IT is not likely that even in his weaker moments, Narendra Modi would have anticipated the spell of bad press that he, and his regime, currently seems to be attracting. By most accounts, his first year in office had passed off successfully, even though those taken in by his somewhat extravagant promises of achey din had some reason to complain. In general, Narendra Modi seemed both secure and lucky. Not only was the opposition in disarray, voices of dissent within his own party and government had been suitably chastened. Nevertheless, though these are early days, there is little denying that the Modi halo has dimmed and cracks in the edifice are visible.
Take, for instance, his trip to Bangladesh. The Modi regime deserves credit for finally firming up the long festering land swap and boundary agreement – a process that should have been completed during the reign of his predecessor, had the UPA only been politically more adept. The otherwise ‘successful’ trip was, however, marred by a series of unnecessary gaffes. Modi’s failure to mention the role of Indira Gandhi in the ‘creation’ of Bangladesh in the acceptance speech for the award for Atal Bihari Vajpayee smacked of a singular lack of grace, making him appear like a petty, provincial chieftain, not an inclusive visionary. At least he should have remembered that after the December 1971 victory which resulted in an independent Bangladesh, Vajpayee had hailed Indira Gandhi as Durga.
But it was his inept choice of words when ostensibly praising the Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, for her firmness and resolve in combating terror, that attracted the greatest ire of critics. Using phrases such as ‘despite being a woman Sheikh Hasina…’, Narendra Modi clearly demonstrated that he had learnt little from decades of feminist scholarship and advocacy. Even if more authentically reflective of the patriarchal mindset of much of our political class, surely a media-savvy politician like Modi should have wetted his speech more carefully.
Barely had he landed back from Bangladesh that his government got embroiled in yet another controversy resulting from his I&B minister’s intemperate gloating over the ‘covert’ operations by the Indian Army special forces against militant/terrorist groups on the India-Myanmar border. No responsible regime crows about the ‘success’ of its covert operations, more so if they have ‘allegedly’ been carried out across the border. The army spokespersons were suitably sober and that is where the matter should have been allowed to rest. Evidently, the desire in the political leadership to appear strong and decisive trumped the advice of those who pleaded circumspection. In the event what could have been a moment of quiet victory turned into a diplomatic gaffe – embarrassing the Myanmar leadership, irritating China and needling Pakistan.
But nothing in the one year plus of the BJP regime has generated more negative commentary than l’affaire Modi, not Narendra but Lalit Modi, former Indian Premier League Chairman, currently in the UK evading legal summons by Indian authorities for serious financial misdemeanour. Central to the controversy are the actions of the Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj who, in gross violation of propriety and procedures, interceded with the UK authorities to help an ‘absconder’ from law acquire temporary travel documents since his Indian passport stood cancelled.
Forget the validity of the ‘charges’ against Lalit Modi; that the courts will decide. Or the somewhat specious defence of ‘humanitarian considerations’ advanced, that Ms Swaraj had intervened only because Lalit Modi needed to be with his wife receiving medical treatment in Portugal. To have not consulted her departmental colleagues, or those in other ministries, constitutes a serious breach of procedures. What is worse is that the minister’s husband and daughter have long been legal counsel for Lalit Modi, bringing to centre-stage the issue of ‘conflict of interest’. The lacklustre defence of the minister by ministerial and party colleagues has only fuelled rumours of deep schisms in the party, further corroding the image of the party and the prime minister. Suddenly, what so far was seen as a cohesive, purposeful regime, comes across as floundering, unsure of how to handle a difficult situation.
It is likely, as often happens in such situations, that nothing much will come of the current controversy. Media interest is in any case fickle and when pushed to the wall, the political class across party and ideological divides tends to bury differences and come together for collective survival. Far too many of them are vulnerable on similar grounds. Nevertheless, there is little denying that the sheen has gone from the Modi regime and that it is likely to face a far more sustained intrusive media interrogation than it has so far experienced. Neither power nor good times last forever.