If there is indeed a tide in the affairs of man, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was its shining manifestation in 2015. In the preceding year, he had demonstrated his golden touch by captivating the national imagination, breaking a 21-year jinx and winning a single-party majority in the Lok Sabha, and setting the stage for a remoulding of India.
The dream run, however, ended in 2015. Beginning with the devastating defeat in the Delhi assembly election and culminating in the pre-Diwali decimation in Bihar, Modi was shown up to be politically vulnerable. Sustained Opposition pressure and misgivings within his own coalition ensured that the Land Acquisition Bill was abandoned. And it was an unrelenting Congress, determined to make life as harrowing as possible for the government, which stalled the passage of the goods and services tax legislation through the Rajya Sabha. In between, the administration was wrong footed by a revolt of the intellectuals centred on fears of growing intolerance. A polarised political climate also ensured that the goodwill for India generated by the punishing pace of his overseas visits was insufficiently reflected at home. In 2015, the Modi government was contested every inch of the way, including in spheres where it should have earned rich accolades. Until the surprise Christmas visit to Lahore re-established his audacious streak, it almost seemed that with more than three years of his term remaining, the Modi government was inflicted with a debilitating limp.
The largely favourable response to his brief stopover in Lahore to bond with Nawaz Sharif carries two important lessons.
First, it is apparent that the belief — widespread in some ‘liberal’ circles — that Modi has exhausted his reserves of popular goodwill is both rash and premature. There may be disquiet that the flowering of India’s unrealised potential people expected after the 2014 outcome hasn’t become visible, but there is no indication that the impatience has led to the government and the prime minister being written off. India still wants Modi to succeed and even usher something resembling the promised achche din. The aspirational urge that Modi successfully tapped into in 2014 is still intact and hasn’t been subsumed by despondency.
Second, it would seem that the Modi government experiences popular traction the most when it demonstrates out-of-the-box audacity in both domestic and international affairs. Whether it is the voluntary surrender of the LPG subsidy, which may have released some Rs 12,000 crore for other productive uses, the announcement of the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train or even the Swachch Bharat programme, which has so far yielded patchy returns, Modi has always been seen to be inspirational when he thinks big and seeks to propel India into the 21st century. This has less to do with the incrementalism versus radicalism debate that agitates policy analysts than with the popular expectations from Modi. There are moments in history when a country is inclined towards charting a safe course. However, the 2014 excitement over Modi was not based on expectations of stodgy governance. On the contrary, the verdict was for a disruptive shift in politics and governance. When Modi feeds those impulses, he wins endorsement. Caution fuels disappointment.
If this assessment of the national mood is true, it would follow that the Modi government’s setbacks in 2015 stemmed from a flawed political management. Discounting tactical miscalculations — such as positing the national Modi, rather than the local Modi, against Nitish Kumar in Bihar — which can be rectified, the larger problem stems from a mismatch of expectations between the BJP’s activist base and the floating voters that determine political outcomes.
It is by now clear that Modi’s passion is rapid development and the transformation of India into a developed economy. If there is a conscious cultural agenda, it lies in creating a nationalist consensus around symbols that may be either secular modern or rooted in heritage. The Congress sought to instil a form of ‘constitutional patriotism’ whereas Modi is partial to a more organic nationalism. However, this cultural agenda, while important to the voter base that is in constant search of bhavnatmak (emotional) themes, is secondary to the bigger project of the material transformation of India. Over much of the past year, there has been a tussle (so vividly captured in the social media battleground) between activists who seek to push through rapid cultural change and a government that is travelling down a very different road. This has produced a political incoherence that has been gleefully exploited by those whose image of Modi was frozen in 2002. The Prime Minister has tried to change the culture of governance but hasn’t addressed the fact that his political support systems are often singing a different tune altogether. His refusal to negotiate the contradictions head-on has served to create an erroneous impression that he has a collusive relationship with the hotheads.
It is also a communications mishap. The government has failed to make its performance the central agenda of discourse. Many of the more people-centric initiatives such as financial inclusion, the MUDRA scheme and the creation of self-contributory-cum-government-subsidised welfare schemes are important measures that have suffered from a publicity deficit — particularly when compared to initiatives to improve the ease of doing business. This has meant that the government has had to do battle on agendas determined by either its opponents or a headline-seeking media. And even when development has been in the public gaze, the focus areas have been rarefied. Was this a factor behind the inability of the BJP to retain the support of poorer voters in Delhi and Bihar?
From Modi’s perspective, it is fortuitous that the alarm bells have been sounded even before the government is halfway through its term. 2016 presents an opportunity to retrieve the momentum.
Swapan Dasgupta is a senior political commentator. The views expressed are personal.