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LISTENING to Prime Minister Narendra Modi speak at the Red Fort, it is difficult to visualize the man who had so ‘impressed’ the country in his maiden Independence Day speech. Little of his oratory, the ability to craft pithy slogans and indulge in clever word play, carried conviction. Evidently, the sheen that enveloped him as the first politician in decades who had taken his party to a clear majority, is wearing thin. No longer do his promises and claims carry the needed conviction. For many, Narendra Modi today comes across a significantly diminished leader.

Only in part is this due to the vagaries of politics, the inevitable fading of the honeymoon that new leaders enjoy. There is little doubt that contemporary electoral politics is both brutal and soul corroding. But Modi’s greatest problems are of his own making. A hubris filled confidence in his own ability combined with a deep distrust, if not contempt, for all other politicians, including in his own party, rarely facilitates cooperative behaviour. To believe, as clearly both he and his media managers do, that image management is good politics is a fallacy that most strong men are prone to. Little surprise that the combination of ‘real and imagined’ threats and rhetorical promises – sabka saath sabka vikas, pradhan sevak, Swatchch Bharat, Make in India, and one can go on, which did enjoy some resonance when first enunciated, today only evoke tired resignation.

Who, for instance, today buys into sabka saath, sabka vikas? Not the dalits, nor the Muslim minority – all deeply troubled by an unending campaign around the cow, spearheaded not just by the myriad organizations attached to the Sangh Parivar but many of his ministerial colleagues. It is instructive that while the violence inflicted on those insufficiently reverential to gau mata did eventually force the prime minister, after months of silence, into an impassioned plea for social harmony and for the agitated to not take law into their own hands, the only reference was to dalits; not a word about the targeting of religious minorities. And, so far no initiation of firm legal action against the gau rakshaks.

Combine the above with the marked increase in intolerance, not merely vis-à-vis the social and religious ‘other’ but all those who hold a view contrary to that of the ruling establishment and its ideological parent. Every key cultural/educational institution is being subjected to a makeover, either allowed to wither away through neglect or being stacked with ideological acolytes and loyalists. >From the ICSSR to the ICHR; the FTII, Pune to NIFT; the IGNCA to the NMML – each of these major institutions has seen fresh appointments of heads whose competence and credibility is seriously in doubt. Worse, there is little compunction about changing the rules governing the institution without even the least pretence at wider consultation. And, all to ostensibly rid these bodies of those castigated as cronies of the previous regime and recast them in line with the perceived prevailing national consensus.

So blatant is the makeover of educational and cultural institutions, including central universities, that even those critical of the manner in which these entities were run in the past, fear the demise of critical scholarship in the country. Worse, a similar ‘fall in line or else’ mindset governs the attitude towards the media. We need look no further than the summary replacement of the editor-in-chief of Outlook magazine, ostensibly for carrying a story critical about the role of the RSS. Clearly, substantial sections of both our print and TV media, all in private hands, can be easily persuaded to toe the line.

Equally troubling is the move to target NGOs and their funders, both by imposing tougher regulations and conditionalities and through innuendos about their anti-national motives, ostensibly to combat corruption. The result – a climate of fear and large-scale resignations from the boards of private trusts and voluntary bodies, further curtailing space for dissent.

Prime Minister Modi is an unusually gifted politician whose ability to tap into the ‘fears and aspirations’ of people who feel left out and neglected by the political-administrative establishment, combined with an intelligent use of the mass media, has catapulted him to the apex. And yet, he seems so taken-in by his ‘created’ image that he may well have forgotten that media-management works only when the message carries credibility. Three years on, it is no longer possible to blame either the accumulated sins of the past or threats from an imagined internal and external enemy as adequate explanation for lacklustre performance. Unfortunately, his centralized and plebiscitary style, while enabling him to garner all credit, also leaves him wide open to all blame. If today, he no longer comes across as a convincing leader, he has no one to blame but himself.

Harsh Sethi