Who’s Afraid of Narendra Modi?

The tragedy of the first term of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister is that there has been too much rent-seeking Red Riding Hood, and not a lot of the avenging Big Bad Wolf


Going into election mode in 2013, and winning, with the first majority in 30 years in May 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi projected himself as an incorruptible Robespierre-like figure, strong, clear-headed. He promised to shake up the Indian political firmament.

The voting public expected a fresh start and a renaissance rolled into one. The much talked about 56-inch chest was a symbol of the muscularity in governance that was anticipated.

The reality, since, has been somewhat less overwhelming. Surprisingly, and to his detriment, Modi as Prime Minister has made bold to disappoint almost every section of his admirers.

Beyond the invariably fiery rhetoric and the pleasing spectacle of our Prime Minister being treated well and with respect wherever he goes, little has happened that touches ordinary lives for the better. The Modi “Bhakt” is still stubbornly loyal, and consistently hands him 70% plus approval ratings saying he cannot be expected to do in five what has not been done in fifty. But this too could evaporate by the 2019 general election, especially if the BJP loses another state or two in forthcoming assembly polls.

As the only pan-India vote-catcher in the BJP, with only a motley crew in the supporting cast, it is astounding that he prefers to wag his finger at the electorate rather than addressing its needs.  

There is a yawning credibility gap. We are told here and in the cities of the world that the Indian farmer now has ample neem-coated urea. Cooking gas and electricity has touched the lives of lakhs of the poor. Bank accounts, mass medical insurance have come to millions, as has micro-lending to the pakoda seller, etc. The Aadhar card registration drive has exposed much fakery amongst the takers of government subsidies and saved crores. The implication is that the bottom of the pyramid has been squarely addressed.

Why then don’t the rural/urban poor really think so. Why have prices of almost everything gone up for the housewife with new taxes that have been slapped on?  

His Finance Minister is busy managing the macroeconomy and there’s the real rub. Fiscal and current account deficits, foreign exchange reserves, and so on, are much better, but what has it done in tangible terms for the man in the street?

Many BJP voters, unwilling to vote for the other side still, have taken to sitting at home, as bye-poll results in Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Khairana in Uttar Pradesh have recently demonstrated. Even if there was no Opposition unity, would the BJP have won? The same thing happened in Rajasthan in a straight fight with the Congress, and, most tellingly, in the hard-fought Assembly Elections in Karnataka. Despite pulling out all stops the BJP fell just short of a simple majority and could not cobble together a post-poll alliance.

We have only seen a mild prime minister. One, curiously unwilling to rock the boat, or taking a hard line with lazy governance, wary of prosecuting, let alone jail, the corrupt. One that lets parliament turn into a non-functioning fish market. One who shamelessly plays from the very songbook of the Congress he reviled on the stumps.

What we’ve had, in reality, is a more dynamic Congress, without the high-level corruption. Modi has also put through a mass of administrative reforms in the minor key, spoiling the effect by simultaneously extracting masses of indirect taxes in the name of everything, including “greening”.

There is an overarching impression that Modi won’t, or can’t, do much about many things affecting the public, including financial skullduggery, blackmail, lynching, rape and murder. There is no putting people in the police lock-up till bail is given or denied by a court. And its various enforcement agencies like the ED, NIA, CBI, the IT Department etc. and even the intelligence agencies move so slowly that it appears the prosecution of the formerly mighty is the last thing they want on their record.

There is, now, some new and some refreshed legislation on nabbing the corrupt and financially delinquent. But even though the law may be there, the efficacy is still a work in progress.

Four years on, the Armed Forces, granted their OROP demands by the Modi government, continue to be ill-equipped.

The traders and SME segment, long time BJP adherents, are yet to receive a single benefit. Instead, they face sealings, fines, higher taxes.

Likewise, the middle-class BJP supporter, who has had little beyond a direct tax cut, traded for onerous GST on all things, VAT, etc.

There have been no mega bold steps except GST and demonetization. The latter has helped damage Opposition finances for the suddenness of its implementation, but, in retrospect, that is about it. Cash in circulation is once again double that of November 2016. Digitisation has also increased, but not by as much as it was hoped.  

There are no new jobs in numbers hoped for, no defence manufacturing to write home about, next to no privatization or private investment, meagre exports, a languishing stock market – also bedevilled by fresh taxes. The real estate market is languishing, even as talk of smart cities swirls and eddies.

There is not even a single substantial Hindutva move made unless cancelling the Haj subsidy is to be counted. There is a mess of three steps forward and two steps back in the Kashmir Valley. There is no effort to abolish Article 370 and 35A of the Constitution. No Ram Mandir. The judiciary is unreformed, partisan and obstructive.

Modi has indeed delivered a 7.4 % GDP growth through it all, touted as the highest in the world. The international rating agencies, World Bank, IMF and so forth like it. But, it is based solely on infrastructure spending.

Other programmes, such as the much vaunted Swatchh Bharat, financed by yet another cess, inclusive of its rural toilet-building programme have not worked very well.

Free-float fuel minus subsidies have been handled scandalously. As global crude prices were halved and quartered, the fuel consuming public in India was taxed to the nines.

Is it too late therefore for Modi to reclaim his credibility? It would certainly appear so, given the huge overhang of unfulfilled promises. Modi may, therefore, rely on the TINA factor alone to see him through. And, given the contours of the proposed mahagatbandhan, he may be right. However, it still leaves a feeling of being cheated and raises some doubts about his future performance too.

Modi might very well win with the able support of Party President Amit Shah and the legions at the command of RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat. Still, because of the non-delivery and the mildness, his stature is much diminished. Nobody is afraid of Narendra Modi.

The same question was applied to Virginia Woolf, an English author of the 1920-1940 era, used as liet motif in Edward Albee’s hit play of 1962.

The play, and the movie that followed later, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, was on marital strife. And the modernist novelist, feminist, Adeline Virginia Woolf, is actually a stand-in for “the big bad wolf”.

But the tragedy of the first term of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister is that there has been too much rent-seeking Red Riding Hood, and not a lot of the avenging Big Bad Wolf.