If Narendra Modi expected Karnataka to be the icing on the cake on the eve of the completion of his four years in office, he must be disappointed. Yet, the setback in the southern state is only one of the several reverses which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has suffered in the recent past. These include a series of by-election defeats in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and UP, which have not been adequately compensated by the party’s successes in the northeast. That’s because electoral outcomes in the country’s heartland have a greater salience than those in a region generally regarded as remote.
Considering that three more assembly elections are due in the next few months where the BJP is facing the anti-incumbency factor, it is obvious that Modi’s fourth anniversary is not the happiest of occasions. Several things appear to have gone wrong for the Prime Minister and his party. Foremost among them is the general bleakness of the economic scene because of the paucity of jobs and the continuing agrarian distress.
But even more than the economic woes — which have led to the blanking out of the phrase ‘achhe din’ (good days) from the saffron lexicon — what may have hurt the government even more is an intimidating atmosphere generated by a political project of virtually remoulding Indian society by obliterating all the supposed ignominy which the country is said to have suffered during the 1,200 years of “slavery” under Muslim and British rule. Not surprisingly, the 60-odd years of Congress rule have been included in this period of “alien” governance.
Hence, the rewriting of history textbooks and the packing of autonomous academic institutions with people in tune with the ruling party’s thinking. These have been accompanied by the veneration of the cow and the targeting of “suspected” beef-eaters. It is this imposition of the saffron writ which made former Vice President Hamid Ansari say that the Muslims were living in fear and led to protests by writers, historians, film makers and others within the first 12 months of Modi’s rule who returned the awards which they had once won.
Instead of analysing why so many distinguished people were expressing their disquiet, the government and the BJP chose to dismiss them as “manufactured protests”, in Arun Jaitley’s words, and the dissatisfaction of a section which has lost the privileges which it had enjoyed under the previous dispensation. Evidently, the BJP believed that it was on the right track — in fact, the protests may have reinforced this self-perception — and that there was no need for a rethink.
Little wonder that the government took no notice of the two open letters written to it by groups of retired civil servants and a third by more than 600 academics, including those in the US, Britain and Australia. While the bureaucrats expressed distress at the decline of “secular, democratic and liberal values”, the educationists regretted that not enough was being done for the vulnerable groups. There is little doubt that the government has taken a number of initiatives to reach out to these groups. In a way, these “small” measures have mitigated to some extent the effects of the faltering on the macroeconomic front.
Among these measures is the Jan Dhan Yojana relating to small savings by ordinary people via a large number of bank accounts. However, although nearly all the households are now said to have access to banks, the number of people with inactive accounts is embarrassingly high. It is the same with cooking gas connections, where consumption has not kept pact with the higher number of households with such facilities. There have been similar shortfalls on the cleanliness (Swachh Bharat) and electrification programmes as well.
According to official figures, 72.6 million household toilets have been built since 2014 and there are now 366,000 defecation-free villages. But the absence of independent verification of these claims has led to the World Bank withholding a $1.5 billion loan for these rural programmes. Similarly, the official assertion about cent per cent electrification of the country has generally been taken with a pinch of salt since government data shows that there are still 31 million households without power and that the percentage reaches 60 in UP, Jharkhand and Assam.
It is on the highways’ front that visible progress has been made with the raising of the construction target to 45 km per day from 27 km. The employment potential of such infrastructure projects is also high. Since 100 per cent foreign investment is allowed in this sector, an estimated $82 billion is expected for it in the next four years.
But all these initiatives should really have been an add-on to an atmosphere of economic buoyancy which is absent. This has been noted by a pro-Modi economist, who has said that the people are yet to see their lives improve materially. Unless this perception changes with, say, an implementation of the Modicare programme of medical insurance in the next few months, the government will not be able to look forward to next year’s general election with high hopes.