If the Prime Minister wants to win a second term, he needs to pay attention to the message that came from Rajasthan last week. Usually, the loss of two Lok Sabha seats in a by-election should be no serious matter, but let me explain why I think the loss of Ajmer and Alwar is important. Some weeks ago I travelled to remote, arid villages in rural Rajasthan and what I saw there was an ugly reminder that the promises of parivartan and vikas have remained totally broken.
In the villages I visited, living standards were so degraded that all that mostly illiterate villagers aspired to daily was finding enough water and food to keep their families alive. Their homes were huts of thatch and mud and their poverty was extreme. I met nobody who owned a cellphone or a television. The villages were bereft of schools, health centres, roads and public services of any other kind. When I asked people if there had been any improvement at all in the past four years, they looked at me as if I were mad and asked me if I could point to any improvements. In the words of a village elder, “We struggle daily to get drinking water to survive. Is there anything more to be said?”
This kind of desperate poverty exists in some measure in most states that the BJP has won since 2014. And, it was in the hope that things would change dramatically that BJP chief ministers won resounding victories. Sadly, those promises of real change in governance and public services have remained betrayed almost everywhere. So in Davos when I listened to the Prime Minister expound upon the successes of his style of governance, I found it very disquieting.
It is not Narendra Modi’s fault that hideous poverty and horrendous public services continue to exist in our ancient land, but what is worrying is the complacency that seems to have settled over his government. There is little to be complacent about. I have pointed out before in this column that Modi’s chief ministers are going to lose him the next general election, but so far this grim message seems not to have reached where it should. If it had, errant chief ministers would have been pulled up or sacked for ruling just like Congress chief ministers did. This has not happened.
This is unfortunate and very, very sad because in the end, real change is in the hands of chief ministers and not the Prime Minister. Where there has been a degree of change, like in Madhya Pradesh, the BJP has been elected back to power more than once. But, in most BJP states, chief ministers have simply settled into the mould that their Congress predecessors left behind, without bothering to change anything.
In areas that really matter, there has been a depressing absence of ‘parivartan’. No country in the history of the world succeeded in making its people prosperous (or employable) without first giving them the tools to lift themselves out of poverty, and these tools are education and healthcare. It was in these areas that successive Congress governments failed India over and over again in the past 70 years, so it is something of a mystery that BJP chief ministers have not made more effort to rectify this. Some have tried a bit of tinkering and a bit of this and that, but what is needed is revolutionary change and there is no sign of this anywhere.
The result of this absence of revolutionary ‘parivartan’ is that India continues to remain in the rut created over 70 years of Congress-style dynastic democracy. Polls indicate that the Prime Minister’s personal popularity remains high, but this is more than can be said for his chief ministers or the Bharatiya Janata Party. A disturbing despondency is beginning to be evident and this appears to be something that neither the Prime Minister nor his team has noticed yet.
Could it be because there have not been those regular visits to constituencies that Modi promised that his MPs would be forced to make? Could it be because those ‘model villages’ are nowhere in sight? Could it be because the zeal that we have seen for ‘love jihad’ and beef has made everyone in the BJP forget that it was the promise of parivartan and vikas that made Modi the first prime minister in 30 years to win a full majority? I do not know what the answer is but it is time that the Prime Minister spent some time dwelling on these questions since the answers are more important to him than anyone else.
Meanwhile, to quote a foreign policy expert I met in New York last week, ‘India continues to disappoint. Infrastructure remains shabby, policies unclear and the middle class remains too small to matter.’
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