Updated: January 2, 2022 2:09:32 pm
This has turned out to be the year in which Narendra Modi ran out of luck and leadership. Could this be the reason why the second anniversary of his second term went almost unnoticed last week? Usually, it is an occasion in which his ministers, party men and ‘bhakts’ raise their voices in praise of his ‘great’ leadership. Usually, departments of the Government of India compete to place huge advertisements plastered with pictures of the leader and words of effusive praise in the media.
This time on May 26 these advertisements were conspicuously absent. There are reports that a hefty document has been produced to commemorate the seven years of Modi’s rule but if it was released online last week, it was done quietly. Leaks to newspapers say that it praises Modi for his ‘strong and sensitive leadership during Covid’. If this is true, it will sound like mockery.
As a former ‘Modi bhakt’ I wanted this to be a fair mid-term assessment, so I thought long and hard but was unable to come up with shining achievements. The Prime Minister said last week while virtually addressing Buddhists on Buddha Purnima that historians would look back on our pandemic years as a time that was ‘pre-Covid and post-Covid’. It was this measure that I used to analyse his second term. In his pre-Covid months Modi travelled to countries far and near. Most memorably there was ‘Howdy Modi’ in Houston which he may have hoped would match that magnificent event organised in 2014 by the Indian diaspora in New York. Donald Trump came to Howdy Modi and the crowd was huge, but spontaneity was missing.
In between foreign travels in those first few months Modi gave priority to implementing what some think of as the Hindutva agenda. Article 370 was abrogated, triple ‘talaq’ was made a criminal offence and then came that amendment to the Citizenship Act that specified that except for Muslims, refugees of other faiths would be on a fast track to get Indian citizenship. The amendment may have gone through quietly if the Home Minister had not made it into an election issue and warned, in menacing tones, that the next step was a National Register of Citizens. Indian Muslims saw this as a signal that they could lose their citizenship if they were unable to give proof of it and took to the streets in protest in cities across India. The Prime Minister had to personally assure Muslims that his government had no immediate plans for a citizens register.
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This assurance came too late and tensions between Hindus and Muslims were so high that Delhi saw communal riots for the first time in 30 years at exactly the moment when there was a State banquet for Donald Trump in Rashtrapati Bhawan. Modi’s supporters blamed the riots not on ugly speeches by BJP leaders but on an a ‘jihadist’ conspiracy. Student leaders remain in jail under preventive detention for having ‘masterminded’ the protests. BJP leaders who believe that the only way to win elections is by dividing Hindus and Muslims hoped the riots would help them win elections in Delhi. This did not happen.
Tensions were still high when Covid arrived in March last year. Its first wave was gentle and caused few deaths. It caused terrible suffering for migrant workers who were forced to walk hundreds of kilometres to their homes because the Prime Minister’s decision to close India down at four hours’ notice left them jobless and homeless and bereft of public transport. But, when the death toll was remarkably low and our fragile health system held up, Modi took full credit for having shown decisive and exemplary leadership. In a speech this January to the World Economic Forum, he said India had defeated Covid in a way that should inspire other countries.
He was so sure that this was true that he allowed hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to gather for the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar. Then off he went along with the Home Minister and the BJP president to campaign in West Bengal. The business of governing India was left mostly in the hands of bureaucrats, and they chose to ignore the early warnings of a second wave. The catastrophe that resulted is such recent history that it does not need elucidating. What does need to be said is that in the worst crisis that India has faced in decades, the Prime Minister has failed to lead. Once he recovered from the shock of losing in Bengal and returned home to confront the death and devastation, he took to appearing in his virtual incarnation to offer tears and sympathy. But to this day, there is no certainty that India will manage to get the 200 crore vaccinations we need this year for our adult population, or how we are going to get the same amount next year when boosters will be needed.
Last week farmers marked May 26 as a Black Day because it coincidentally was exactly six months since their agitation began against Modi’s three farm laws. The last thing we need is for the protests on Delhi’s borders to begin again. Modi has so far failed to satisfy farmers that the laws will benefit them. All in all, it can be said that this has without question been the worst year of Modi’s political career. There is nothing to celebrate.
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 30, 2021, under the title ‘Modi’s leadership failures’.
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