Has Mr Modi’s sweeping Lok Sabha victory — and then his swift political progress through states like Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir — created enormous expectations no government could satisfactorily or, at least, easily fulfil? And, secondly, even if it sounds contradictory, has the devastating defeat in Delhi focused attention on vulnerabilities and dissent that previously were not apparent but now are hard to ignore?
As Mr Modi approaches his first anniversary as Prime Minister the answer to both questions has to be yes. That’s why the May 26th landmark is likely to be an occasion for equal dollops of praise and criticism. And for this reason I doubt if our understanding, leave aside appreciation, of the Modi government will improve. If anything, over the next two weeks, we could be torn between two polar opposite viewpoints, leaving us considerably more confused.
Let me explain. That expectations have soared and will always feel unfulfilled is not surprising. That would be the case in any country when a government wins a clear and surprising majority. But in India, after almost three decades of coalitions, it was, additionally, irresistible. Even those who did not vote for Mr Modi, and had serious reservations about him, might have succumbed to the popular belief India was poised for dramatic and far-reaching change, even if they dreaded what that would entail.
However, it’s equally true that no government could have lived up to such hopes. Candidates in search of office promise more than they can deliver. Furthermore, even when they do, delivery takes time and real change can be more difficult to implement than was anticipated. Both of these considerations apply to Mr Modi. Perhaps there is a third factor too. It’s only when you come to power that you see the other side of the picture. By which I mean the reason why those who preceded you in office did not do what you, in opposition, kept insisting they should. Now, when it’s your turn, their hesitation may not seem so inexplicable or mistaken. That’s another reason to pause and carefully consider before rushing ahead. I’m sure this applies to Mr Modi as well.
In the meantime, if a week is a long time in politics a year is an age. The problems Mr Modi has experienced have, no doubt, stalled him but some would have also diminished his commitment whilst a few have clearly emboldened his opponents as well as his internal critics. The Land Acquisition amendments are an obvious example. Love jihad, ghar wapsi, foolishly outspoken colleagues and poor-performing ministers are four more. And the relentless, sometimes partisan or, at least, not-properly-balanced focus of the media, has only made things seem worse.
It’s in this context that the Delhi defeat provided the perfect opportunity for critics and dissenters. And once they started to speak out their critique offered the media a fresh and beguiling argument. It was bound to get exaggerated attention because it is new and different. And it’s criticism!
I’m afraid Mr Modi is caught between two equally compelling forces — the anguish of unfulfilled expectations and the power of outspoken criticism and dissent. As he approaches his first anniversary, I doubt if they will make for a comfortable celebration. But of one thing he can be sure. Both will pass but, perhaps, not as swiftly as he would wish. Till then he must grit his teeth and smile at the same time. Try it, it’s not easy!
(The views expressed are personal.)