Almost as if on cue, a crisis broke out in the Narendra Modi Government just when it was gearing up to commemorate its 100 days in office. The concept of celebrating that landmark is a relatively recent one and probably emerges from the American political tradition of a ‘honeymoon’, a 100-day grace period granted to a new President, during which the media avoids criticising him. Modi has already said that no honeymoon was accorded to him and criticism began almost as soon as he took over, but that is contestable. In fact, his devotees still have stars in their eyes and the media has been much milder in taking him on than he claims. But leave that aside, since that is a never-ending debate.
What is uncontestable is that the very first storm that hit the government was from within. What a truncated and demoralised Congress in Parliament, lack of unity among opposition parties and a friendly media could not do, a senior minister did—show that all was not well in the upper echelons of the Modi government. Nor was this a dispute over policy or direction—it was palace intrigue, underhand and sneaky and intended to cut the ground from under a colleague’s feet.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh, upset at the continuous rumours and innuendo about his son being pulled up for trying to influence appointments, came out and in anguish, declared that he would quit public life if such an allegation was proved. He did not stop there—he suggested that a senior minister was behind this rumour-mongering. Delhi’s ever buzzing grapevine has been talking about this for weeks and the name of the minister is no secret, but obviously no names can be given publicly without evidence. The anarchic social media of course has no compunctions and speculation was rife about his identity.
The Prime Minister’s office as well as the BJP President Amit Shah both came out strongly to defend Rajnath Singh, the former not just rubbishing the rumours, but declaring that such things were against the interests of the nation. Why that should be so was not explained, but presumably it is in line with linking things with nationalism. With this expression of full-on support, things ought to quieten down for the time being, but will the wily Thakur Singh let the matter die? He is known to be a patient, long-term player and will not take his public humiliation, of having to defend himself and his son so lightly. Besides, his son did not get a ticket for the bypoll from Noida and that was, in the public mind, linked with the rumours, so he does have a grouse that his son’s progress was hobbled by vested interests. This story is not yet over.
The celebration of 100 days was also somewhat dampened by the relatively poor performance of the party in the by-polls. In Bihar, Punjab, MP and Karnataka, the party did worse than expected after a resounding victory in the general elections. Much of the attention was naturally focussed on Bihar, where the BJP had done spectacularly, confounding all expectations and sweeping the crucial state with 31 seats. The secular brigade, i.e. Lalu Yadav, Nitish Kumar and the Congress, was simply swept aside in the Modi wave. But this time round, the three came together and despite all dire predictions about the inherent problems among their rank and file, held together. The results clearly showed that a joint front against the BJP could prove formidable and resist the Modi magic. In Karnataka, the big story was the defeat of the BJP in Bellary, their own pocket borough where the mining barons held sway. Bye-elections, especially to state assemblies, have their own logic and do not necessarily follow the same pattern of Lok Sabha elections, but even so, the BJP will have to do some serious introspection about where it went wrong. There are no less than 33 bye-elections coming up in September, including in Uttar Pradesh; a poor showing there could really affect the party’s newly created image of being on an unstoppable roll. I would wager that the BJP will still do quite well in Maharashtra in the next assembly elections, but here too, it has to contend with handling its troubled ally the Shiv Sena.
All this does not in any way imply any serious trouble for the Modi government or the BJP in general. They are well-entrenched in Delhi and what is more, the opposition parties are splintered and weak. No one party is a threat to the BJP at the centre and even in the states, alliances such as the one between RJD, JD (U) and the Congress are unlikely to spring up in any significant way. Some pundits have even suggested a possible tie-up between the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, along with the Congress, in Uttar Pradesh, but that looks highly improbable.
But these developments are early warning signs that the Modi edifice is not invincible. His style of functioning, with full control over his ministers and MPs and with almost no information getting out, can only work so far and no further. Eventually, it will be a pressure cooker that requires a safety valve to let the steam escape once in a while. The relatively new MPs will be subdued into silence, but Rajnath Singh is no slouch—he has been the chief minister of the largest state, a party president and now is the home minister. He will take only so much and no further. No wonder Modi and Shah rushed to assuage his hurt feelings. Another poor performance at the hustings will embolden those feeling restless. Some of the sheen will then come off.