Prime Minister Narendra Modi increasingly seems to be trapped in his own echo chamber. His government is fast confusing the trees for the forest and ignoring the sense of restlessness brewing outside its hallowed circles. There have been, no doubt, some interesting administrative decisions coming out of this government. But when even some of its own core supporters start using the “blame-the-bureaucrats” alibi, you know the government has lost a sense of credible control. It is admittedly early days. But for a government that promised a new narrative, the adjustment to old ways is striking.
Whether believable or not, Modi had promised a new discourse on secularism: an atmosphere less thick with the possibility of violence, less suffused with the “others-did-it” alibi, less suffocatingly invoking identities for political purposes and less rewarding of politicians producing polarisation. No one would be targeted for being who they are. But ask a simple question. After two months, is there more or less reason to be anxious on this score? UP, in particular, is now turning out to be a tinder box. Much of the blame lies with Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, who is running, arguably, the single most morally irresponsible government UP has seen. But the BJP’s contribution to the politics of polarisation is far from negligible. Ministers in the Central government, like Sanjeev Baliyan, have been accused of intimidation; and Amit Shah does not exactly have a reputation of throwing cold water on conflict.
The sources of violence on the ground are complex. Let us even grant that the prime minister cannot comment on every matter. But he is acting like the Congress in two ways. He has failed to publicly draw clear red lines on what his partymen can and cannot say, and inevitably, the worst in his party will shape the public narrative and induce fear. His job is to encourage voices of conciliation and to use his office to transform public culture for the better. This is far from happening. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s silences created the vacuum that anyone could fill. Can this prime minister name one action that sends a loud and clear message about what kind of conduct will not be tolerated? Has he used any incident to create a teachable moment? There is a kind of out of touch complacency, that somehow this small-scale violence will not snowball into something big. But this is a poison that, once unleashed, cannot be controlled.
The second big narrative setback has been on India’s commitment to globalise. The prime minister’s neighbourhood policy seems, for the moment, sure-footed, though he will have to deliver agreements fast, before this moment vanishes. But the BRICS notwithstanding, the larger signal India is sending on two of the most important economic issues, trade and climate change, are not impressive. India’s continued…