With the Bihar Assembly elections over and Prime Minister Narendra Modi having completed his long overdue visit to the global capital of Anglophone liberalism, it is not surprising that the heady rhetoric of “intolerance” and “Hindu Taliban” has quite abruptly receded into the background.
Maybe there are no more awards to return and more pressing issues than the silly deletion by the Censor Board of a deep kiss in the new James Bond film. Whatever the reality, the overdose of excitement that India experienced in the past six months has yielded way to issues that seem normal — not least of which is a controversy surrounding Congress MP Mani Shankar Aiyar’s single-handed demolition of the conventional understanding that Pakistan is a foreign country whose involvement in India’s domestic affairs is unsolicited.
While the past six weeks have been cruel for the Government, the concerted assault on the Modi Government has also served a purpose. Apart from exposing the fact that the ancien regime is alive, kicking and unreconciled to the May 2014 general election verdict, the revolt of the intellectuals has exposed the vulnerabilities of the BJP and, by association, the Prime Minister.
At a political level, the experiences of both the Delhi and Bihar elections have shown that it doesn’t take much to whip up feelings and consolidate the ranks of those who are in any case looking for opportunities to give the BJP a beating. In Delhi, it was the largely manufactured reports of attacks on Christian churches that was the trigger for en masse minority voting against the BJP; in Bihar, the impression of cultural insensitivity played a role in depriving the BJP of even some of its traditional backward caste and middle class vote. Both in Delhi and Bihar, the BJP proved remarkably unsuccessful in countering the hostile propaganda. Indeed, some of its own functionaries ended up (unwittingly) providing additional ammunition to the critics.
There is a belief in the BJP and RSS circles that undue importance should not be attached to a media-inspired campaign, particularly the issues that are highlighted by a deracinated English language media. From a narrow statistical perspective, the scepticism is warranted. The readership/viewership of the English language media is very limited but, at the same time, it plays a disproportionate role in setting a larger intellectual agenda. One of the reasons why a section of the media in Britain viewed Modi as yet another oriental ‘despot’ is because it took the cue from the Indian English language media.
I guess that in a country where there is no rationing of democratic expression, this expression of unconcealed and often politically-motivated hostility is an occupational hazard. Yet, before conspiracy theories overwhelm sober assessments, it is instructive to remember that shrill opposition in the media doesn’t always strike a responsive chord in the public space. Had that been the case, Modi wouldn’t have lasted 12 years as Chief Minister of Gujarat. Nor, for that matter, would he have successfully negotiated the minefields of India to emerge victorious in 2014.
The real reason why the ‘intolerance’ debate proved so costly to the BJP in Bihar had nothing to do with the supposed esteem with which the writers and intellectuals are held in society. The ‘intolerance’ narrative, it would be fair to say, merely complemented a far more damaging impression: A growing impression that in 18 months of being in power the Modi Government has little to show by way of achievement.
To my mind, this impression is misleading and false. At the risk of being hyperbolic, I would hazard the opinion that few governments have been so energetic in so many different spheres as has the Modi Government. This is particularly so in the economic sphere.
From financial inclusion, greater devolution of power to the States, decontrol and deregulation to inflation management and dramatically lowering the levels of corruption, the Modi Government has gone a very long way in creating an environment that is conducive to rapid economic growth.
That the initiatives have not always been felt on the ground are due to two factors: first, the state of economic disrepair Modi inherited was far more than initially anticipated and, second, the expectations of instant transformation have not been met.
Yet, the electorate isn’t totally unreasonable. What voters are looking for is evidence that there is purposeful activity on the part of the Government and that things are beginning to get done. Sometimes this isn’t obvious and it is necessary for the Government’s messaging to be completely focussed. Unfortunately for it, the Government has failed miserably to communicate.
Or, expressed in a different way, the Government’s messaging has got overshadowed by conflicting noises pointing in different directions. I would go far as to say that there seems to be little messaging coordination between the Government, the BJP and the Sangh. Each of them seem to be cancelling out the other’s priorities-as happened in Bihar where a innocent but inopportune remark by the RSS chief was successfully exploited by the Mahagathbandhan to foster a forwards-backwards polarisation.
There is little point suggesting that the autonomy of different organisations should be respected. This may be the norm of other democracies but in India, people are inclined to favour a strong leadership and clear directions. Anything else is seen as incoherence and a sign that all is not well in the Republic of India. Having projected himself as a strong, no-nonsense leader, Modi must now show that he is the last word. Even if this results in momentary unpleasantness, its political returns will more than offset the bruised egos of a few.