Last week’s festivities in Ahmedabad to welcome the Prime Minister of Japan were so spectacular, it felt as if the bullet train was already here. Bunting and lights decorated the streets and dancers and musicians performed all along the route to the Sabarmati ashram. Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi rode in an open jeep instead of in bullet-proof cars. This delighted the crowds who cheered the cavalcade on and told TV reporters that their admiration for Modi was undiminished and that, of course, the BJP was going to win Gujarat again.
So the future should seem filled with cloudless skies. Right? Why then have I begun to detect the first signs of vulnerability in the Modi government? In the past three years there has not been a single moment when the Prime Minister has seemed anything but invincible. He remained invincible when the Aam Aadmi Party won nearly every seat in the Delhi Assembly within months of the general election that gave Modi a full majority in the Lok Sabha.
He remained invincible when the midnight elimination of more than eighty per cent of our banknotes caused such disruption and misery that Opposition leaders launched a united assault. Chief ministers arrived in Delhi and held public meetings to declare that Modi had stolen the people’s money and given it to his rich friends. The people will punish him through the ballot box, they screamed from public podiums, and our usually reticent former prime minister stood up in the Rajya Sabha to make a speech in which he called demonetisation ‘a case of organized loot (and) legalized plunder.’ Then came the BJP’s magnificent victory in Uttar Pradesh and they slunk off defeated once more. Privately, Opposition leaders admitted that Modi was undefeatable for now. Privately, they blamed Rahul Gandhi for this and whispered about his failure to ‘mature’ as a leader.
So it is ironic that it should have been Rahul Gandhi who last week revealed wittingly or unwittingly that the Modi government’s real vulnerability is the economy. Personally, I would have paid no attention to Rahul’s speech in Berkeley had Modi’s Minister of Information & Broadcasting not reacted the way she did. When Smriti Irani went on national television to rage against the Congress vice-president for being a ‘failed dynast’ and to mock him for his ‘failed political career,’ I realized he must have said something that really hurt.
He said many things. He accused the Prime Minister of creating an atmosphere of ‘violence and hatred’ and mentioned the murder of ‘liberal journalists’ as if this were routine and new. Journalists have been killed in Congress times too and although cow vigilantes were not so visible, there have been terrible occasions of violence and hatred under Congress rule. Unsurprisingly, the first question at the end of Rahul’s Berkeley speech was about the pogroms against the Sikh community in 1984. So it was easy for BJP spokespersons to refute the ‘hatred and violence’ charge but not that easy to deny Rahul’s charges on the economy.
He said demonetisation had been done ‘unilaterally’ and at devastating cost to India, and that it had broken the back of many small- and medium-size businesses, and caused great agricultural distress. He pointed out that the economy was now growing very slowly and that the Modi government had failed to create the 30,000 jobs that India needs to create daily. This is all true.
It is also true, as Rahul Gandhi pointed out, that the economy needs to start growing at 8 per cent to create the jobs that young Indians desperately need. What the Congress party’s heir apparent did not mention was that it was under his Mummy’s government that the economy began to slow down. It picked up for a few months after Modi became Prime Minister, but since that midnight hour when our currency vanished, it has been hurting badly. Small businesses were just beginning to recover when along came GST and hit them once more with complicated rates and paperwork. Some of the rules have left even officials confused, so for the moment the economy remains tangled in reams of red tape. Big companies can hire experts to help them negotiate the regulatory maze. Small companies cannot so they are hurting more.
This is not good news for the Prime Minister because it was with the hope that he would bring prosperity, jobs and real change that the Indian people gave him the first full majority in thirty years. So are voters beginning to feel betrayed? It is clear from recent polls that Modi’s personal popularity remains intact. He is seen as an honest man trying to do the best he can for the country, but many others in his team are not seen this way. Only a dramatic economic upturn will make voters overlook some glaring flaws in his governance.