In this column last week I said I saw signs that Narendra Modi’s popularity had declined in recent months. This caused two very different reactions. From his foes came sounds of frenetic jubilation. From those who believe that he is still the best man to lead India because the alternative is so awful came belligerent gloom. From the first camp, I got brickbats and sneers for having supported Modi in the first place.
From the second camp, I mostly got a single question asked in different ways. Is there anything Modi can do still to ensure that he wins a second term? I got asked this so often in the past week that I mulled over it long and hard as I watched the Prime Minister’s whirlwind of meetings in Mumbai.
He met Indian businessmen who told him (as usual) that all was well. He met foreign investors in Mumbai for the annual meeting of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). He told them that India was a ‘bright spot’ in the world economy. He also met BJP workers and told them how evil the Emergency was and how those who accuse him of demolishing institutions remained silent when Indira Gandhi did this then. And, here I shall make a small digression to remind you that this is completely true. She turned our oldest political party into a family firm. She gave her son more power than she gave her Cabinet. She turned Parliament and the President into lackeys.
Of the judiciary the less said the better. Except to remind the Supreme Court judges, who went public to declare that ‘democracy was under threat today’, that if there was ever a judiciary fully subservient to a prime minister, it was then. Those who speak of an ‘undeclared Emergency’ in India since 2014 either have no idea what the Emergency was like or are deliberately weaponising it to attack Modi.
So can Modi do anything in the next few months that would restore the lustre that once made him seem undefeatable? There are those who wander about these days predicting that he will do something melodramatic and irreparable like prohibition. As far as I know, this is something that only state governments can do, but Modi needs to remember that it worked badly in Delhi when it was tried by Indira Gandhi and later by Morarji Desai. A quick trip to Bihar will show him how badly it is working there. Besides, the last thing he needs is for more jobs to be lost when so few have been created.
If he has lost popularity, it is mostly because the public services that poorer Indians are forced to rely on have remained unforgivably awful. If a single BJP chief minister had shown the ability to create schools, colleges and hospitals that became the talk of India, we may not today have been discussing the possible defeat of Modi in the next general election. Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have elections before this year ends so it is too late for real ‘parivartan’ there, but in Uttar Pradesh, there is still hope. I have seen schools and hospitals in UP that are so bad that I am convinced that if people were offered a choice between better education and healthcare and the Ram temple, I am certain they would forget the temple.
There are those who believe that building that temple in Ayodhya before the next election will ensure Modi a second term. I believe they are wrong. Having seen the Ram Janmabhoomi movement when it peaked after L K Advani set off on his rath yatra, I can report that the dangerous disunions that existed between Hindus and Muslims in those ‘secular’ times no longer do. They were created then by Rajiv Gandhi’s stupid decision to give Muslims their own personal law, so the slogan that united Hindus of all castes was ‘Ek Vidhan, Ek Samvidhan’.
One law, one Constitution. I can remember talking to half-literate people in villages who said that they believed it was wrong for Muslims to not come under the same laws as other Indians. Rajiv Gandhi paid for his mistake in the next general election, losing half his seats in the Lok Sabha. And, for those who may have forgotten, may I remind you that in that election he began his campaign in 1989 in Ayodhya with the promise to bring Ram Rajya. It is my view that there is less interest in building that temple in Ayodhya than there is in seeing India become a prosperous country in which ordinary people do not have to depend on government for jobs and largesse. Since it was P V Narasimha Rao’s birth anniversary last week I would like to honour him by reminding you that whatever measure of prosperity India has achieved would have been impossible without his economic reforms.