanding gains in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections and then we sought to assert that our country was changing (mera desh badal raha hai), even if slowly.

“But by 2018, the popular mood was once again changing as the country witnessed an unprecedented agrarian crisis and massive farmers’ movements highlighted the Modi government’s apathy and inefficiency. Then we tried to say that at least our intent was pure and that we were on the path of right development (saaf niyat, sahi vikas). Indeed, all governments and political leaderships go through these phases where they have to manoeuvre and manipulate their agenda, but with the kind of crushing majority that we got in 2014 and the gigantic mass appeal that Modi generated, we thought that defending the government’s performance and winning a few more general elections would be a cakewalk. That was why Amit Shah spoke about 50 years of BJP rule at the Centre. The past few months have punctured that confidence and hence the defensive “mumkin hai” slogan.”

Despite all this, several RSS, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal activists maintained that they were hopeful that the chowkidar campaign and the social and political symbols that were being advanced along with it would help overcome the disappointing developmental record of the government and the public perceptions.

A Jharkhand-based RSS activist told Frontline: “Modi has the rhetorical skills to convert the chowkidar imagery into a symbol of national security. National security concerns and the animosity towards Pakistan are bound to be vital issues in this election. And without doubt, Modi’s muscular policy on these issues have legions of admirers across the nation. This has huge potential and Modi has started working on it.”

More importantly, a senior VHP activist from Delhi told Frontline that almost all the temples under the control of Sangh Parivar organisations were being converted into campaign platforms focussing on the Pulwama terrorist attack, the Balakot air strike and the theme of national security.

At a temple in Mehrauli area in south Delhi, Frontline witnessed one such exercise, with a Bajrang Dal activist using the temple’s loudspeakers for election propaganda. It was couched as a bhajan but the paeans were for Modi and the BJP.

Evidently, this seeks to create a link between national security, nationalism and Hindutva on one side and the perceived threat from Pakistan-inspired terrorism, sedition and Islam on the other. This plan is meant to cover up the pathetic governance and development record of the Modi government. There is unanimous agreement among Sangh Parivar constituents that the “othering” of minorities at the social, cultural and political levels had acquired critical mass and concrete forms in the 2014 election itself and that it had continued to gather momentum over the last five years through campaigns like the one opposing “love jehad” and promoting “ghar wapsi”.

Nationalism vs Sedition campaign

Since 2015, when the BJP suffered its first stinging reverse in the Delhi election at the hands of the AAP, a more composite campaign of “Nationalism versus Sedition” was advanced. It has taken many forms over the last three and a half years and has intensified into aggressive social machinations after the Pulwama terrorist attack.

The concerted attacks on Kashmiris in different parts of India sought to generate the binary of a “Patriotic, Hindu Bharat” versus a “Traitorous, Muslim Kashmir”. It was a narrative where every member of the Muslim community was being portrayed as belonging to the latter group.

Another factor cited by large segments of the Sangh Parivar as a positive in the advancement of their agenda for 2019 is the violation of the very dictum that Modi had advanced in his early days in office, “Minimum government, maximum governance”. The Meerut-based Sangh Parivar activist said that the uniform opinion within the Sangh Parivar constituents was that this was observed mostly in its violation.

“All power was vested in Modi, with Amit Shah getting to do some tasks. While this may be against the principles of democratic governance, this kind of total control is helpful to cover up the mistakes and cut the losses. This has implications for larger political paradigms too. In essence, it marks the dominance of the Modi factor with an all-India appeal, which can push aside smaller and regional political aspirations. There was a time when Indian politics was a collection of regional contests. Modi’s individual dominance within the BJP and the government could be the path to decisively altering it.”

However, there are many political analysts who contend that the defensive “mumkin hai” slogan does not reflect this type of paradigm-shifting political confidence.

Commenting on the slogan, the academic and political analyst Seshadri Kumar pointed out that if the Sangh Parivar was that confident, it would have said “Modi hai to jeet nishchit hai” (with Modi, victory is assured) and not a demure “mumkin hai”.

Indeed, as Kumar points out, there is an undertone in the slogan that victory is not assured. In the final analysis, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are on a tightrope walk, hindered on one side by the huge popular disenchantment while being buoyed by a resurgent Hindutva sentiment under an all-powerful leader.

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