As the BJP/NDA government at the Centre and prime minister Narendra Modi near the end of their eventful but unproductive, even disastrous terms in office, it may be worthwhile, even imperative, to take stock of their records, especially of the prime minister who dominates the party and government. These five years have been an experience, unparalleled in the history of our country. It has been a quinquennium of economic failure, policy drift, social unrest, constitutional crises, and even criminal malfeasance.
The narrative peddled by Modi supporters is that the country has irreversibly changed in its approach to religion, caste and income. This overestimates the reach and influence of Modi. Recall that he formed a majority government at the Centre with just 31 percent of the popular vote. It is hard to believe that a poorly educated populist, leading a party of bigots and chauvinists, successfully diverted India from its great adventure of unity in diversity and democracy amid poverty. A craven media helped spread this and other BJP falsehoods. Bear in mind Modi’s first order of business was to muzzle the media through threats and inducement.
Using classic Fascist propaganda techniques, the Modi regime planted stories about his reach: one told of a minister at an airport lounge, headed for a meeting overseas. According to this dubious report, he received a call from Modi demanding to know why he was wearing jeans on an official government trip. There were other such stories unquestioningly headlined by fawning newspapers.
In equal measure, stories were killed. In his very first year in office, a video of his address to a group of school students was circulated on the Internet. It captured what he believed was a remark of great homespun wisdom. He said that in “our families,” older people always complain that each winter was colder than the previous one. But, the climate has not changed; the ability of older people to tolerate the cold diminishes, he opined. Amazingly, not a single channel or newspaper saw fit to report this strange illogic.
Instead, the media cravenly spread the myth of his invincibility and infallibility: his allegedly 18-hour workdays, austere habits and his selfless service to the billion-plus citizens of India. There were stories of his humble origins as a chaiwallah, who as a six-year-old sold tea at the local railway station in his hometown Vadnagar, when he was not swimming across crocodile-infested rivers to get to school. There were also constant references to the Gujarat Model of fantastic socio-economic progress, so much so that many of us, Gujarati expatriates, expected to find Ahmedabad transformed into a sophisticated metropolis of highways and skyscrapers, subways and expressways.
Of course, not one of these myths was true. And you needn’t go further than discovering there was no railway station at Vadnagar until the 1970s. I know this because my ancestors came from there and members of the family used to visit the place.
Nevertheless, such myths were propagated by a subservient media. Add to that, the government’s crackdown on dissent: numerous students, teachers and activists were intimidated, even jailed. Worst of all, there were deaths and disappearances of inconvenient scholars, students, activists that went uninvestigated.
Coterminously fawning acolytes were rewarded with lucrative government jobs, contracts, awards, sinecures, and what have you. One was named head of the film institute; others were made ministers and governors, or appointed to the boards of huge public sector companies. No institution was too sacred for the BJP to subvert; no convention too respected to flout.
Also, Modi used his incumbency as prime minister to do what most middle-class Gujaratis love to do: travel the world. He undertook trips to 92 countries at a cost to the nation of Rs.2,200 crore. There are 193 countries in the world; so Modi has tripped through almost half of them.
Aside of foreign travel, the prime minister has spent huge amounts on self-promotion and publicity, in excess of Rs.4,300 crore. The claim is that through his travels, he has transformed India into an economic giant and won the respect of the global community. But most of his ‘achievements’ have been proved to be fake. Two major policy initiatives were disastrous — demonetisation and the hasty implementation of a confused goods and services tax. Both struck body blows to India’s emergent economy.
Together, these ill-conceived initiatives devastated tens of thousands of small and medium-scale businesses and the vast ‘informal’ sector. Currently, the economy is teetering on the verge of disaster: an investment famine, no jobs; tax terrorism, flawed monetary and trade policy. Exports are flagging, the rupee and capital markets have become unstable, the debt overhang is perilous, and the fiscal deficit target has already been breached.
Caprice and whimsy have been the hallmark of Modi’s five years as prime minister. As former finance minister P. Chidambaram said recently, the best thing one can say about the Modi government is that it is at the end of its tenure.
That remark mirrors the assessment of a growing number of Indians that Modi is done.
(Rajiv Desai is chairman and CEO of New Delhi-based Comma Consulting Pvt. Ltd and Congress party spokesperson)