Governments have to put on a brave face when they are facing problems. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government does it very well. It does something more. It denies that there is a challenge in the first place, even as it grapples with it on the ground. The two major challenges before the government are the ground situation in the Kashmir Valley after the removal of Article 370 and the economic slowdown. Prime Minister Modi and his colleagues are rightly emphasising the decision of abrogating Article 370 and not talking very much about the elusive normality in the Valley ever since the decision was taken. The Prime Minister and home minister Amit Shah chose to emphasise the political daring involved in the decision while remaining silent on the continuing lockdown in the Valley. National security adviser Ajit Doval has been talking about the improvement in the situation on the ground, which is a far cry from the prevailing tensions on the ground.
On the economic front, while finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman is trying to project a reassuring image that the government is dealing with the problem aggressively, minister for information and broadcasting Prakash Javadekar in his press conference to mark the 100 days of the second Modi government sheepishly acknowledged that the slowdown was due to the global economic situation, and said that the fundamentals of the economy remained strong.
Then there is the mess created by the National Register of Citizens in Assam. Mr Shah wanted to wave it as a standard of a strong-willed BJP government to deal with the issue of “illegal migrants”. But it turned out to be complicated where it left every one of its supporters — the Assamese, as well as the Hindu Bengalis from Bangladesh — angry and dissatisfied. What was meant as a firm handling of “Bangladeshi Muslims” in Assam became a bigger and complex monster.
The first 100 days shows that it is not going to be a smooth ride for the Narendra Modi government. In 2014, on completion of 100 days in office, Mr Modi in his blog had complained that the media had not given the customary “honeymoon period” and that his government was criticised from Day One. It was, of course, not true. But in 2019, the majority in the media have supported the government’s Kashmir decision, but they have expressed strong reservations about the economy and pointed to the contradictions in the NRC exercise. Mr Modi of course is not blaming the media this time around. It is, however, evident that the Prime Minister and his colleagues know that they cannot airbrush the ground reality, and that the problems and irritants will persist on these fronts.
This can be seen on the Kashmir front as well. Mr Modi and Mr Shah have rightly claimed that the decisions made about Jammu and Kashmir are an internal matter and there is no room for any international intervention. US President Donald Trump has backed off and it has been trumpeted as Mr Modi’s diplomatic success. But external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar is continually doing the rounds of Asia and Europe explaining the Indian position and assuring his counterparts that the troublemaker in Kashmir is Pakistan. Mr Doval had to say that normality cannot return to Kashmir because of the Pakistan factor. The Indian government is continually on its feet to counter every move by a flustered Pakistan to raise the Kashmir issue in international forums.
India can take comfort in the fact that both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have turned out to be strong supporters of India, and the simultaneous visit of the foreign ministers of these two countries to Islamabad last week can be seen as an attempt of the Gulf Arab countries to hold back Pakistan in the matter. But India cannot afford to ease its guard on the international front on the Kashmir question. It has to be on the alert for months to come to parry diplomatic intrusions from the West and from Pakistan.
More important and more difficult will be the internal situation in the Kashmir Valley. The fallout of the abrogation of Article 370 and turning Jammu and Kashmir into a Union territory will remain problematic for a long time, and even a sanguine Modi government which believes that what it did was for the good of the Kashmiris as well as for the country will have to deal with the anger and resentment of the ordinary people day in and day out, and take a thousand ameliorative measures to assuage the hurt feelings of the people.
The economy, on the other hand, could show signs of improvement as early as Quarter 3 (October-December 2019) and Quarter 4 (January-March 2020), though it may not be enough to revive the growth trajectory. Even optimists who believe that the slowdown is a cyclical phenomenon are of the view that there will be no recovery before the end of 2020. In political terms, a year is an eternity.
The Narendra Modi government has been good at moving on from one issue to another in a brisk manner through its first term from the summer of 2014 to the summer of 2019. But it will not able to bring up new issues and relegate the old ones like a magician throwing up balls in the air and creating the illusion of keeping them all up in the air. The problems of Kashmir, the NRC and the economy are here to stay longer than anticipated. And the government will be forced to deal with them on a continuous basis. These cannot be pushed on to the backburner, as it were. They force themselves on the time and energy of the government. This could prove to be good for Mr Modi, Mr Shah, the government and the BJP because they will learn to deal with the problems and setbacks, and not just with electoral success. Hectoring will not serve as a substitute to deal with these issues, either for the Prime Minister or for the home minister.