The myth-making surrounding Narendra Modi may be losing its potency within the first 100 days of assuming office. Three recent developments indicate the waning of Modi’s magic: the Congress party’s victory in all three Assembly by-elections in Uttarakhand in July; the “grand alliance” (albeit, of convenience) of the Janata Dal (United), Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress recovering lost ground in the Bihar Assembly by-elections along with the electoral successes of the Congress in the by-elections in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh; and the reluctance of the government to call for a re-election in Delhi despite being chided by the Supreme Court.
There are other alternative explanations – that the “Modi wave” does not work in state Assembly by-elections; that political temperatures have returned to a “normal” level after a highly polarised Lok Sabha election and that the prospect of a political wipeout has forced political groups to emphasise commonalities and improve their local election management. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will probably still do well in the forthcoming state Assembly elections in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana. However, the public perception of the Modi myth seems to have dimmed.
This is significant because the Modi myth-making continues with his acolytes propagating apocryphal stories in the media to sustain an idealised and heroic image of the prime minister.
Unverifiable stories doing the rounds among Delhi’s chattering classes are meant to inspire awe and admiration for the prime minister. In one of these, a minister heading overseas dressed in jeans and a T-shirt was reprimanded over the phone to dress “appropriately” and portray a “business-like image”. Barely 1.5 kms away from his residence, the minister had to go back and change into formals. Another minister meeting an industrialist in a five-star hotel in Mumbai also apparently received a call from Modi warning him about association with “undesirable” people.
A woman minister given to a laid-back lifestyle is said to have received a call at 9.30 a m enquiring why she was not yet in office. Another minister who wanted time off to attend his daughter’s graduation abroad was asked to show significant performance in the two important portfolios he holds, before asking for leave. The prime minister is also said to have summoned a senior minister’s son and told him to return the bribe he had accepted from a police officer to ensure a plum posting.
These anecdotes are meant to showcase Modi’s close surveillance of his Cabinet and his hands-on approach. It is assumed that but for carping critics, the people will accept this carefully crafted image uncritically.
However, let us carp and ask a few questions. Why should a minister not wear comfortable clothes for long-distance air travel? Why should a minister with portfolios that require him to co-ordinate with the corporate world be considered incompetent to judge whom he should meet? Above all, why is a minister’s son who “fixed” a government job not dealt with under criminal law? If the BJP ensured the resignation of the railway minister of the United Progressive Alliance government, Pawan Kumar Bansal, over his nephew accepting a bribe to fix Railway Board appointments, why should the “senior” BJP minister in the Modi government get away with a rap on the knuckles? If the prime minister comes to know of a criminal act within his government, can he dispense “Jehangir’s law” on the spot or should he follow the due process of law?
When Modi was a mere contender for the top job, his image was imbued with certain qualities by his image-managers, which set him apart from his peers and projected him worthy of deference and even obedience. The circumstances were ideal for Modi to fulfil his agenda of wresting power from the Congress. People were searching for someone who could provide stability, authority and a meaningful structure of governance. The electorate – or at least nearly one third of it – in a desperate economic climate, an increasingly unpredictable politics and weakening national morale, readily embraced Modi.
The trouble with myth-making, however, is that within no time, the image becomes larger than the man. Sooner or later, the distance between the two can become apparent to everyone. Eventually, the Modi government will be judged by its performance and not by anecdotes about the prime minister.
To talk about the need for toilets and sanitation from the ramparts of the Red Fort might well be, in the words of one commentator, a new semiotic framing of the task of building the nation. However, the rights that can give basic human dignity to citizens – the right to shelter, health, education, sanitation, drinking water and social security – need to be situated in the broader context of constitutional rights, instead of merely the good intentions of a prime minister. The citizens of India should be able to make the demands for access to facilities, services and assets on the Indian state rather than waiting for the largesse of a particular government or the goodwill of corporations who, persuaded by the prime minister, might build a few hundred toilets in schools under their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme. The responsibility of the state cannot be substituted by the private sector’s CSR programmes. The state must not only ensure these rights but also make adequate legal and financial provisions for them.
The Modi government needs to demonstrate that it has such a people-oriented vision; that its vision is different from the previous government’s and that it is engaged in pursuing it honestly.
Unfortunately, the Modi government has not yet unveiled its detailed policy paradigm – not in the President’s address to the joint session of Parliament; barring a few announcements of foreign direct investment not in the Union Budget, and not even in the prime minister’s Independence Day address. Whatever changes in governance and policy Modi might have initiated have not been communicated to the public.
If people find that in the first three months the Modi government has not even implemented a small portion of its five-year agenda, they cannot be blamed for being disappointed.