Perspective

The decline of Modi

Print edition : January 20, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at the foundation-laying ceremony for a greenfield airport at Mopa in Goa on November 13. Photo: PTI

Narendra Modi is not a strong leader. He is an incompetent one whom failures drove to dwell in a bubble.

“I TOOK up office equipped with a great fund of royalist sentiments and veneration for the king. To my sorrow, I find that this fund is ever more and more depleted! … I have seen three kings naked, and the sight was not always a pleasant one,” Bismarck said to a friend after he was dismissed by an impetuous German Kaiser Emperor Wilhelm II shortly after he ascended the throne. “He fancied himself greatly as a strong man and soon fell out with Bismarck,” Jawaharlal Nehru remarked ( Glimpses of World History, Lindsey Drummon, 1949, page 516).

Just half-way through his term in office as Prime Minister, Narendra Modi faces disenchantment to a high degree. Demonetisation only served to remind the people of lapses they had overlooked. He hugely personalised demonetisation. The gamble failed. The slide downwards has begun. The Emperor has no clothes on him.

Modi’s hysterical performances reveal his panic at the wide public disenchantment in the wake of his quixotic decision on demonetisation of Rs.1,000 and Rs.500 currency notes on November 8. This was the first major test of his mettle and he has been found wanting. Slogans, his favourite ploy, do not help (vikas, vishwas, et al). People want answers; they demand accountability for the havoc he created. But the concept is foreign to him.

He has deployed every trick in the book to build himself up as a mass leader, above the party (Bharatiya Janata Party) and even its parent (the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh), and above institutions, Parliament and the judiciary. His technique was continuous electioneering, doling out slogans, impugning the integrity of critics and opponents without a thought for accountability to Parliament. He began by going over the heads of Cabinet colleagues to civil servants (vide the writer’s article “Modifying Democracy”, Frontline, July 11, 2014). He is now reduced to embarking on a course of cheap demagogy. It will not work.

People have seen better Prime Ministers before. There are those who carefully follow his utterances. A reputed daily, Business Standard, published in the issue of December 6, a meticulous survey of Modi’s pronouncements since his telecast to the nation on November 8. It was aptly entitled “How Modi changed the demonetisation narrative”.

It bears quotation in extenso: “The speech (in English) lasted 25 minutes. The Prime Minister uttered the phrase ‘black money’ 18 times in this speech. He mentioned ‘fake currency’ or ‘counterfeit’ five times in the same speech.

“It was unambiguously clear from the Prime Minister’s speech that the primary motivation for the sudden withdrawal of nearly 86 per cent of the country’s currency was the evil of black money….

“So, between November 8 and November 27, the objective for the demonetisation exercise has swung from black money elimination to going cashless, as evident in the Prime Minister’s speeches.

“To be sure, urging citizens to use less cash and resort to digital transactions is a laudable objective and must certainly be encouraged. But when a decision was taken to remove a whopping 86 per cent of the country’s currency overnight with all its attendant costs, one would have hoped there was one strong rationale for it, even if it meant achieving multiple objectives.

“Either the Prime Minister has realised that the original primary objective of eliminating black money may not be met or there was not adequate thought behind the decision.”

The author, Praveen Chakravarty, prepared graphs showing the shift from “black money” to “cashless/digital” economy amidst the war on “fake currency”.

Changing track

In the face of abject defeat, Modi changed track. His speeches tell the tale. So does his conduct. He, who never shed a tear when a pogrom was on in Gujarat in 2002 when he was Chief Minister, “broke down” at Goa on November 13; lips trembling, the throat choked. The content was as revealing as the conduct was amusing. “They will not leave me alive. They will destroy me. Let them do what they want.” He did not identify who “they” were. Was the NIA alerted to the threat?

Next came his famous and explicit promise. “For 50 days help me. The country should just help me for 50 days”; “bear with me for 50 days”. “The suffering is for 50 days.”

On December 24 he said in Mumbai, not that the sufferings would end after those charmed 50 days, but that the pains for the poor would begin to diminish, while they would increase for the rich. Is this an honest way to speak to the people? He did not deign to notice even for once the problems faced by them, especially the poor, but evaded them by recourse to cheap histrionics. “My dear countrymen I gave up everything…. My home, my family. I gave up everything I had for this country.” Ergo? “Don’t question me. I gave up everything for you after all.”

Modi’s plea was addressed to the ones who suffered the most, the poor, in extravagant terms: “I am doing this for the poor, toiling and honest people who are working hard to survive; so that they can get their own home, their children get good education and their parents get care.”

Modi always promises the moon. What is more, he is out not only to recast the polity but also to emerge superior to all his predecessors. These revealing words provide us with ample warning of the ambitions of a Sawdust Caesar. “ Some people have used the same yardstick to judge me which they have used to weigh actions of the previous government. They should have changed their weighing scale after I was elected to power” ( The Times of India, November 14; emphasis added, throughout).

He is a superior person. “Do you think Modi (sic) will just come and go like other political parties? ( Hindustan Times, November 14). Like Charles de Gaulle, Modi refers to himself in the third person. In Lucknow on November 14, the 50 days pledge was made more precise. He would use this period to complete the “big task”; a “ mahayagna of honesty”; of unearthing black money ( The Hindu, November 15). By the time this article is printed readers would be able to judge for themselves not only the failure of Modi’s plans but, no less, the honesty of his extravagant claim.

Informed international opinion exposed both. The International New York Times of November 19 editorially noted that demonetisation had “thrown the economy into turmoil, with many millions of people forced to line up at banks to deposit or exchange their old bills” (notes). It predicted that “cash-based corruption and tax evasion are almost sure to return as people accumulate the new bills”.

Lawrence Summers, a former U.S. Treasury Secretary and Harvard University president wrote of the “ongoing chaos in India and the resulting loss of trust in government” ( The Telegraph, November 22).

The Times repeated its criticism in greater detail on November 29. The Economist’s critique on December 3 was devastating not only because it laid bare the mess but also sharply pointed the finger at the creator of the mess—Modi. It said: “Shops stopped accepting the old notes at once. Holders have until the end of the year to deposit them in banks or swap them, either for smaller-denomination notes or for new 500- and 2,000-rupee ones. That 86.4 per cent by value of the cash in circulation is suddenly no longer legal tender has already caused predictable and needless hardship. It is too late—and politically unthinkable—to start again, but Mr Modi should do more to limit the damage; and he should abandon the flawed leadership style that caused the mess….

“Banknotes are not just a way for the rich to store their wealth; they are also how the unbanked survive. As so often, the burden for this reform has fallen most heavily on the poor. Over four-fifths of India’s workers are in the “informal” sector, paid in cash. Untold numbers have been laid off because their employers cannot pay them. Tens of millions have queued for hours at cash machines and bank branches, to get rid of the useless notes and get hold of some spending money. A new business has sprung up in laundering cash for a fee for those without the time or inclination to queue, or with more notes than they can account for.

“Cash is used for 98 per cent by volume of all consumer transactions in India. With factories idle, small shops struggling and a shortage of cash to pay farmers for their produce, the economy is stuttering. There are reports that sales of farm staples have fallen by half and those of consumer durables by 70 per cent. Guesses at the effect on national output vary wildly, but the rupee withdrawal could shave two percentage points off annual GDP growth (running at 7.1 per cent in the three months to September). “With a bit of forethought, much of the mayhem could have been avoided. It turns out that the new notes are smaller and require all the country’s ATMs to be reconfigured, which takes 45 days. Some 22bn notes are affected, but printing capacity is said by the previous Finance Minister to amount to only 3bn a month. So even if fewer notes are needed, because more money will be in banks, printing them will take some time. The banks were ill-prepared to handle about 8.5trn [trillion] rupees in new deposits in the three weeks after demonetisation. After they used the deposits to buy bonds, lowering interest rates, the central bank had to order them to park the new money with it, in zero-interest accounts….

“The perceived need for secrecy (to take cash-hoarders by surprise) fed into the innate sense he has of his own infallibility and his misplaced faith in his technocratic skills. By designing a scheme that was needlessly callous and which is becoming increasingly unpopular, he has squandered political capital. In future he needs to consult more widely, centralise less decision-making in his own hands and acknowledge that not all criticism is partisan or special pleading from the corrupt rich. India, fortunately, is not North Korea, and is aware that leaders are fallible. Its federal, democratic system will give voters plenty of chances to let it be known how badly Mr Modi has messed up his rupee rescue.” Modi’s credibility stands diminished abroad as much as it has at home. Reception on visits abroad will be less warm.

Sample one more. Steve Forbes, in Forbes magazine, called the decision “breathtaking in its immorality”. He said, “What India has done is commit a massive theft of people’s property without even the pretence of due process—a shocking move for a democratically elected government.”

To be sure, not one of Modi’s millionaire friends was seen in the serpentine queues. It is the poor and the middle class which bore the brunt. Modi spoke irrelevantly, on December 3, of the times when people stood in queues to buy sugar, wheat and kerosene as if the queues he had forced on the people bore any comparison to those. He spoke to his fawning BJP MPs on November 22—behind closed doors.

Silent in Parliament

But the established norms of the parliamentary system required the Prime Minister to make a detailed statement in Parliament when it met on December 6 for its winter session and thus initiate a debate. He kept silent. He cannot reply to critics with facts and figures. His forte is slogan-mongering, which is unsuited to parliamentary debate. An exasperated opposition drove itself to extremes. Modi attacked his critics outside Parliament by impugning not their judgment but their integrity.

It is a highly personalised mode of government. The frequent junkets abroad have a two-fold aim—to impress the people at home and to muscle his way to the high table of the great. At the end of 2016, India’s foreign policy is in a shambles. Its relations with China, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Russia are far worse than what they were when Modi took the oath of office as Prime Minister in May 2014. The party is devalued. All the seniors have been put on the shelf by devising arbitrarily and unilaterally an age limit. Now Modi stands apart from and above not only the party, the BJP, but also the RSS. Time will buttress this ascendancy as Modi pursues his drive for total power. The tone of administration and the morale of the civil servants have suffered.

That secular values have suffered needs no elaboration. Educational and cultural institutions have been packed with party hacks—it is the Gujarat Model at play. Internationally, the country’s reputation has suffered grievously. The situation was well summed up in the recently published report of the U.S. commission on religious freedom internationally: “In 2015, religious tolerance deteriorated and religious freedom violations increased. Minority communities, especially Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs, experienced numerous incidents of intimidation, harassment, and violence, largely at the hands of Hindu nationalist groups. Members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party tacitly supported these groups and used religiously divisive language to further inflame tensions.

“These issues, combined with long-standing problems of police bias and judicial inadequacies, have created a pervasive climate of impunity, where religious minority communities feel increasingly insecure, with no recourse when religiously motivated crimes occur.” On all these Modi, has maintained a meaningful silence.

In one respect Modi’s claim to be a unique leader, with no precedent to match, is right. For the very first time ever the nation is cursed with a divisive leader. He has followed his Gujarat Model faithfully by debasing political discourse nationally as he had in Gujarat. If on November 22 he accused the opposition of corruption ( The Hindu, November 23), on December 27 he hit back at the opposition for its legitimate criticism by denouncing “ choron ke sardar” (leaders of thieves). Aspirations for dictatorship were not concealed. Modi called himself a “chowkidar” (watchman) ( Indian Express, December 28). It is a menace to democracy.

The opposition is worse than divided. It is inept. A White Paper on Modi’s War on the Poor, containing a full record, from November 8 to December 30, is called for. It should comprise his utterances, the zig-zags of decisions, and an exposure of the people’s sufferings—the queues, the harm to the economy and the deaths.

Modi is not a strong leader. He is an incompetent one whom failures drove to dwell in a bubble. On December 27 he claimed: “Through the note ban, in one stroke, we destroyed the world of terrorism, drug mafia, human trafficking and underworld” ( The Hindu, December 28). Don’t laugh; be prepared for worse. A paranoid who can speak thus can do much worse as desperation and failures mount. He cannot accept reverses and defeats. A grave misfortune has befallen the country. With Narendra Modi, the office of Prime Minister of India has fallen to its lowest depths.

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