If the first week of a year determines the next 365 days, then the Narendra Modi government is facing its biggest test yet in 2016. The terror attack in Pathankot air base and the spooking of the markets after the China downslide are stark reality checks for a prime minister, who has been in almost perpetual campaign mode since his famous victory in the 2014 general elections. Then, be it getting emotional with Mark Zuckerberg or his routine Mann ki Baat broadcasts, there hasn’t been a moment when Modi has pressed the pause button to reflect and introspect. That moment may now be coming at last.
Last year, we saw the honeymoon effect slowly dissipate in the heat and dust of Delhi and Bihar. The resurrection of Arvind Kejriwal and the Nitish-Lalu combine meant that the aura of invincibility around Modi was punctured. Both Delhi and Bihar were highly personalised battles: Kejriwal was seen as the ‘Urban Naxal’ who had to be shown his place, Nitish was the politician who had refused to even share a stage with him as part of the NDA. Which is perhaps why the prime minister ended up investing a disproportionate amount of time on these election fights.
Now in 2016, there are no such do-or-die battles to be fought: the only state where the BJP has a chance of forming a government is in Assam, and here it’s not the Modi factor, but the ‘migrant’ issue that could determine the final calculation. As a result, there is less pressure on Modi the campaigner to deliver election victories. He can actually now spend more time in tackling the nitty gritty of governance. Four distinct challenges in this coming year could shape the Modi government’s future:
The first challenge has come earlier than anticipated. While the world was celebrating Christmas, Modi decided to play Santa Claus to his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif, dropping by to exchange birthday wishes and even attend a wedding ceremony. If this was a well-planned, strategic move, then no one, within and outside the government, is still sure just exactly what the grand design was. As Pathankot has exposed, diplomacy where individuals replace institutions is fraught with risk. Can India and Pakistan carry out a sustained dialogue beyond the glare of the cameras, or will Modi’s warm Lahore embrace dissolve into an icy terror chill where even his own supporters ask whether diplomacy can be conducted over the dead bodies of Indian soldiers? Whether Modi has truly re-invented himself from rabble-rouser to statesman will be tested by his Pakistan initiative.
The second challenge is perhaps even bigger when the Union Budget is read out at the end of February. Finance minister Arun Jaitley has now scripted two budgets: the first, in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 elections, was almost a non-event, overshadowed by the political chest-thumping. The second was a bit of a disappointment but finance ministers can be excused if they don’t score a century on their Test debut. This time, there can be no excuses: Jaitley needs to deliver, and deliver big.
The fierce opposition attack within and outside Parliament on the DDCA issue has already forced Jaitley to seek legal recourse; at budget time, it’s the court of the people which will decide his future. Budgets don’t decide the fate of the economy but as a statement of intent they can influence the mood. Forget achche din, the people of India need to know if the key promise of 2014 — a job driven, robust economy — is a reality or a jumla.
The third challenge is one which has confronted him throughout his public life: can Modi the politician overwhelm Narendrabhai the pracharak? In the first 20 months, there is a sense that Modi had struck a compact with the RSS: he would be given space to implement his economic agenda, the Sangh would control academic and cultural institutes. The result has been the appointment of non-meritorious individuals in key posts simply because they are fellow-travellers of an ideology. Can Modi put a stop to it, maybe sack Pahlaj Nihalani as Censor Board chief, ask Gajendra Chauhan to return to B-grade movies and TV serials? And can the loonies who screech for a Hindu rashtra be also shown their place? This isn’t about intolerance but about mutual respect for diversity.
Which brings me to a fourth challenge that faces the prime minister. Modi’s personality and politics are driven by positive energy, by a constant desire to throw up new ideas and slogans, be it Make in India, or Startup India. Each time the prime minister exudes confidence of better things to come it raises expectations even further. The paradox is that these heightened expectations can create a sense of false optimism, and then disillusionment when hopes are dashed.
In a sense, in 2016, the prime minister is being asked to move out of his comfort zone: rather than keep spinning dreams, maybe he just needs to be a little more pragmatic. Peace with Pakistan won’t happen overnight, the economy isn’t going to suddenly create millions of jobs, and not every morning is going to be flush with sunshine. Which is why it is some of the seemingly less “visible” issues that deserve focus. For example, the prime minister has done well in making better targeted subsidies and direct cash transfers a calling card. He might want to also work towards seriously cutting flab in the government: does he really need so many ministries and ministers?
In effect, a change in style as much as substance may serve the Modi prime ministership better at this stage. Until now, the Modi juggernaut was promising to take the country on a T-20 style ride; now the captain may need to choose his strokes more wisely. Maybe, fewer foreign trips, reduced photo-ops, lesser front page headlines too: it’s time now for the Modi prime ministership to look for the singles and twos, instead of the incessant desire to hit fours and sixes only.