There are times when the commemoration of an occasion assumes greater importance than the occasion itself. The completion of the first year of the Narendra Modi government was no doubt an occasion to reflect on the successes, shortcomings and the future course of a regime that was voted to power with both fanfare and high expectations. However, far from being an occasion for quiet reflection, it became — like most things in India — a tamasha and a media circus.
To be fair, the government wasn’t responsible for overplaying the significance of its first birthday. A letter from the Prime Minister to the people of India was perhaps in the fitness of things, as was a public meeting whose venue was, quite mercifully, not Delhi. However, the associated paraphernalia, including the public meetings all over India with Union ministers in attendance, were, dictated by the political environment.
The Modi government was essentially reacting to an Opposition (and media) offensive that, despite its high decibel, failed to pierce the regime’s defences. By the time the opinion polls commissioned by the media in gleeful anticipation of some sensational findings unveiled their findings, it had become quite clear that the Modi boat had not been rocked: an overwhelming majority of Indians reposed their confidence in the Prime Minister and his government.
Yet, in the run-up to May 26, a visitor may have been forgiven for coming away from India with an impression that all was not well with the regime. The Opposition had mounted a spirited offensive against the government, with a rejuvenated Rahul Gandhi personally leading the charge against a “suit-boot ki sarkar”.
Mr Modi was berated for being a non-resident Prime Minister and charged with being preoccupied with photo-ops with foreign leaders. The media — which has always had a choppy relationship with the Prime Minister — had jumped into the fray and had outdone the Opposition in charging the government with lack of empathy towards farmers, plotting to steal farmlands and dole it out to fat cats and being unmindful of the poor. The overall impression was of a government that was a hot air balloon waiting to burst.
There were also the discontented voices of a section of business and the foreign media that claimed that the progress was too slow. It was argued that incrementalism was unlikely to suffice and that what India needed was a series of “big bang reforms”, akin to what China had experienced after Deng Xiaoping discarded Maoist orthodoxy. Still others insisted on a major privatisation programme and felt that piecemeal disinvestment wouldn’t suffice to make the public sector more efficient.
And, finally, there were those who focused on the wild utterances of the extremist Hindu fringe and the complaints of the Christian clergy disturbed by some incidents of vandalism. These expressions of social disharmony were linked to a supposed attempt by the Modi government to change the “secular” narrative.
It is not unusual in a democracy, and particularly one where the distinction between informed views and sloganeering has almost collapsed, to be marked by incessant chatter. Many of the doubts over government initiatives — in particular the missteps in the tax regime — were genuine. However, the mere fact that the chatter grew far beyond actual misgivings on the ground owed a great deal to one area where the Modi government, quite uncharacteristically, showed its shortcomings: public communications. It would hardly be unfair to say that after assuming charge and initially benefiting from the wave of curiosity about the new team at the helm, the government let matters slide. The result was that after the BJP’s debacle in the Delhi state election, the impression was allowed to gain ground that the government had somehow lost the plot. The space was created for those who had never reconciled themselves to a Modi victory in May 2014 to dominate the sound waves. These sceptics saw in the first anniversary an occasion to hobble Mr Modi and even had optimistic visions of ensuring a lame duck Prime Minister for the remaining four years.
There is one feature of Mr Modi that has remained unchanged ever since he became chief minister of Gujarat in 2001: his ability to shine in the face of a challenge. The mood of negativism that abruptly erupted after January this year no doubt left the BJP a little disoriented and created a few heartburns in the government. Matters were complicated by the fact that ambitious legislative schedule of the Budget session necessitated the government being seen to be much more accommodative of discordant voices than was strictly necessary. The government quite rightly calculated that it was necessary to ensure that important economic legislation was passed in both Houses of Parliament before a focussed counter-offensive was launched.
At the same time, despite the adverse publicity, the government was reassured on two counts. First, notwithstanding the alarmism over the Land Acquisitions Bill, the Opposition hasn’t been able to nurture anything remotely resembling a mass movement against the proposed legislation. This despite the fact that the agricultural crisis resulting from unseasonal winter rains was twinned with the furore over land acquisition. Secondly, the persistent charge of incrementalism implied that the basic thrust of Mr Modi’s bid to make the Indian economy more competitive and give manufacturing a boost was not being questioned. The sceptics wanted a faster pace.
The counter-offensive, launched after the end of the Budget Session, may have seemed overkill by the time the May 26 anniversary was over and done with. But it was dictated by the exigencies of the moment. In the process, Mr Modi appears to have put an end to the impression that his government was uncommunicative. More important, the larger message that this was a government that was unreceptive to lobbies and intolerant of scams has come through powerfully. In the coming months the government will have to cope with numerous and more daunting challenges. However, if the lessons of the past three months are internalised, it will not have to confront problems that have been cynically manufactured in family cabals and newsrooms.
The writer is a senior journalist