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

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