Why Hide Your Stripes
Modi was right in signalling development over divisive politics, but he was on the defensive on the three make-or-break challenges for his government
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is at his best when he is proactive. For most of his four-and-a-halfyear tenure, he has batted on the front foot. He has much to be proud of in his record of development, particularly building highways, toilets and homes for the needy, electrification of villages and subsidised LPG connections, rationalising indirect taxes for businesses and launching the world’s largest health insurance scheme. With the general election just five months away, he needed to use every opportunity to talk about these initiatives apart from setting the agenda for the polls.
Yet, in his 90-minute interview on New Year’s Day— possibly his longest on-the-record interview as prime minister—Modi seemed strangely on the defensive and, at times, even rambling. Perhaps the three recent losses in the Hindi heartland states had dented not just his hitherto vaunted invincibility but his confidence too. The criticism from the opposition (mostly Rahul Gandhi) and even some of his partymen, suggesting that arrogance is his defining flaw, also seems to have hit home. Maybe Modi had resolved that, in 2019, he wanted to exhibit a softer, humbler and friendlier persona. But he should know that a tiger doesn’t need to disguise its stripes.
To his credit, Modi did show the steel he is known for when, much to the displeasure of the Sangh Parivar, he made it clear in the interview that his government would wait for a judicial verdict before taking any step on the Ram Mandir issue. The prime minister clearly dismissed demands for an ordinance in Parliament to pre-empt judicial proceedings. Modi seemed to be signalling that he was not willing to downplay his development agenda and rely on the emotive issue of Ayodhya to get re-elected. That showed sagacity, for it was Modi’s promise of development and decisive governance, rather than divisive communal issues, that propelled the BJP to a handsome majority in 2014. Yet he left enough room for the hard-core Hindutva voter by leaving ambiguous his intentions on Ayodhya after the verdict.
On the range of national security issues, Modi chose to dwell only on the ‘surgical strikes’ on Pakistan. It was riveting television, to be sure, as he went into graphic detail of the decision to order the operation, even mentioning that he had worried constantly about the soldiers’ safety while the attack was on. But for all the boldness and daring of that moment, his account of it revealed that the prime minister was still prone to chest-thumping. This, despite the Northern Army Commander, who oversaw the strike and who has now retired from service, recently cautioning Modi against hyping the impact of the strike or politicising it. The prime minister admitted, though, that one strike was not going to tame Rawalpindi.
When it came to dealing with the triple challenges of farmers’ agitations, rural distress and unemployment—the main causes of the losses in the Hindi heartland—Modi was again on the defensive. He was right to denounce the rush to waive farm loans to win votes—the Congress did it in the three states it won recently as did the BJP in Uttar Pradesh earlier. In empowering farmers to earn rather than putting them on the dole, Modi is on the right track. But his government is yet to attempt the necessary structural changes in agriculture. Everyone knows it is a long haul, but Modi could have used the opportunity to present his blueprint for change for 2019 and beyond. Nor did he say much on how he would mitigate the hardships of the informal sector, which was the worst-hit by his demonetisation move. Or provide more jobs to the millions of youth across the country.
It is now apparent that the outcome of the 2019 general election will be determined not so much by the middle class but by the large masses who have been pushed to the margins by India’s economic growth trajectory. To win, Modi will have to prove that he is the man for the job. The interview did little to inspire that confidence.
While the surgical strikes were no doubt a daring move, that the PM chose to dwell on it showed he is still prone to chest-thumping