Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Delhi gives warning to Premier Modi

The election results of the Delhi poll last week were keenly awaited. Delhi has a larger-than-life significance in India's national politics. If a ruling party at the centre cannot win in Delhi, it somehow gets to be taken as a warning that the national mood disfavors it. Delhi is a microcosm of India, and the crushing defeat that the ruling party at the centre, Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP], has suffered in Delhi - winning just three seats out of 70 - ought to ring alarm bells in the mind of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Modi understood well that the stakes were high and, therefore, unusual for a prime minister, he took a "hands-on" role in BJP's election campaign. Did he overreach? Modi even invoked during the campaign the visit of US President Barack Obama to Delhi just 10 days before the election. The buck, no doubt, stops at Modi.

The string of BJP electoral successes that Modi masterminded since winning the general election last May to the Indian parliament has been punctuated. The aura of invincibility around Modi's political persona is dissipating. Politics anywhere, especially in India, is a matter of perceptions and the country took note today that Modi can be defeated.

However, what accounted for the BJP's stunning defeat in the Delhi election would be a combination of factors and force of circumstances. One easy explanation could be that the BJP's party machinery in Delhi was in disrepair riven by factionalism with rival cliques undercutting each other.

That's true - but, only up to a point. But then, Modi is BJP - and, increasingly, BJP is becoming Modi - and, therefore, his imprimatur in the election campaign superimposed all else. The point is, the decisiveness of the electoral verdict in favor of a relatively new party, Aam Admi Party [Common Man's Party] - winning 67 seats out of 70 - is heavily laden with political content.

To comprehend the shock therapy, one needs to revisit Modi's stunning victory in the 2014 general election. It was a mandate that looked big largely because of the aberrations of India's electoral system. The BJP won 51.8% of seats in the Indian parliament although it polled only 31% votes (out of the turnout of voters estimated at 66.38%). That is to say, the popular base of the Modi government remains narrow.

Modi's charisma as a forceful leader helped the BJP to attract a big chunk of voters who were disenchanted with the Congress Party on various counts (after 10 years in power). Fragmentation in the opposition also helped. Suffice it to say, the formidable mandate of the present government actually wears a surreal look, notwithstanding the fairy tale that has been woven around it.

Modi promised the moon to the Indian electorate - an efficient, corruption-free, performance-oriented, transparent, accountable government. The plain truth is that through the past nine-month period in power, the government failed to impress the nation. The performance has been lackluster. An impression steadily formed that Modi is quintessentially a stage performer who sweeps away his audience in dream sequences.

The Delhi results show that disillusionment has crept in. The rise in price of food items has been notable; Delhi still remains a lawless city; the bureaucracy is still stinkingly corrupt; and Modi probably failed to anticipate that his showmanship with "Friend Barack" by his side wearing a garish suit that was estimated to cost US$10,000 was like rubbing salt into the wound of the common man.

The TV spectacle that Modi choreographed, spread over three days with himself fawning over Obama, proved counterproductive. It not only failed to impress Delhiites but irritated them. The image of any government as "elitist" never goes down well in India, where the overwhelming majority of people eke out miserable lives. Elitism is synonymous with insensitivity and grates against the country's culture and traditions.

Equally, the recent period witnessed a high level of intolerance toward minority communities on the part of the right wing nationalists who form the bedrock of the Modi government. Scores of Christian churches have been vandalized and mass ‘conversion' of people from other faiths to Hindu religion is being arranged. But the government has not done anything to stop these outrageous happenings and authorities are passively acquiescing with the rising curve of Hindu fundamentalism.

The priorities of the common people, including India's so-called ‘middle class', are quite clearly in social harmony and peace and a milieu in which they can cope with the burden of life.

Without doubt, Modi's image has suffered from the non-performance of the government. True, he holds no magic wand - and India's problems are acute and systemic in character that lend to no easy solution - but then, he should not have pretended, either, that if only given a chance, he could overnight make all the difference to governance. In fact, on many issues Modi backtracked - for instance, on his strong pledge that he'd bring back money stowed away in foreign banks illegally by the country's elites - and it increasingly looks as if the more things seemed to change in the country, the more they have remained the same.

The defeat in Delhi couldn't have come as a shock to Modi. To his credit it needs to be said that he is a realist who understands the nation's mood. According to highly reliable sources, Modi has been confiding his deep concern during private conversations - with a sense of foreboding - that the shine was wearing off his government. Modi has given a free hand to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley with the proviso that he must somehow show results quickly to galvanize the economy and put it on a high trajectory of growth.

To be sure, in foreign policies too, there is bound to be some impact. Modi has expounded the "Make in India" project as the centre piece of the country's economic diplomacy to which he attributes primacy in the foreign policy sphere. Modi will bulldoze the resistance of ‘hardliners' to revamp India's China ties. His forthcoming visit to China in May assumes high importance. A robust push can be expected to kick start big railway projects and industrial parks with Chinese participation and investment that would hold the potential to create large-scale job opportunities in a near term.

Conceivably, Modi may also engage Pakistan constructively, since a regional environment conducive to push the development agenda is an imperative need. The present impasse in the relationship with Pakistan (which is nearing the freezing point) is fraught with high. Modi instinctively prefers normalization with Pakistan but he needs to sell this policy first within his own camp. Alas, India's Pakistan ties often tend to get intertwined with ‘Hindutva' politics.

In domestic politics, Delhi election results will rejuvenate the opposition parties and dispel their despondency following the crushing defeat in the 2014 poll. But what is going to count is their ability to unite and put up a united front to oppose the BJP in the upcoming state elections to some key states such as Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh.

All in all, Modi still has ample time to arrest the drift and reverse the political tide. On the other hand, he has no track record of coalition building. He needs allies - within his party where he is regarded as more equal than others as well as on the larger political arena where he is viewed as a lone hungry wolf averse to co-habitation. Despite the massive defeat in Delhi, Modi's prestige is still high on the national plane and he can afford to be more tolerant and accommodative toward others instead of doing things the John Wayne way.

Most certainly, it is about time to rein in the Hindu zealots since he has promises to keep. They have caused enough desecration in the holy grounds of the nation's secularism. The Delhi results underscore that the people reject the politics of polarization on religious lines.

In fact, Modi's mandate in 2014 was not a mandate for Hindu fundamentalist ideology, and a big majority of Hindu resent that the so-called "Sangh Parivar" (right-wing Hindu nationalists) has arrogated to itself the right to speak and act on their behalf. People elected Modi under the impression he had a development agenda and a capacity to deliver good governance. The Delhiites' vehement rejection of Modi, bordering on condemnation, should remind him of it.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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