Cover Story

The big let-down

Print edition : June 12, 2015

Prime Minister Narendra Modi coming out of the BJP Parliamentary Party meeting in New Delhi on April 21. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

BJP President Amit Shah, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley at the BJP National Executive meeting in Bangalore on April 2. Photo: G R N SOMASHEKAR

Modi with Senior BJP Leader L.K. Advani during the inauguration of workshop "Garib Kalyan Yojnaye" at Parliament Library in New Delhi on April 19. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Arun Shourie, former NDA Minister. He has criticised the style of functioning of the Prime Minister. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

The huge gap between promise and performance marks the first anniversary of the Narendra Modi government. There is also growing opposition within the party and Sangh Parivar outfits against the Modi-Amit Shah-Arun Jaitley triumvirate, which acts as the power centre.

TWO political anecdotes recounted by a senior Delhi-based Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader at different junctures in the one year of Narendra Modi’s regime denote the trajectory charted by the government, the party and the Prime Minister. The two accounts are starkly different in character and in many ways represent the soaring political hopes and aspirations as well as the striking disappointments and disillusionments that have come up within the BJP and the larger Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar in the past 12 months.

The leader shared the first anecdote a few days before the completion of 100 days of the Modi government. It essentially related how Amit Shah, who had been nominated president of the BJP a few weeks earlier, had started taking tuition to learn more about the people and culture of Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Shah was also apparently picking up rudiments of Tamil and Bengali as part of this process.

A few associates of Shah made certain political projections with regard to this learning venture. These were that Modi would rule India for the next 10 years and during that period the BJP would emerge in its own right as a strong political force in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, shaking off the historical baggage of lack of growth in these regions. The projections were that with this the BJP would become a comprehensive replacement for the Congress and become the only dominant national party. Shah himself expected to lead this political-organisational drive from the front with the skills he would develop through the dedicated coaching. Of course, the natural interpretation was that once he had effected such path-breaking growth for the BJP, Shah would be chosen to lead the government post-2024.

As he recounted this, the Delhi leader, who had also come up the BJP hierarchy around the same time as Modi, K.N. Govindacharya and the late Pramod Mahajan, was a picture of confidence and jubilation. He went on to explain that Modi and Shah together formed a purposive political phenomenon that had shown other leaders of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar that with careful planning and methodical implementation the so-called impossible and unthinkable could be achieved.

“That was what the Modi-Shah combine did in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Both of them had started working towards this national role and presence through various means. One of these was learning English from a personal tutor as early as 2005. Developing the thematic political mixture of development and Hindutva was also part of this. Shah’s new Tamil Nadu and West Bengal-oriented tuitions seem to be a similar political exercise of a comparative or even higher value,” the leader said, evidently upbeat. This sense of buoyancy was to get reflected in Modi’s own interaction with schoolchildren later, in September 2014. Responding to a student’s question as to when he could aspire to become Prime Minister, Modi said the boy could start preparing for the 2024 elections and also added that until then there would be no threat to him.

Summer of discontent

Nearly eight months later, in early April 2015, when the Delhi leader shared the second anecdote, his countenance was far from upbeat. The joint meeting of the top leadership of the RSS and the BJP had taken place a few days earlier at Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari’s residence in Delhi. The singular message that the Sangh Parivar fountainhead gave the leadership of the government and the BJP was to post-haste dispel the public impression that Modi and his Ministry were anti-farmer and anti-poor. The leader added that the confidence that existed in July-August 2014 about the Modi-Shah duo was getting questioned on a significant scale across Sangh Parivar outfits.

“Of course, there were big proclamations and planning about charting a new course of governance and exploiting that to emerge as a formidable national force across the country. But as we move towards the first anniversary, all this is perceived as mere bluster. The organising secretaries of the BJP [who are generally the watchdogs of the RSS in the BJP State units] in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have taken up strong positions against the style of functioning and the priorities of the Modi-Shah combine. The talk of going on till 2024 under Modi’s leadership and following it up with uninterrupted stints of power under Shah is increasingly getting replaced with concerns about winning the Assembly elections in States like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh due in the next two years. A large number of activists in various Sangh Parivar organisations are apprehensive about the two States throwing up a verdict similar to that in the Delhi Assembly elections where the Aam Aadmi Party routed the BJP. Indeed, the sense of elation has been very short-lived,” the leader said.

Within a few days, what was delineated by this leader found open expression among a clutch of high-profile persons who had actively supported Modi and his campaign to become Prime Minister. These included people from divergent backgrounds such as former Union Minister and writer Arun Shourie, the Yoga promoter Baba Ramdev, and Madhu Kishwar, the founding editor of Manushi and a senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Several others, including Bharat Singh, the BJP’s Lok Sabha member from Balia in Uttar Pradesh, raised similar questions in the party’s parliamentary meeting. The points put forward by each of them against the Modi regime were different in terms of theme and emphasis. But cumulatively their arguments formed a trenchant criticism of the government.

These were predominantly about the style of functioning of the Prime Minister and his close associates and the pursuit of half-baked policies and programmes. Modi’s style of functioning was plainly put down as a kind of obsession to control all instruments of governance. Shourie said that in this style, only Modi and his closest associates, Shah and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, had consultations among themselves and they did not take any feedback from other sources within the party, government or outside. There was no course correction too in this atmosphere bereft of communication, he added.

Baba Ramdev questioned the efficacy of the policies, especially in relation to land acquisition. Bharat Singh said that for all the big talk and the purportedly effective flagship programmes, there was no positive effect on the ground for the people. There was also criticism of the blatant bypassing of the parliamentary structure through the promulgation of ordinances.

While the criticism that emanated from the erstwhile members of the Modi fan club was indeed trenchant, it was by no means comprehensive. Three key aspects of the governance track record in the past one year escaped the serious attention of all these critics from within. One of the aspects omitted thus was the rampant advocacy of extremist Hindutva slogans by Sangh Parivar outfits such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal and the Dharam Jagran Samiti through machinations such as ghar wapsi and love jehad. The open support that these exercises evoked from segments of the government, including Ministers such as Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti and Giriraj Singh, and the tacit, silent approval of the Prime Minister himself find no mention in the criticism from within. Similarly, it is silent about the blatant support to certain corporate interests in everyday governance and through a number of so-called foreign policy initiatives. The suppression of civil society groups through gags, denial of funding and other restrictions has also been given the miss.

The Patna-based political observer Surendra Kishore pointed out that it was understandable that those like Shourie would be silent on the promotion of corporate interests because he and his ilk had advocated pro-corporate policies when they were in government too. Kishore was also of the view that the criticism from those like Shourie essentially reflected a shadow war within the BJP against the Modi-Shah-Jaitley triumvirate, with the tacit understanding or even sanction of rivals within the party such as Lal Krishna Advani, Rajnath Singh and Gadkari.

“Hence, it is natural that such opposition suffers from thematic inconsistencies. However, those like Bharat Singh, MP, have to work closely with and face farmers on a day-to-day basis and would question the twisting of the land acquisition legislation for corporate interests. But, at the larger level, these players in the BJP fold do not seem to be bothered about promotion of corporate interests such as the ones for [the industrialist Gautam] Adani in Modi’s trips to Australia and Mongolia. However, in the context of an overall criticism of the track record in one year, these points too have got highlighted at the level of the common people and even at the level of business interests who have not received preferential treatment,” Kishore said.

Voice of the people

Travelling extensively in a number of States in north, central and south India, this correspondent witnessed outpourings of discontent from people belonging to various sections of society. These agitated expressions from the ground were widespread even from Uttar Pradesh, the State that boosted the BJP’s Lok Sabha tally by helping the party win as many as 73 seats (with two seats for ally Apna Dal) out of 80. Even in Varanasi, the Prime Minister’s constituency, the public resentment against the Central regime was palpable.

Significantly, the outpourings against the government were more pronounced among the poorer and marginalised sections of society than among the middle or upper classes. The small-time farmers, agricultural labourers, tea shop employees and boatmen that Frontline interacted with had a common refrain: “The Modi government may be good for the rich and the upper class but it has not done anything for the poor. It does not have eyes and ears for people like us. We know that we have once again been deceived by political players.” In fact, many of these responses came with unprintable epithets on the leaders of the government.

The responses from among the middle and upper classes on the ground were not as extreme as that from the poorer sections of society. The general refrain among these classes was that while the performance of the Union government and the Prime Minister himself may have had many deficiencies, it would in the order of things take some more time to get concrete results.

Adya Prasad Pandey, professor of economics at Banaras Hindu University, argued that the policies and programmes of the Prime Minister and the government were correct in a general sense. Programmes such as the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, the Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana (a new life insurance scheme), and the Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana (accident insurance scheme) were all positive and would gather momentum in due course, he said. “Of course, there may be much debate about the speed with which things are getting implemented, but there cannot be any doubt about the vision and direction,” Pandey told Frontline.

Rhetoric and reality

Despite such voices, the overwhelming public perception on issues relating to the policies and performance of the government is that the rhetoric has not been matched by real implementation of schemes, especially the ones that directly impact people. An extensive study conducted by a number of civil society organisations led by Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (WNTA) among people in 100 districts across the country has underscored the mismatch between promise and delivery. The WNTA’s people-oriented study focussed on all the major flagship programmes, including the Jan-Dhan Yojana and the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, as also on policy initiatives at the level of legislation, including on land acquisition and land reforms. On all these counts, the WNTA documentation highlighted the discrepancies in terms of announcements and actual results.

Analysing these reactions from the ground, the Lucknow-based political analyst Professor Sudhir Kumar Panwar pointed out that not many Prime Ministers in independent India had been subjected to the kind of rapid disenchantment that Modi was facing now. “In fact, Modi should rate at the top of the table in terms of the disenchantment rate for Prime Ministers of India, in terms of both the speed with which it has happened and the scale. Undoubtedly, this sense of being let down is closely linked to the development rhetoric that Modi and his associates in the BJP unleashed during the Lok Sabha election campaign. In other words, for the people, the Modi government’s performance was about much excitement and little satisfaction. The two Budgets of his government as well as its policies did not live up to expectations,” he said.

“The negative effect of this was compounded when leaders like Shah stated that the promise to bring back black money from abroad was chunavi jumla [election ploy]. The youth who were excited by the promises of decent jobs also increasingly perceive this as another chunavi jumla. At the policy level, the government and its leaders have completely let down the important agriculture sector by indulging merely in verbal calisthenics and not fulfilling even basic promises like the increase in MSP [minimum support price]. Over and above all this, the blatantly communal politics such as ghar wapsi and love jehad have boomeranged on the ground. Clearly, all this has injected some vigour into the opposition parties, including the Congress, which were decimated in the Lok Sabha elections. It would take a Herculean effort for Modi and his associates in the BJP, the National Democratic Alliance [NDA] and the Sangh Parivar to overcome this growing negative perception about their policies and political practice,” Panwar said.

The views expressed by him get reflected at different levels of the BJP, the NDA and the Sangh Parivar with different emphasis and nuances. A close associate of the senior Delhi leader told Frontline that organisationally the biggest problem faced by the associates of the Prime Minister and the BJP president within the Sangh Parivar and the NDA is not about analysing situations and devising plans of action but about the manner of implementation. “Things have got so centralised both at the level of the government and in the organisational structure that the drive for absolute control is being perceived as the most domineering element of the Modi raj. In terms of governance, the Prime Minister’s Office [PMO] has become, for all practical purposes, the only Ministry with executive authority, and in the party it is the president and his team. If individuals and even institutions need to have even a modicum of a role in the affairs of the Ministry and the party, they will have to get moulded according to the design decided by the top two. This was reflected early on when former BJP president Rajnath Singh was not allowed to have a secretary of his own choice in the very first week of the government. This trend has grown in proportion over the last one year and this is wreaking havoc over governance,” he said.

The Delhi leader was of the view that it was this drive to have absolute control that had resulted in a large number of institutional bodies, including the Central Vigilance Commission, the Central Information Commission and several scientific and cultural bodies, not having designated leadership even after one year of the government (see separate stories.) A leader of an NDA constituent from Bihar supplemented this point by asserting that in the past two months, in the run-up to the first anniversary, the number of files pending in the PMO was staggeringly high.

However, even in this context of growing criticism from within the Sangh Parivar and from the ground, the Modi-Shah-Jaitley triumvirate is seemingly unfazed. They blame the lack of majority for the party in the Rajya Sabha for the reverses in governance. Indications are that the triumvirate has revised its original political targets and decided to bridge its perceived deficiency by tying up with Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa by offering them special packages and other such stratagems. “Of course, this too means a climbdown from the original strategy of conquering West Bengal and Tamil Nadu through Shah’s focussed operations. But close associates of Shah assert that this will only be a temporary phenomenon.”

Evidently, there are no signs of Modi and his close associates thinking about a course correction in terms of policy orientation, administration or organisational direction. But the voices of dissent are growing louder. Sections of the Sangh Parivar believe that these will manifest as concrete negative results in the forthcoming Bihar elections. The Modi club members-turned-critics and their tacit supporters at the top of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar may also move in with concrete manoeuvres against Modi at that juncture. In all probability, it could take the shape of a movement to remove Shah as party president. Indeed, that would be a more decisive phase of the Modi regime than its first anniversary celebration.

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