Journalist | Writer | Analyst
12 January 2015
A Year Of Living Aspirationally
Marked indelibly by the dramatic electoral victory of Narendra Modi, 2014 signifies different things to different people. For those who believe in the fabled qualities of the Prime Minister, it is a harbinger of hope, a year when India finally got down to the business of growth. Among the believers are the legions of poor and middle class Indians whose aspirations the Bharatiya Janata Party brilliantly tapped into during the election campaign. The faithful also include captains of industry and finance, both native and foreign, whose collective impatience with the Congress party’s inability to deliver land, resources, clearances and a booming stock market led them to defect en masse to the Modi camp.
But the Prime Minister has other supporters too, and that is where the story starts to get complicated. These supporters, who form the core Hindutva base of the sangh parivar, are less concerned about growth indices, the Sensex and land acquisition. For them, the advent of the Modi era means the chance to play social and cultural engineer with the soul of the nation, something their ideological ancestors never got to do given their virtual absence from the freedom struggle. 2014 for Hindutva zealots, then, is Year Zero, the date India began to reverse its tryst with a destiny they detest. They are waiting for the country to turn its back on the precepts, principles, politics and philosophy that had helped define its nationhood for decades if not centuries. For this section, governance is primarily about settling scores with the past – and with the phalanx of real and imagined enemies who have stood in the way of the greater glory of the ‘Hindu rashtra’: Marxists, Muslims, Macaulayputras.
Modi’s political opponents know the lay of the land and the dangers that lie ahead. They point to the 31 per cent popular vote share the BJP won—arguing that the social and cultural agendas of the sangh parivar do not have popular sanction—but there is no one to listen to them. Reduced by the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system to a pathetic rump in Parliament, some of them appear willing to fight but lack the inventiveness and humility that the hopelessness of their situation requires. The Congress has lost Haryana and Maharashtra, where it came fourth in the recent assembly elections, and has been bested by the BJP in Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir too. Its alliance with the NCP has ended and the arrogance of the ruling family has led to a split in the Congress in Tamil Nadu, even as the party continues to weaken in Assam, Delhi and Odisha. Stunned by the dramatic if all too predictable reversal in their political fortunes, Congress A-listers like P. Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Jairam Ramesh, Jayanthi Natarajan and Ambika Soni have retreated from the battlefield. Instead of addressing the party’s leadership’s manifest failings, the party hopes to muddle along in a business-as-usual mode.
On its part, the Left in West Bengal is crumbling under the dual onslaught of the Trinamool Congress and the BJP. The ‘socialist’ formations – the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and Laloo Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal – have sought strength in unity and their strategy has succeeded up to a point. The BJP suffered a setback in the by-elections which took place in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh but remains the principal political player in both states.
The BJP also has in its armoury the weapon of communalism that it deployed in western UP with mixed results because the Bahujan Samaj Party chose not to contest the by-elections, thereby allowing Muslims to vote en masse for the SP. Mulayam can hardly expect such propitious conditions when the state as a whole goes to the polls. Further muddying the emerging political waters in 2014 is the attempt by the Hyderabad-based MIM to move northward. The party hopes to capitalize on the disaffection of Muslims towards parties like the Congress, SP and BSP which swear by secularism but have failed to end the socio-economic and political marginalization of the community.
With Amit Shah at the helm, it has launched a major membership drive, inviting the lay public to strengthen Modi’s hands. In tandem, the RSS, is busy building up its network of shakhas around the country. Modi and Shah have a three-pronged strategy to increase the BJP’s national footprint and move it towards full-spectrum dominance: Deprive the opposition of any political space, nibble away at partners where the party rules in alliance with others, and establish an electoral presence in those states where the BJP either never existed before or was very weak.
Withholding the formal designation of “Opposition” from the Congress on a disputed technicality and continuing with the slogan of a “Congress-free India’ are essential parts of this strategy, as was the orchestrated heckling of Congress chief ministers at public events where they shared the dais with Modi. The Shiv Sena has already experienced what it means to compete with the BJP for the same political space. The Akali Dal is the next ally likely to face the heat as the RSS moves to strengthen the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat so that the BJP can look for support beyond its traditional Hindu base in Punjab.
But it is the Modi-Shah policy of ‘looking east’ – to West Bengal, Assam and Odisha – and, over a slightly longer term, to Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the south, that represents the most ambitious aspect of the party’s political agenda. In each of these five states, the traditional two-party system is coming under strain. West Bengal is where the BJP is most confident the electorate is looking for a third option; in Assam, the party already has a vibrant presence. In Odisha, the latest allegations of financial impropriety against Biju Janata Dal leaders provide an attractive opportunity for the BJP, as does the conviction of AIADMK leader J. Jayalalithaa for possessing disproportionate assets.
The first chinks in Modi’s armour
With the prospects for the BJP’s political growth bright and the opposition too in disarray, the last six months of 2014 should have seen the Modi sarkar coasting ahead confidently. And yet this hasn’t happened. Its accomplishments on the development front so far are rather thin on the ground. But if vikas is taking time, Hindutva isn’t. Presented with a golden opportunity to further its sectarian agenda, the sangh parivar has begun mobilizing its various front organisations to stoke passions on ‘love jihad’, religious conversions, the Ayodhya temple, curricula and other such diversions. The orchestrated attempt to rebrand Christmas as ‘Good Governance Day’ by mandating functions at government offices and higher educational institutions is part of this same process.
What this mindless assertion of Hindutva causes has done, however, is create a nice little Catch-22 for Modi. He has asked party MPs and leaders to stay behind the Lakshman Rekha of propriety but is not in a position to enforce his diktat. This is because he knows that the lessvikas he delivers, the more his dependence on Hindutva in the long run increases. At the same time, the more Hindutva noise there is in the short-term, the less vikas he will be able to generate because it will concentrate the energy of his opponents inside and outside Parliament, and even create law and order problems in certain areas.
Even on the question of vikas, the Modi sarkar has been unable to get around a basic contradiction. Will ‘development’ mean concessions to the corporates and the pruning of social welfare expenditure, as the Modi government has done so far? Or the expansion of civic infrastructure and public amenties to the poor, the fiscal deficit be damned? Will vikas mean amending the Land Acquisition Act to make it easier for companies to fence off land? Or will it mean, as Modi told a rally in Jharkhand, that no adivasis will have to give up their land if they don’t want to? Will vikas mean labour reform, as the corporate sector is demanding, or will the right to fire come packaged with a new social contract that will give the factory worker security of tenure and statutory severance pay in the event of being laid off? In a recent closed-door meeting with economists, Modi denied he was against privatization of the public sector but said he had long-term plans and didn’t want to do anything that would bring the trade unions on to the streets in the first year of his tenure. The Adanis and, to a lesser extent, the Ambanis may be comfortable with the current pace of policymaking but the corporate sector as a whole, which majorly bankrolled Modi’s election campaign, is getting impatient for change. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s 2015 Budget is what they are all focused on.
Apart from grappling with fundamental questions of economic policy and charting a course that can meet the expectations of India Inc without alienating the aspirational cohort whose support carried it to power, the Modi sarkar needs to urgently address its institutional weaknesses.
Too much power is concentrated in the hands of the Prime Minister, with the cabinet system becoming largely ornamental. Despite the presence of Nripendra Mishra as Principal Secretary and Ajit K Doval as National Security Advisor, the PMO lacks robust advisory structures in areas like foreign policy, development, economics, the selection of personnel and the management of political problems. This has led to the problem of ad hocism, where announcements and formulations proliferate without adequate preparation or follow through. So Modi goes to a conference of senior IPS officers in Assam and unveils an alliterative vision for a SMART police force (S for sensitive, M for mobile etc etc) but there is nobody to cross-reference these ideas with the various Police Reform Commission reports gathering dust and come up with a plan that can be implemented. Or the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana gets launched without adequate reference to earlier financial inclusion drives, achieves a certain notional target in terms of bank accounts opened, but there is lack of clarity about how the annual insurance premium is to be paid and how cost-effective banking products and services can be developed to keep these accounts active.
One area where the weakness of Modi’s individual-centric approach is already beginning to tell is in foreign policy. He hit the ground running by inviting South Asian leaders for his inauguration and had excellent visits to both Bhutan and Nepal. However, relations with Pakistan took an unneccessary nose-dive after the ham-handed manner in which foreign secretary talks were called off. The MEA, the Home Ministry and the intelligence agencies knew a week in advance that a meeting between the Pakistani high commissioner and the Hurriyat had been scheduled; for whatever reason, these inputs never reached the PM or were ignored by him. Finally, at the eleventh hour, he decided that Pakistan be told to cancel the Hurriyat meeting or else. Had a more orderly system of decision-making been in place, India could have quietly ensured the Hurriyat meeting never took place and gone ahead with talks at the FS level.
Modi’s multiple visits abroad have generated excitement in the India media and among investors and NRIs in those countries but South Block is rife with stories of the problems Modi’s style of functioning is creating. In Japan, he departed from his prepared text and criticized “those who believe in expansionism” (i.e. China) and who “encroach upon the seas of others.” Later, after MEA officials told him he had deviated from India’s position on not taking sides in territorial disputes in the South China and East China Seas, Modi dialed back on the rhetoric. But his language certainly queered the pitch with Beijing. Since then, the Prime Minister has agreed to use a teleprompter for his foreign policy statements but the absence of strong advisors like Brajesh Mishra or Shivshankar Menon is telling. While he was at the UN, for example, Iran put in a late night request: if Modi were willing to meet President Rouhani the next day, the Iranians would postpone their planned departure by a few hours. Indian officials happy to “balance out” his meeting with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu looked at Modi’s schedule and decided to accommodate Iran. But no Indian official, not even Doval, was willing to approach the Prime Minister at night to get his approval. By the time the PMO was able to revert to the Iranians with a confirmation, it was too late.
While the Environment ministry has gone out of its way to speed up the grant of clearances for mining and industrial projects, the Holy Grail of Indian manufacturing continues to be elusive. Years of rent seeking from land, raw materials and other resources like water, spectrum and easy bank credit has made Indian industry weak and flabby. Today, industry is clamouring for an interest rate cut even though a fall in rates is hardly likely to trigger investment given the current state of aggregate demand. Throughout the year, the corporate sector has been in wait and watch mode. First, they waited for the elections, they they waited for Modi to act. What they have seen so far of the Make in Inda campaign has left them unimpressed. Modi’s magic formula for 2014 was to leverage the support he got from big business into a campaign to market himself as the answer to the rising aspirations of young voters. The campaign worked, but these new voters need to see jobs and housing, hospitals and sanitation, and they need to see these before the campaign for 2019 starts. The RSS is making a mistake if it believes some kind of bait and switch will work should Modi fail to generate the 10 million jobs he promised. Many of the young women and men who voted for the BJP in 2014 may be ‘Ramzadeh’ – descendants of Ram, to use the infelicitous phrase popularized by the BJP MP Sadhvi Jyoti Niranjan – but they will not accept Ram as a substitute for rozgari. They do not want to be told what to wear and eat and drink, what to read and watch, whom to love.
Modi spent the whole of 2014 cultivating a studied ambiguity towards Hindutva’s pet projects, first as a contender for power and then as Prime Minister. But if he continues in this mode, failing to clearly demarcate himself and his government from the divisive agenda of the sangh, his sarkar will run aground.
A shorter version of this piece appeared in print.
(Siddharth Varadarajan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar Unversity)