Mihir Sharma, Business Standard


As you must have heard by now, a chief minister spoke on the occasion of Independence Day. Now, normally, this isn’t exactly earth-shattering news. Except if the chief minister in question’s Narendra Modi, to whom large sections of the Indian media and the middle class which it serves are in thrall.

And it isn’t as if Modi doesn’t make for good headlines. After all, of the 1,200 or so I-Day speeches by CMs since 1947, not one will have been a full-throated attack on the prime minister of the day. As The Indian Express pointed out, in his 50-minute speech, Narendra Modi referred to Manmohan Singh not once by name, but as “pradhan mantri” 49 times, and as “aap” 46 times – a hit-per-minute ratio more often associated with Congressmen and the name “Gandhi”.

Let us, for a moment, leave aside whether or not this was a distasteful choice on Modi’s part, as his loyal foot-soldier Lal Krishna Advani has grumbled it is. After all, good taste or a finely-honed respect for non-Hindu institutions or precedent isn’t what one expects from Narendra Modi. Instead, let’s look at one point that he made, when he challenged the PM to a public debate.

Now, it is known that Narendra Modi, or perhaps his oh-so-Indian core team, imagines that he is, in fact, the governor of Elizabeth, New Jersey and running in an American presidential election. But, even so, this somewhat delusional demand for a debate requires attention. Admittedly, the prospect of a real debate with Manmohan Singh is laughable: the PM is much more likely to hold up a series of placards showing multicoloured graphs of rural income growth than anything else. Singh’s idea of a snappy comeback is an obscure and slightly sarcastic Urdu couplet, which few others would believe is a satisfactory response to being accused of softness on Pakistan.

But somebody, in the Congress, the Left, or in one of the other parties, should see it in their interest to accept Modi’s challenge. Because it is increasingly clear that Narendra Modi, for all the judicious PR he’s bought for years and his indefatigable willingness to tout Gujarat’s own growth statistics, is completely out of his depth when it comes to basic questions of policy or economics.

Consider, for example, his position on the Food Security Bill. The Great Reformist Hope reiterated on Independence Day, that he supports the Bill on principle – as long as the entitlements in it are increased, not decreased. An entitlement of 25 kilograms instead of 35, said Modi with his usual understatement, was putting “sprinkling acid on the plates of the poor instead of food.” Very well. Someone should then ask him how it will be paid for – by selling tickets to his speeches? – when the fiscal deficit’s such a problem. If this question’s asked of the Central government, why not of a prime ministerial aspirant?

Or, for that matter, his continual claims about the rupee. The rupee was worth one dollar at Independence, he has repeatedly said. Except it wasn’t, it was 30 cents. And it was overvalued at that, which is why India built up a trade deficit through the 1950s and early 1960s. Instead of letting Modi repeat this nonsense, he needs instead to be asked: would he let the rupee depreciate further today, as is economically sensible? If, instead, he views it through the machismo-tinted lenses of national pride, will he not be as much of a disaster for the economy as the United Progressive Alliance is accused of being?

Indeed, even his foreign-policy assertions need a little examination. In Bhuj for Independence Day, he declared resoundingly that his words would reach Pakistan before they reached Delhi, showing a commendable grasp of geography if not of geopolitics. In a recent foreign-policy speech at Hyderabad, he insisted that India take a harder line not just with Pakistan, but also with China. Sure. Has anyone asked him exactly how? It has perhaps escaped his notice that they are, well, bigger than us, and better at bullying.

And he has twice in the past week attacked the government for rescinding the Border Security Force (BSF)’s shoot-to-kill orders along the Bangladesh frontier. This is foreign-policy stupidity of a truly stupendous level. The BSF had killed over 1,000 people on that border in the 2000s; and, sparked in particular by a horrifying photo of a bullet-ridden girl left to die on barbed wire, it had become a serious domestic issue in Bangladesh. It was preventing an India-friendly government in Dhaka from co-operating with New Delhi on pressing security and economic issues. Since the BSF has shifted to non-lethal methods of control, such as rubber bullets, infiltration has not increased markedly, but co-operation has – including on better border fencing. But a man who thinks his leonine roar is so resonant it can be heard in Pakistan clearly doesn’t deal in facts.

And always remember: for Narendra Modi, such facts are secondary to his real purpose, which is and will always remain a macho Hindutva – which is also the real source of his appeal. Even on Independence Day, he couldn’t help saying that India has been “a slave to others for 1000-1200 years”. I know his maths is bad, but I suspect he’s not calculating from the Battle of Plassey.

By ignoring Modi’s repeated challenges to a debate, and allowing an adoring media to instead repeat what passes for his policy worldview unquestioned, rival political parties continually cede space. Modi does not want a debate to increase his stature; he wants one because he hasn’t the slightest idea how wrong he is about half the things he says. Surely his political opponents would want to exploit that flaw?


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