I am writing from Delhi, one of the world’s most polluted cities. It is still winter. The spring that I mentioned last week is still many weeks away.
Notwithstanding its loss in all five states that held elections recently, the BJP’s leadership is still combative, contemptuous of Parliament and disdainful of institutions. In an interview to ANI on January 1, 2019, Prime Minister Modi said, “No one gave the BJP any chance in Telangana and Mizoram. In Chhattisgarh, a clear mandate was given — the BJP lost. But in two states (Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh) there was a hung Assembly.”
A hung Assembly means that no party is in a position to form the government. In three states, there were only two real contestants. After the results, the party that had absolutely no chance to form the government was the BJP; the party with a chance was the Congress — and it did form the government in the three states with practically no hurdles on its path. I would call that a decisive verdict, not a hung Assembly.
In Chhattisgarh, the BJP lost 34 seats (from 49 to 15), in Madhya Pradesh 56 seats (from 165 to 109) and in Rajasthan 90 seats (from 163 to 73). That was a decisive rejection of the BJP.
Mr Narendra Modi’s analysis of the election results has few takers. For example, the RSS’s internal view is that it was a big defeat; hence the RSS is cranking up the engine of Hindutva and demanding an ordinance to build a Ram temple at Ayodhya, notwithstanding the appeals pending in the Supreme Court.
The Modi interview was dubbed by the media — and seen by the people — as an end-of-the-tenure report card. It was significant in two respects: for what the prime minister said and for what he did not say.
Mentions and omissions
Let’s begin with the subjects on which the Prime Minister spoke: demonetisation, GST, surgical strike, lynching, Dr Urjit Patel’s resignation, Sabarimala, triple talaq Bill, Rafale, farm loan waiver and the mahagathbandhan (alliance of opposition parties). True to his character he gave nothing away, he admitted no mistake, he maintained that his government had done everything right, and “Modi is just a manifestation of public love and blessings”.
I am wary of persons who do not admit their mistakes. Demonetisation was a monumental error, the GST was deeply flawed and was made worse because of faulty implementation, the surgical strike was not unique nor did it put an end to infiltration or militancy, the triple talaq Bill is an overkill and biased, the Rafale deal short-changed both the Air Force and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd and, thanks to wrong policies, the farm loan waiver has become an imperative. The people seem to agree with this analysis but the Prime Minister has taken a contrary view.
Now, let’s list the subjects on which the Prime Minister did not speak: mounting unemployment, farmers’ distress and suicides, women’s security, vigilante groups, growing impunity, Jammu & Kashmir, economy, closure of MSMEs, stalled projects, insolvent companies, likely failure to achieve Budget targets of revenue and fiscal deficit, and departure of distinguished economists from the government.
I got the impression that the Prime Minister was like a person driving a car looking only at the rear-view mirror. He spoke about the past and not a word about the future. He is not able to look forward, and he has nothing to offer to the people that will lift their spirits or lift the economy. The report card has ‘Fail’ written on every page.
Nothing seems to have changed in the new year. On January 2, there was an acrimonious debate on the Rafale deal in the Lok Sabha, the Prime Minister was absent, the Defence Minister was a spectator, and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley (the man with all the reasons) answered none of the key questions (see my column She wanted reasons, here are 10, Indian Express, October 7, 2018).
There are 10 weeks before the dawn of spring. What can be expected before the notification of the elections? I can only speculate.
The narrative that is playing out among the people is that there is change in the offing. It is clear that the government has to do something if it wants to alter the narrative. As I write this essay on Friday, the buzz is that among the measures under contemplation are interest-free crop loans and a cash transfer to small and medium farmers. Even if the government directs public sector banks to provide the money for crop loans, how will it find the money for cash transfers? The fiscal deficit at the end of November 2018 was 115 per cent of the target. Yet, a desperate government may announce the ‘reliefs’, borrow the money, indulge in creative accounting, and hope to reverse the political tide. Failing these measures, the government could promulgate an ordinance to facilitate the construction of a Ram temple on the disputed site. That will be an act of contempt of the Supreme Court, besides being highly provocative and divisive.
Usually, anything that a government does in the 10 weeks before elections is viewed by the people with suspicion and scepticism. It will not be easy to erase the word ‘Fail’ on the report card.