- May 16 2016
On May 16, Narendra Modi reaches the second anniversary of his compelling election victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha contest. Ten days later, his government finishes its second year. Inevitably, this is the moment of report cards, but a few caveats may be necessary. The coming week or 10 days will see more than one event that will inevitably shape perceptions of Modi@2. As such, the grades one decides upon today and the grades pundits recognise on May 26 may be slightly different.
Why? Results of five state elections will be declared on May 19. While the BJP is not a major contender, except in Assam , the verdict will establish whether there is still juice in the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah project that propelled the BJP to such dominance in 2014, but found two state elections in 2015, Delhi and Bihar , much too formidable.
More than that, the results in Kerala, Assam and West Bengal will be a referendum on the Congress and its leadership, and whether the party is in any shape to put together an electoral challenge to the BJP in the near future — beyond its grandstanding in the Rajya Sabha and its MPs' forays into op-ed pages. There is also a widespread belief that prime minister Modi will use his government's anniversary, as well as the ongoing process of new inductions into the Rajya Sabha, to effect a ministerial reshuffle.
This will be a leading India cator of his government's self assessment, of what it thinks it has done right and where it has faltered, of what gaps need to be filled and with whom. This critical analysis and the nature of any reshuffle will be keenly watched. It would be the final major such exercise for the Modi government, coming midway through its effective term. As such, it will be a benchmark of the maturing and evolution of the government and the prime minister, and the lessons learnt from the previous two years. Having entered those caveats — those two known unknowns — let us proceed to a reading of what has already passed.
How have the past two years shaped up for Modi and India? Has he delivered on his promises, or at least his promise? Alternatively, did he essentially over-promise? What standards and criteria are we to judge him by? Most important, is he still deemed electable? That is a critical question; all said and done, in the hard game of politics and power, "electability" is the ultimate currency. Assessments of electability, it must be accepted though, are very different from actually predicting an election result in 2019.
Two big concerns
The ledger of Modi@2 is not necessarily a rendition and a recollection of all that has happened, every decision taken and visit made, every election won and lost, over two years. It is actually about how he and his government have done in the past year. The 12-month period from Modi@1 to Modi@2 has been a roller-coaster, an up and-down journey that has had the government confronting its two principal concerns: the economy , and the attempts at coalescing a robust political opposition to it.
Everything else is noise. Modi believes, and has said so more than once, that public memory is short as well as practical. It tends to measure an incumbent government against the performance of the previous government, insofar as historical comparisons matter at all. As such, Modi, and other politicians too, argue that though superficially persuasive expressions such as "opportunity of a generation" and "potential of a mandate" are inherently vague and mean little to common people . This may be a cynical and philosophically narrow view, but it cannot be wished away.
Modi is also clear that the voter will judge him in 2019 primarily on the basis of his government's economic performance, and what changes the BJP and its ministers have managed to bring to the well being and prospects of ordinary individuals, families and households. This is a sobering thought for both some of Modi's enthusiastic supporters as well as for his conspiracy theorist opponents. Even in the past year, while the "intolerance debate" — partly the product of bombast from within the BJP camp but much of it pure exaggeration — consumed a small elite in Delhi, the political blow back to the BJP, and to several state governments, came not from the so-called "cultural issues" but from an unremitting rural and agrarian distress.
Eventually, the "intolerance" issue simply died away and the media campaign ran out of steam. On the other hand, the agricultural and rural economy just grew and grew in the consciousness of the government. This forced the prime minister into a series of political and administrative responses, as nothing in the "intolerance" and "award wapsi" debates had. There is a telling message here for anybody interested, but that is another story.
End of the dream run
Modi's dream opening year ended not in 12 months, but a little earlier, in February 2015, when Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party swept to power in Delhi. This was followed by Rahul Gandhi's return to India after a long holiday — political sabbatical, if you prefer — and his aggressive denunciation of the Modi government as oppressive and pro-rich. This phase segued into the entire discourse about "intolerance", and the Bihar election campaign. The latter especially claimed much more of the prime minister's political capital and time than was strictly warranted.
In effect, it ate into crucial months of year two. In November 2015, Bihar was lost to the Nitish Kumar-Lalu Yadav alliance, backed by the Congress. This gave the impression to some that the Modi mission had been permanently derailed. The impression was shaped by a wider context, starting with the inability of the government and the opposition to come to a working arrangement in Parliament. This obviously told on Modi's legislative agenda, particularly on the Goods and Services Tax constitutional amendment. Next there was the whole issue of the "narrative", a slippery word that defies accurate definition but is nevertheless a barometer of a government's and an establishment's grip on a larger political ecosystem.
In the case of the Modi government, the "narrative" question came down to a communication and media strategy (or non-strategy) that seemed to perplex even sympathisers, let alone those in the middle ground. These were people who recognised the "award wapsi" campaign, for instance, as overdone and yet could not fathom why it was not combated in an intelligent and sophisticated manner. Finally, there was the impact of the two defeats, in Delhi and more so Bihar. Would they push Modi towards populism and diminish his political capital and appetite for rationalising economic efficiencies? In November 2015, all of these matters came to a head. Modi@1.5 was a decidedly testing hour. There were analysts, politicians and even civil servants in Delhi who confidently predicted that the BJP-led government had lost its way. By 2011, close to the second anniversary of UPA II, there were protests on the streets, Anna Hazare was beginning the first of his many fasts, and the popular mood was turning ugly and hostile. To Modi's opponents, Bihar heralded just such a situation for the NDA government.
In better shape
Six months on, that nightmare scenario seems very far away. It is not as if all problems have miraculously sorted themselves out. Not at all. But it would be churlish not to admit that the Modi government has climbed out of the mess it had got itself into in the winter of 2015. It ends year two in better shape than it has been for much of year two. Again there are three reasons for this. First, while the government's communication approach is far from perfect, it is certainly an improvement on its past. There is a sense that the loose voices have been clamped down upon, to the degree it is feasible.
At the minimum, the free-for-all that had every third minister and fourth MP speaking on everything from Pakistan policy to the cow has come to an end. The government seems just that much more coherent. Second, the budget of February 2015 was a tonic, especially since it kept to the fiscal deficit targets in a time of political upheaval and party pressure on the government to spend its way out of trouble. This has won Modi and finance minister Arun Jaitley respect. Should the monsoon be fine this year and should crude oil prices continue to remain below $50 a barrel, many of the assumptions of the budget will be borne out. By 2017, a recovery — as much of a recovery as the international economy will allow — should be visible.
The fiscal tightness of today will also give Modi resources that can be used for economic benefit and political efficacy in the final 18 months. This is not a perfect, fool-proof plan. However, it is a sensible and sound plan — and has come to be understood by a wider constituency. Third, the opposition has not quite capitalised on the gains of 2015. Rahul Gandhi has made loud statements and travelled from trouble spot to trouble spot, but he has not upped his game. A substantial policy or governance critique from the Congress' presumptive leader is still awaited.
The party has been overly dependent on anti-Modi auxiliaries in the media and the intelligentsia, rather than on organic, self-generated political action. The doubts will only intensify if Kerala, West Bengal and Assam bring further bad news . Elsewhere, Arvind Kejriwal hasn't settled into serious governance and has frittered away advantages with inconsequential obsessiveness about Modi's college degrees and so on. Kejriwal's emergent battle with Nitish Kumar — both see themselves as alternatives to Modi - has also pointed to the limits to opposition unity. On the cusp of its second anniversary, this has given the Modi government room for renewal and hope. Of course, a suitable mandate on May 19 would help.
This commentary originally appeared in The Economic Times.