“After his stunning victory, I heard his first telecast in a large room full of friends and acquaintances who had gathered for a celebratory party. Men cheered him; women simply swooned.”
This descriptive observation after Rajiv Gandhi’s political arrival by veteran journalist Inder Malhotra, who passed away earlier this year, is testimony to periodic emergence of political leaders of similar traits, albeit from dissimilar stables. Applicable almost to the “T” after Prime Minister Narendra Modi swept into office in 2014, this depiction of social behaviour in 1984-85 also draws attention to similar trajectories of the two PMs for the first half of their tenures.
The similarities do not stop at overlapping narratives of Rajiv Gandhi and Narendra Modi, but extend to the complete political canvas. In the first half of his tenure there was no challenging Gandhi. Mr Clean wore a sparkling image not donned hitherto by the political class and he pursued each obsession with vigour. From launching new high-speed trains to ushering in the communication revolution and parroting need to prepare for the 21st century, Gandhi’s self-obsession was no lesser than Mr Modi’s. Just as the opposition to Gandhi remained in complete disarray till well after the Bofors scam surfaced, Mr Modi’s opponents, despite straws in the wind, remain divided. In fact, the year that slips into history, will most likely be referred by future historians as the “marker” when either the decline of the Modi Sarkar began or when he tightened his stranglehold. Likewise, electors in coming state elections and eventually the next parliamentary polls will determine if this was the year when the principal Opposition parties began recovering from the stunning defeat in 2014 or not.
This year kicked off ominously for Mr Modi with the terror raid in Pathankot undoing the dramatic Lahore touchdown. The government’s response to the attack and handling of relations with Pakistan has indicated the Prime Minister’s intention to politically harness decisions. The manner in which the BJP sought mileage from “surgical strikes” after the Uri attack has left the nation expecting similar action in future. Continuing strikes by terrorists despite Indian response demonstrates that publicising strikes across the border is not the best way to tackle the problem. Inconsistency, which marked Mr Modi’s Pakistan policy from the time he dramatically invited Saarc leaders to his inaugural, remains conspicuously present even now. There is need to convey to Islamabad as well as to Pakistan’s Deep State in Rawalpindi that promoting terrorism in India is not cost-effective, but this message must be sent discreetly and not by unleashing the publicity machinery. Unfortunately,
Mr Modi’s initiatives on Pakistan are aimed at the domestic constituency. He wishes to be seen as a non-nonsense leader by Indians more than by anyone else, specially decision-makers in Pakistan, and this makes criticising him difficult.
The year 2016 will also be recalled as the time when the BJP thrust a narrower definition of nationalism and presented the idea of ultra-nationalism. Events emerging from Rohith Vemula’s suicide, incidents in JNU and developments after Burhan Wani’s death in Kashmir demonstrated that disagreement with government policies or those of the BJP was synonymous to anti-nationalism. The BJP argued, for its political benefit, that anti-nationals abuse freedom of expression and in its name weaken foundations of the Indian nation. Dissent and disagreement are sufficient reasons for accusations of disloyalty or treason. Indeed, 2016 witnessed widening of the Hindutva plank as in the name of curbing anti-nationalism, democratic protests were branded anti-national while sectarian protesters like gau rakshaks were patronised and enforcing agencies turned a blind eye to vigilantism. Attacks on dalits reached new heights as did the regime’s silences. Central ministers repeatedly questioned Vemula’s dalit identity and when a state party leader hurled expletives at Mayawati, he was penalised but to placate the upper castes, his wife was appointed president of the women’s wing of the state BJP.
As the year came to an end, demonetisation relegated every other issue to the background. From the beginning it was evident that though an economic decision, it was taken with political intent. Consequently, Mr Modi couched the raison d’être of his action in a cloak of morality and false nationalism and projected himself as the sole custodian of honesty. His strategy was reminiscent of Rajiv Gandhi’s step to introduce the anti-defection law in 1985, presented as a necessary step to end political crossovers, though the actual intention was stifling inner-party democracy and secure his regime. Because the objective was presented as “good and necessary for the nation”, the Opposition parties failed to pierce the fear of people. A few like Mamata Banerjee dared questioning the policy but were painted as having amassed wealth by questionable means (chit funds). Demonetisation was the single-most disruptive official proclamation since V.P. Singh’s 1999 announcement implementing the Mandal Commission recommendations, yet it failed to unite the Opposition. Every leader, ranging from Rahul Gandhi to Mayawati and Nitish Kumar, mainly ploughs a lonely furrow.
Undoubtedly, the push towards a digital economy centred on the slogan of cashless society will be among Mr Modi’s lasting legacies. At present, India is ill-prepared for reasons varying from cultural dependence on currency to inadequate mobile networks.
Mr Modi built on the UPA’s programme of financial inclusion and repeated the strategy by promoting cashless transactions initiated by the previous government. He has striven to stamp ownership rights on the two programmes by adding vigour to these. In recent weeks, the BJP’s lack of confidence has surfaced, generating hope of revival in the Opposition. Of the seven states that choose new governments in 2017, the most crucial are Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat. The verdict will indicate if Mr Modi’s standpoint on the dominant narratives of 2016 is endorsed or if the tide is beginning to turn Opposition’s way. Developments through this year will impact the future of all parties, ruling as well as Opposition.