Cover Story

Two years and waiting

Print edition : June 24, 2016

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing "Ek Nayi Subah", the event organised to celebrate the completion of two years of the NDA government at India Gate in New Delhi on May 29. Photo: PTI

BJP president Amit Shah having a meal with a Dalit family in Varanasi on May 31. Photo: PTI

In its first two years, the Narendra Modi government has consistently sought to cover up its administrative and governance deficiencies with high rhetoric and is increasingly resorting to the politics of social polarisation and authoritarianism to counter growing popular resentment.

THE striking contrast between two events that happened within a span of 72 hours involving Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his close associate and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah has come to be perceived as symbolic of the two years of rule of the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. The first event, held on the evening of May 28 at the India Gate lawns in New Delhi, was the grand second anniversary celebration of the BJP-NDA government led by the Prime Minister. Among the participants were an array of film actors and other prominent personalities. The second event, held in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, on May 31 and attended by Amit Shah was titled “Sardar Patel Kisan Mahasammelan” (a grand rally of farmers in memory of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the first Deputy Prime Minister of India and a Sangh Parivar icon).

Lukewarm response

The India Gate event was spectacular in terms of glitz and grandeur. However, there was nothing grand about the “grand rally” of farmers, which was attended by less than 3,000 people with no evidence of spirited support for the Modi-led government. This lukewarm response apparently upset Amit Shah so much that he returned in a huff to Varanasi, where he had earlier partaken of a symbolic meal with Dalits and people belonging to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). This social dining was obviously aimed at strengthening the BJP’s Dalit-OBC base in Uttar Pradesh, where the Assembly elections are due early 2017.

While this political exercise did get significant media coverage, its contrast with the Delhi event was noted in social media. A social media post that went viral pointed out that any celebration of a government’s milestone would be worthy and meaningful only if the people observed it voluntarily without the powers that be having to goad them into it. Evidently, the difference between the two events was a reflection of the gap between high-blown rhetoric and realistic, ground-level perceptions.

The six-hour-long extravaganza at the India Gate lawns, titled “Ek Nayi Subah” (A New Dawn), was indeed high on rhetoric. It was attended by a number of film actors, including Amitabh Bachchan, Priyanka Chopra, Vidya Balan, Anupam Kher and Anil Kapur. Of course, all these tinsel town heroes and heroines played second fiddle to the biggest star of the evening, Prime Minister Modi. The evening witnessed programmes titled “Mera Desh Badal Raha Hai” (My country is changing), “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” (Save the Daughter, Educate the Daughter), and “Zara Muskura Do” (Smile Please). Jubilant advertisement films featuring Modi with the actors Madhuri Dixit, Kareena Kapoor, Parineeti Chopra, Alia Bhatt, Frieda Pinto and Priyanka Chopra were shown. All in all, the objective was to promote a “feel-good” effect about Modi’s two-year rule. Modi’s own contribution to the evening was the now-too-familiar rhetoric, harking back to his Congress-led predecessor governments and pointing out how bad that party and its regime were for the country.

In many ways, it was like a return to his pre-Prime Minister days. After bashing the Congress, he went on to say that his government had ensured tremendous progress for the country in the past two years. He said that corruption, like a termite, had destroyed the dreams of the nation, and that corruption had stopped, not just for a year, but forever. He added that his government stood for the agenda of development ( vikaswaad), while the Congress and the opposition stood for the agenda of obstruction ( virodhvaad).

A large number of BJP leaders at the show were convinced that the creation of the “feel-good” effect had been made possible through the performances of the actors and politicians. However, the organisational and public embarrassment that Amit Shah faced in an important district of Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous State, underscored the fact that the “feel-good” sensibility was not uniform across all spaces in the country; it was particularly absent in rural areas.

Electoral reverses

The political connotations of the events are obvious. However, the demoralising lack of popular attention the party got in Allahabad is bound to have wider and stronger implications. This is because many BJP leaders and political observers characterised Amit Shah’s tour of Allahabad and Varanasi as the virtual launch of the BJP-NDA campaign for the Assembly elections. BJP insiders say that Amit Shah’s programmes were apparently charted out with a lot of enthusiasm on account of the party’s impressive performance in the recent Assembly elections in Assam and Kerala, where it successfully gained new political space in geographic and social terms.

A Lucknow-based senior activist of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) said these gains were expected to re-energise the BJP machinery in Uttar Pradesh. “There is a felt need to re-energise the BJP politically and organisationally because the understanding within all associate organisations of the Sangh Parivar is that there is a steady dip from the high of the 2014 Lok Sabha victory. The NDA had won 73 of the 80 seats in the State then, with the BJP alone accounting for 71. There was a groundswell of support then, which has steadily dissipated. This dissipation was evident at the time of the first anniversary itself of the Modi government. The results in Assam and Kerala were sought to be highlighted to overcome this, but the Allahabad event showed that this initiative is yet to find resonance among the people,” the senior RSS activist said.

There is a disturbing realisation among Sangh Parivar leaders and the rank and file that between the first and second anniversaries of the Modi government, the BJP and its associates have been roundly and repeatedly defeated by a clutch of regional parties, except in Assam. In November 2015, the Grand Alliance in Bihar—consisting of the Janata Dal (United), the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress—defeated the BJP-led NDA in the Assembly elections. In the April/May Assembly elections in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, the BJP’s grand plans failed to upset the Trinamool Congress and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

Interestingly, in the early days of the Modi government, the talk in BJP and Sangh Parivar circles was how Amit Shah was learning more and more about the people and culture of Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, including the languages of the two States. Apparently, this was in preparation for capturing power in the two the States in 2016. Before the electoral reverses in Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) put the BJP to rout in the Delhi Assembly elections in February 2015. In fact, it was the defeat in the national capital territory that signalled the growing disenchantment with Modi, his government and the party. The only consolation for the BJP and its allies is that they have been able to marginalise the Congress and thus become the principal pole of national politics. But there is also the fact that the regional parties are growing in a sustained manner, challenging the dominance of the BJP-led NDA.

Challenges in U.P., Punjab

These developments present some daunting challenges before the BJP as its government moves into its third year and the party gears up to face two important contests in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab in 2017. In Uttar Pradesh, it has to face formidable regional parties, the ruling Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the principal opposition Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Although the BJP had stolen a march over them in May 2014, it has failed to repeat the same level of political triumph in a number of Assembly byelections that have taken place after the Lok Sabha election. Surveys conducted by various agencies, including the ones considered close to the BJP, have placed the saffron party in a clear third position, behind the BSP and the SP. While the surveys have made three-digit projections for the S.P. and the BSP in terms of seats in the 403-member Assembly, the BJP, the runaway victor of the Lok Sabha election, is reportedly lagging behind. In Punjab too, the BJP-Akali Dal combine is increasingly being perceived as conceding large tracts of political space to the AAP. Many BJP leaders in the State admit that the party may not even get a double digit tally in the 117-member House. Thus, as it passes the second anniversary milestone, the BJP’s hopes and aspirations about greater political consolidation are characterised by several ifs and buts.

Growing gap

Sangh Parivar activists admit that central to the political dip and the consequent sense of incertitude about its prospects is the gap between the promises and performance of the Modi government. It is 80 per cent rhetoric and 20 per cent implementation, they say.

An analysis by independent experts and members of the Frontline team of different sectors of the economy and governance in the past two years underscores this perception. Even the detailed data-driven analysis by Seshadri Kumar (see story on page 23) featured in this issue highlights the gap between the rhetoric and the reality. This palpable gap has affected the BJP badly and consistently across the country and across social and economic sectors, says the political analyst Sudhir Panwar.

“Around the first anniversary, there were at least people like Arun Shourie talking about it openly and seeking course correction from the Modi-Amit Shah-Arun Jaitley triumvirate. There was a feeling that the defeat in Bihar would result in course-correction manoeuvres. But Modi and Amit Shah held on, in spite of senior leaders such as Lal Krishna Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi making some anti-Amit Shah statements. Perhaps, their open criticism rallied sections of the RSS in favour of the triumvirate. Now, in the context of the Assam verdict, the possibilities of course correction have more or less completely receded.”

This state of play within the BJP and its government, marked by total control over the party organisation and the absence of real positive governance, Panwar said, augured ill for the country and its people. “Throughout its two-year regime, the BJP and its associates have consistently sought to cover up their administrative and governance deficiencies by advancing authoritarian and fascist manoeuvres in various forms. They have taken the communal path, which is evident from the beef controversy, assaults on minorities through ghar wapsi programmes and raising a furore over love jehad, the saffronist takeover of institutions such as the Film and Television Institute of India [FTII], the trouble in universities over alleged anti-national sentiments and intolerance towards voices of dissent in social, literary and cultural spaces, and so on. These developments become all the more important in view of the elections next year in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP and the Sangh Parivar have already generated the bogey of Hindu migration from Muslim-dominated villages in Uttar Pradesh. The debate on the forensic report about the meat obtained from Mohammed Akhlaq, the victim of the 2015 Dadri killing, is adding to this climate.”

Panwar’s observation has many takers across the political spectrum, including Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and S.P. leader Akhilesh Yadav. “Modi and the BJP use glitzy propaganda laden with empty rhetoric to cover up governance failures and parallelly unleash communal aggression and intolerance to polarise people. This has been their track record for many decades and in the past two years, the Union government has employed its official machinery to this end. This stratagem has faced reverses time and again in the past two years, and in all probability in its third year, the Modi regime will face the strongest rebuttal.”

These are indeed brave and confident words, and political observers like Panwar say that this could well be the reality. However, they wonder what price the people will have to pay before they deliver a lasting rebuttal to the authoritarian and fascist tendencies of the current regime.

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