That the opposition would not like anything Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done since his assumption of office is expected. But he has been receiving a lot of flak from the right-of-centre as well as extreme right quarters for some time, with this section of his core voter base upset about a near total absence of economic reforms and not even a show of intent on issues that concern the Hindu community. Of course, the INC and leftist media’s attribution of misadventures by the Hindutva fringe and crimes by unaffiliated antisocial elements — gauraksha (cow protection), assaults on Muslims, vandalism of churches, attacks on Dalits, etc — to the Union government does not impress the right. For, they as well as the people of the country who are apolitical know that doing anything for Hindus — or for any community separately, for that matter — was never an agenda of Modi even when he was the chief minister of Gujarat. At best, a rather unfounded public impression of “Hindu Hriday Samrat” got created, which worked to Modi’s advantage within his home State as well as disadvantage nationally and internationally. The right-of-centre (economic right, culturally neutral) is peeved because of a large government (read “bureaucracy”), the wings of which Modi had promised he would clip. It is upset with an unfair income tax and, especially, a thoroughly complicated GST. It has experienced no palpable ease of doing business. Beyond the figures claimed by the government, which are challenged by cynics, one is not sure whether Mudra or Start/Stand Up India has taken off. ‘Make in India’ has stopped making news although every year an increased figure of FDI and foreign exchange reserves gladdens the hearts.
Yet, the very fact that these measures were put in place — so what if some of them existed even under the UPA for the sake of it — is evidence enough that Modi had begun his innings, trying to at least rejuvenate, if not reform, the country in earnest. Until the election of Bihar, hardly a day passed when the newspapers did not report that some structure of governance had been altered. The Nehruvian Planning Commission gave way to NITI; more than 75 different sanctions required to do a business in Maharashtra were cut drastically to less than 25; for the first time since PV Narasimha Rao’s regime, the country did not get a Bengali or Bihari railway minister who would be in a mad spree to crowd the already overburdened tracks to the eastern States beyond Mughal Sarai station with every annual budget (which was finally merged into the Union budget)…
Modi was dealt a severe shock by the loss of BJP in the Assembly election of Bihar, much as both he and his finance minister Arun Jaitley had promised right after the results that reforms would go on unhindered. They did not. And the ruling party cannot blame Bihar for it. Not for once did he explain to the electorate that the State was backward because of the absence of private enterprise and that investors would not be interested in the province with somebody like Lalu Prasad Yadav, infamous for presiding over a regime of kidnappings and extortions, ruling it. Modi’s messaging was wholly socialistic during the campaign; he kept talking of central packages — reminiscent of the eras of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi who would try desperately to win back States from political rivals by citing hundreds or thousands of crores worth of ‘package’ from the Union in their election speeches. If the Gandhis could not win back West Bengal from the CPM-led Left Front with this approach to elections, how could Modi win back Bihar following the same route? But without taking the right lesson from that election, a shaken Modi changed his rhetoric. Garib Aadmi became the mainstay of his speeches, replacing terms such as “demographic dividend”. The aforementioned motivational government schemes stopped being the leitmotif of Modi’s policy; the schemes that replaced those were Jan Dhan Yojana and Ujjwala while the State governments formed by the BJP, one by one, began competing with their opponents in declaring massive farm loan waivers and higher MSPs.
Ours is not a middle-class-versus-poor proposition. This is to underscore the time-tested theory that if government schemes could alleviate poverty, Indira Gandhi’s Garibi Hatao would have succeeded, and the country wouldn’t be witnessing polls in the 21st century on planks of bijli, sadak and pani. It is both ironical and hypocritical that the Modi who used to make a mockery of the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh government’s yojanas in his election speeches of 2014 now cannot think beyond yojanas.
Since the BJP government in Karnataka did not last more than three days, it has become a matter of hypothesis whether BS Yeddyurappa would have fulfilled his party’s promise of making the state withdraw from temple management. For reasons known best to the party, the State dominated by devout Hindus did not hear BJP leaders screaming from the rooftops that interfering in the affairs of a place of worship was a gross abuse of secularism. As for the Centre, no Union minister has shed a tear or two for the Hindu plight unless, of course, when the CPM’s henchmen have butchered RSS swayamsevaks in the streets of Kerala. And then, the Modi that made news worldwide for refusing to wear a skull cap some years ago goes to Kashmir and exhorts the separatist youth to follow the path of Prophet Mohammed! The prime minister must be asked whether the Muslims of Kashmir who brutalised Pandits in the late 1980s and early 1990s, without his exhortation, did not see the households of Hindus in the Valley as Banu Qurayza of Arabia.
After all the appeasement policies in place, which hostile section of voters could Modi convert? The Kisan March of Mumbai proved farmers continue to be distressed and angry with the government. Bhima-Koregaon and Bharat Bandh established that Dalits are yet to turn into votaries of the BJP. And despite every attack on Christians proving to be an act of some petty criminal who had nothing to do with the religion of his target, the Archbishop of Delhi virtually calls for prayers by Christians to topple this government in 2019.
A course correction does not entail appropriating the failed policies and programmes of the INC, which Modi did since the loss of Bihar. It lies in explaining to the indifferent and hostile groups that a really secular agenda, which does not discriminate between citizens on the basis of their castes and religions, is the best deal for them. It lies in marketing the idea that a free market makes benefits reach the poor more efficiently than a government-controlled one. It lies not in the reliance on a British-made ICS-turned-IAS; it lies in downsizing the government. If Modi wishes to leave a mark in history, for which he might have thought that a Congress leader-like image was essential, he should know that making a bad system work under pressure does not change history. The system reduces once again to a morass when the head of the government changes. To be remembered in posterity, Modi needs to bring positive changes that would be irreversible even after he is gone. He must do it in 2018.