A year is an eternity in Indian politics: a year ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi could literally walk on water. His remarkable 2014 general election win had given him the confidence and the mandate to push ahead with a dramatic reform agenda if he so desired. Victories in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and even Jammu & Kashmir only confirmed the seemingly irresistible surge of the NaMo factor: ache din ayenge was the conviction among the masses. Falling oil prices only seemed to suggest that not just ache din but the Prime Minister was blessed with ache sitare too. Sadly, at a time when he was the Pied Piper of India, Modi missed the chance to take the national flock along with him: rhetoric and incremental change replaced execution and sweeping reform.
As 2015 winds down, Modi is still the country’s number one neta by some distance, but the honeymoon period is clearly over. The defeat in the Delhi elections at the start of the year was the first sign that the bubble had burst. An aborted and dysfunctional monsoon session suggested that the opposition had recovered its voice, if not its votes. The fact that the Prime Minister had to eventually abandon his plan to push ahead with amending the land acquisition Act only confirmed that Modi could no longer take his Lok Sabha majority as a guarantee for implementing his agenda for change.
Which is why the November elections in Bihar are now so important. First, an election victory in Bihar would suggest that the Delhi debacle was only a blip on the radar and confirm the status of Modi as the most energetic campaigner in recent political history and BJP president Amit Shah as the ultimate strategist. Second, it would be a big dampener to any hope of an opposition revival: the very fact that sworn enemies like Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad have come together suggests that this is now a battle for their political survival. The Congress party, too, is banking on Bihar to emerge as some kind of a magnet for anti-Modi forces in the future, even if it remains a marginal player in the state. Third, a win in Bihar would be a crucial step towards the BJP’s ultimate goal: total control of both Houses of Parliament by 2018. But most importantly, a BJP triumph in Bihar would give Modi the momentum to stay the course on plotting a personality-centric reform pitch.
Last year when Modi came to power, his supporters saw his emergence as marking a distinct shift in the political compass of this country. It is true, as I have suggested in my book 2014: The Election that Changed India, that the Modi victory was pregnant with possibilities, good and bad. While the BJP was now established as the principal pole of Indian politics, there was still a question mark over just how the social and economic agenda of the country would be transformed by the new power arrangement at the Centre.
Sixteen months later, we could argue that it is the government’s social agenda which has thrown up more misgivings rather than the hope generated by the Prime Minister’s promise of an economic revival. An emboldened Sangh Parivar has allowed its so-called ‘fringe’ a free run when it comes to its core ideological agenda of imposing a Hindutva-inspired cultural ‘nationalism’ on the citizenry. Then be it love jihad or ghar vapsi or rewriting text books, there seems to be a conscious effort to allow dormant forces to express themselves without fear of retribution.
The Prime Minister’s silence on potentially divisive religious issues can be contrasted with his loquaciousness on his vision for the Indian economy. Unlike his predecessor who went into a prolonged stupefying silence, Modi has undoubtedly energised the electorate with his constant communication, be it to industry groups, NRIs, the youth or foreign investors. Slogans and ideas like Make in India, Start-up India, Digital India, Skill India, Smart Cities have had a hugely positive effect in marked contrast to the mood of negativism that had enveloped the Manmohan Singh years.
As a feel good political guru who can enthuse any audience, Modi deserves full marks. But robust oratory can also throw up unrealistic expectations. Which is where Modi the dream merchant runs the risk of becoming a victim of his own hype. When you remain in constant campaign mode, then the danger is of promises not being matched by execution. So, while Modi trumpets ‘Make in India’, the truth is there hasn’t been any marked manufacturing revival, especially for small and medium scale enterprises. Job-driven growth still remains a mirage and infrastructure targets are still showing mixed results. Maybe, industry itself must share the blame: they expected the Modi government to play a T-20-like match when the Prime Minister himself is perhaps looking to put in place a policy regime that will yield benefits in a more patient Test match format.
There have been successes: mining de-nationalisation, transparent auctioning of coal and spectrum, a serious attempt to reduce cronyism and corruption in high places, trying to focus on improving bureaucratic efficiencies, could all be viewed as the building blocks for the future. And yet, the failure to build consensus on the major tax reform in the shape of GST, the deeply flawed black money legislation, a lamentable failure to address serious agricultural and environmental challenges, and the status quo on urgent banking and financial reform have meant that the Modi government’s report card has just as many hits as misses.
So far, one standard excuse has been the opposition, especially the Congress party’s refusal to co-operate with the government. It could be argued that the Congress is still a sore loser, unwilling to come to terms with the scale of its defeat last year. But it is equally true that Modi’s unilateralism has made him a difficult person to do business with: for example, the Prime Minister would have been better advised last year to make an eminently do-able GST legislation his calling card rather than seeking to push ahead with more contentious land amendments through an ordinance route.
Maybe, building legislative bipartisanship to critical national issues has never been the Prime Minister’s strong suit. After all, as Gujarat chief minister, Modi had no opposition, either in the state assembly or outside it. He could afford to run the government as a single window clearance, individual-centric system with a heavy reliance on a few chosen bureaucrats in the chief minister’s office. Delhi is not Gandhinagar: managing contradictions and conflicting interest groups is a big challenge, perhaps bigger than the Prime Minister first anticipated when he won his historic May 2014 election.
Which is why Bihar and the winter session that will follow is a test for both, Modi the campaigner and Modi the Prime Minister. As a campaigner there is enough evidence to suggest that he is more than a match for his rivals. As Prime Minister, he needs to go beyond catchy slogans and one-liners to engage a range of diverse interests: can he truly put India first rather than making it about Modi first?