Prime Minister Narendra Modi does not have much admiration or time for three segments of civil society: the Delhi-based English media, ‘political pundits’ as he calls them in his speeches, and NGOs. The disdain has a backdrop, for he feels these sections had hounded him in the wake of the Gujarat riots.
And that is why through the election campaign in 2014, Modi deployed two narrative techniques effectively: of a ‘doer’ who had successfully implemented the Gujarat model, but also as a ‘victim’ who had been demonised by the media and NGOs despite no court order, an ‘outsider’ who the Delhi Durbar did not like, of a ‘chaiwallah’ the elites had contempt for.
Modi feels he came to power, despite the efforts of these sections to prevent him from doing so.
But playing the victim card in an election campaign is one thing, and playing the victim card as the head of a majority government is another matter.
And that is why Modi’s statements on Monday are intriguing. He claimed there was a conspiracy to destabilise his government. He suggested that NGOs, whose funding his government had regulated, were unhappy and angry with him--and thus at the forefront of this campaign. He indicated that people who could not digest the fact that a ‘chaiwallah’ had become PM were working to undermine his government.
While saying all this, Modi did not express his views on the big issues in the public discourse at the moment--particularly the debate on free speech, nationalism, university autonomy and student politics thrown up by the JNU episode; or the demands over reservation and the manner in which large parts of north India are paralysed.
Instead, he seemed to allude to all of this as a part of a conspiracy.
Does the PM’s assertions have any basis? And if not, why is he saying it?
The answer to the first question is clearly a strong ‘no’. Modi has a mighty majority in parliament; he remains the tallest leader in his party and even those who don’t like him--for instance the BJP’s Margdarshak Mandal--can do little to displace him; he is the country’s most popular leader even now as recent opinion polls indicate; there is little chance that even with electoral setbacks, the parliamentary arithmetic can change against him. And so he has no reason to be insecure till 2019.
But this does not mean that the opposition parties will let go of opportunities to corner him. It is the opposition which became insecure post the resounding BJP win of 2014. The Delhi and Bihar elections provided them a breather. And they are on the lookout to score points.
If the BJP hands them issues--by intervening excessively in a university dispute in Hyderabad leading to the suicide of Rohith Vemula; by using a draconian law to book a student leader in JNU and turn a blind eye to courtroom violence; by mismanaging an identity-based movement in Haryana in recent days--the opposition will pick it up. The question the government needs to ask itself is why has it opened up so many fronts, why is it that parties and groups across the left and liberal political spectrum--from the Congress to the ultra left to independent academics--feel the need to march together in central Delhi for the first time in 14 years, after the Gujarat riots.
It is also natural that the media and civil society will play their obvious role--of acting as checks on power. The government in fact has key media players batting for the establishment. To construe the criticism as driven by a conspiracy has no basis.
And so if Modi’s claims do not have real grounds, why is he saying it? The obvious explanation is that the PM feels nervous; he is seeing demons where none exist; he wants to distract the public sphere from the real issues and paint an alarmist scenario on the stability of his government; he wants the debate to be about him rather than the government’s recent actions; he wants to delegitimise real opposition critique; and he wishes to construct foreign funded NGOs as the ‘other’. This is eerily similar to Indira Gandhi talking up the foreign hand threat through her tenure as a way to distract from domestic challenges.
The people of India gave 282 seats to BJP for the promises Modi made. It is time he realised that.
(The views expressed are personal.)