Remember Narendra Modi’s sneery comment about the ‘Khan Market gang’ during the election campaign last year? Remember how he said that it was only this ‘gang’ who disapproved of him? Remember how as soon as the results indicated a second term for him, aggressive workers descended on this fashionable bazaar waving BJP flags and banners with a menace that frightened ordinary shoppers. Mercifully, this bizarre exercise was never repeated. But, Modi’s comment made such an impact on his supporters that his description of those once dismissed as ‘Lutyens libtards’ has now entered our political vocabulary.
Modi’s victory in last year’s general election buried for good the old effete, English-speaking ruling elite who once controlled all the levers of political power, but it did something else as well. It built around the Prime Minister an aura of invincibility. His second victory in a general election seemed to convince him that he could do what he liked. He could change Kashmir’s special status and demote it to a Union Territory. He could amend the citizenship law by making it discriminatory. When Muslims saw this as a threat to their citizenship and protested in the streets of cities and on university campuses, he could allow his ministers to dismiss them as jihadists and Pakistanis.
He could turn Parliament House into a ‘Museum of Democracy’ and build a new one to loom over it. He could build himself a new residence in the shadow of India Gate transforming the Central Vista. He could get away with that serious mistake in handling Covid-19 in which he closed India down at four hours’ notice, causing unspeakable suffering to millions of our poorest, most vulnerable citizens. The fact that the people of Bihar gave the BJP a mandate despite this appears to have further emboldened him. A goodish BJP performance in last week’s municipal election in Hyderabad will add to his sense of invincibility. But, in a democracy the people’s voice is not heard just through the ballot box, and it is beginning to look as if the Prime Minister has forgotten this.
It should be heard through the media. But, as I have admitted before in this column, the media does not dare speak truth to power any more. There are consequences. The media has been ‘managed’ in ways that are so unsubtle that when a group of TV reporters went to meet farmers at the barricades on Delhi’s northern border, they were chased away by angry Sikh farmers who said they had no wish to talk to ‘godi media’. Lapdogs. The BJP’s media managers also control social media platforms with a mix of aggression and abuse. Those who dare to tweet against the Prime Minister or his policies are labeled ‘traitors’. If they are women, they also face verbal sexual abuse.
The farmers’ protest on the borders of Delhi that has gone on now for more than a week comes as a sharp and timely reminder that Modi’s critics exist beyond the ‘Khan Market gang’. For the first time since he became Prime Minister, he has been publicly attacked. When Punjabi farmers were asked why they did not accept the Home Minister’s offer to talk to them as soon as they moved their protest to a ‘structured’ space in Delhi, this is what they said: “Modi, Shah have proved that they are such liars that we can no longer trust them.” Every commentator has a theory on why the farmers are so angry over changes in farm laws that technically give them more options to sell their produce. My theory is that their rage comes from a total lack of communication. The ivory tower think-tanks in Delhi’s highest corridors of power clearly did not include farmers when they made their ‘agricultural reforms’.
Then came the inexplicable mistake of treating protesting Punjabi farmers like criminals when they reached Haryana. Water cannons and tear gas shells were used to keep them from getting past a wall of barbed wire behind which stood a small army of policemen. When I asked a friend, who is a BJP supporter, why this had happened, he said, “Initially, overconfidence. Then, wrong assessment. Believing that agitation is manufactured. And mishandling.” If I needed confirmation that Modi no longer has his ear to the ground, this was it. He is now so isolated from ‘the people’ that he can no longer feel their pain, their anger or their disgust with those of his policies that they think cause them harm.
His communication with ordinary Indians is through a rambling monologue once a month that usually ignores the issue of the moment. He gets no feedback from the media because only those who fall into the ‘godi’ category have access to him. There is not one person in his Cabinet who would dare oppose anything he says or does. And, in this year of the Chinese virus he has not been able to move out much. His deep isolation is not just harmful for democracy it is harmful for him personally, because it has given him a false sense of invincibility. The farmers who have braved cold nights in the open and endured deprivations of all kinds to make their voice heard should remind the Prime Minister that he is not invincible. In a democracy, no political leader should be.