As a combative campaigner for the BJP in the West Bengal assembly polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was so enthused by the sea of humanity at his rallies that he foresaw a big wave sweeping his party to power. Instead, the Covid tsunami swept Indians into hospitals which ran short of beds, medicines and even oxygen. Here, the PM was clearly out of his depth as he addressed the nation on Tuesday night.
Modi’s 19-minute speech had none of the panache of his prolonged Bengal campaign; he was struggling like an English batsman on a turning wicket. It was disappointing; no promises, no solidarity with the citizens, no new ideas (for instance, one vaccine, one price), no determination, no zing, not even a ‘jumla’. Instead, the PM passed the buck on to the people, telling them to form monitoring committees in micro-containment zones. So lacklustre was his speech that most newspapers banished it to the inside pages.
How does one explain the anticlimax where a political leader is so impressive at election rallies but so inept at governance? The answer lies in our own psyche, which looks for a messiah, as well as in Modi’s own perception of himself as a supremo. The result is an electoral autocracy.
Modi posed himself as a viable alternative to the Gandhi family but in the seven years of his rule he has done little else but to decimate the Congress, to topple non-BJP governments by hook or by crook, to convert India into a Hindu Pakistan and to terrorise whatever few opponents that are left.
A day before the PM’s address, India reported 2,73,810 new Covid infections and 1,619 deaths; both the highest single-day spikes. Clearly, someone had gone to sleep at the wheel. Ironically, Modi had to fall back on the advice given by his predecessor whom he had derided as ‘Maun’ Mohan and whom his health minister had pooh-poohed.
It is only now dawning on us that winning elections is one thing and good governance is quite another. The BJP’s obsession for a Congress-‘mukt’ Bharat has turned the PM into the ‘prachar pradhan’ of the party rather than the ‘pradhan sevak’ he promised to be. Let alone ‘achhe din’, you can’t get an oxygen cylinder today even if you beg, borrow or steal.
It is not lost on voters that the PM’s speech came on the eve of Ram Navami. ‘Ram rajya’ is not to be confused with a temple in his name. God today is to be found in the temples of modern India; the labs which make vaccines, the hospitals, the oxygen plants. As for traditional temples, the richest one in India, Tirupati, has sacked its employees.
Brand Modi has been tarnished but his devotees maintain that he is well-intentioned, only that his clean-up drive has created many enemies. The reality is that Modi has created a personality cult and surrounded himself with yes-men who are too timid to tell him where he is going wrong.
To make matters worse, Modi opts for loyalty over expertise. He gets rotten advice such as demonetisation, the hasty implementation of the GST and wonder of wonders, no one told him that the ‘shahi snan’ at Haridwar was an idea as bad as the Tablighi Jamaat congregation.
Modi has muzzled the media so that it too has become an echo chamber. The handful of defiant media outfits are battling tax cases, sedition and threats to life and limb. The latest is that editors have been told not to carry any visuals of cremation.
On the day Modi spoke, Reporters Without Borders published the World Press Freedom Index, which ranks India at 142 among 180 countries. Explaining the reasons for categorising India as ‘bad’ for journalism and among dangerous countries for journalists, the report says that the BJP supporters and the Hindutva ideology have created an environment of intimidation for journalists who are critical of the government by labelling them as ‘anti-national’ or ‘anti-state’. Let alone journalists, the government is going after stand-up comics too.
Modi has zero tolerance for criticism, hence no press conference in seven years. So, instead of warning signals, all he hears is, ‘Modi hai toh mumkin hai’. Instead of Congress-‘mukt’ Bharat, we got a ‘prashashan-mukt’ Bharat.
In the words of a retired bureaucrat: “We thought we had seen it all, but nothing could have prepared us for the viciousness, the malignancy, the insensitivity, the reckless disregard for Constitutional morality, the pettiness, the arrogance, the vaulting ambition, the ruthlessness, and the cruelty towards the ‘other’, the cultural vulgarity, the intellectual vacuity and now the monumental administrative incompetence that we have seen in the last seven years.”
Again, winning elections and running the economy, or rather, running the economy and ruining the economy, are two different things. The latest report of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) reveals that salaried jobs across India registered a sharp decline in 2020-‘21 to the tune of 9.8 million. India had a total of 85.9 million salaried jobs in 2019-‘20 which, by the end of March 2021, had reduced to 76.2 million.
According to the Pew Research Centre, a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world, about 32 million people in India were driven into poverty by the pandemic last year.
Here’s praying that the voter insists on his government abandoning the undeclared Emergency and focusing on the real one.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. He invites feedback at email@example.com