The Narendra Modi government’s credibility is at serious risk on three fronts: corruption, communalism and dissent. Under a seemingly placid surface, undercurrents are taking shape which, if not checked, have the ability to derail the government. The aggressiveness of its own supporters, the low credibility of the opposition and the drumbeat of its own propaganda may blind the government to them. But it would be foolish not to heed the warning signs.
Take corruption. In the Lalit Modi saga the government seems to be feeling a false sense of reprieve. It seems to think that the longer the list of people Lalit Modi names, the less muck will stick on this government. Where an entire political establishment is at fault, no one can be singled out. Second, the Congress is not entirely clear on its line of attack. It cannot come clean on its own perfidies. And it has indiscriminately expanded the ambit of its attack on Vasundhara Raje in a way that may not stand scrutiny. Third, the media’s credibility is low: it has been repeatedly shown to be selective in whom it targets; rather than its own credible investigations, it has become dependent on sound bytes and half-baked leaks, and it goes into a sulk when Lalit Modi refuses to oblige. Under such circumstances, it is easy to be deluded that there will be more heat than light in this matter. But in politics, heat singes.
The fact that Lalit Modi is emerging as an insurgent hero should worry the government. Shorn of technicalities, the fact remains that two senior ministers, with whom Lalit Modi has a direct or indirect financial relationship, helped him in ways that go beyond a humanitarian gesture. The government has said nothing that dispels this impression. That Congress politicians might also have helped him is neither here nor there.
But this case has established three institutional points decisively. First, do not expect any government to dispassionately investigate the financial shadiness in Indian cricket. This is so for a structural reason: the Enforcement Directorate comes under politicians who are themselves involved in the game. Those who need to be investigated are the bosses of the investigators. Second, Lalit Modi may or may not be innocent. But it is hard to shake the impression that when the government does proceed against an individual, it is usually because it wants to target them for a political reason. Third, he has managed to revive the appalling spectre of plutocratic collusion in India’s ruling class, between the media, politicians, business and sport: a clubby elite, decamped to London, who all happen to run into each other all the time. This is an elite that will feign fights over everything in the national interest, but become cosy buddies over drinks in London. The anger this will generate should not be underestimated. And it will rub off on the government, since it is now positioning itself at the centre of this club rather than distancing itself from it. It is a topsy-turvy world when Lalit Modi can position himself as a victim and an anti-corruption crusader. But the government has to ask the question: Why does Lalit Modi sound more credible on this issue than the government? Put all this in the context of other allegations in Maharashtra, the increasingly murderous Vyapam scam, and the sheen
is gone from the BJP.
There are two other issues that are not politically big yet, but are a canary in the mine. The riots in Ballabhgarh, Haryana will rebound on the BJP. This was the first test of a post-Narendra Modi BJP state government handling a communal dispute and it has not come off with flying colours. What the BJP’s game is can be debated: controlled polarisation that does not make dramatic headlines in terms of violence, but is nevertheless an insidious form of communal mobilisation that is intent on showing minorities their place. BJP supporters will scream exaggeration at this accusation. But if this fear is indeed exaggerated, the proper response is to show how state institutional action can be genuinely credible and above communal politics. The mere fact of making light of this incident, or defensively pointing out that riots have happened elsewhere, is evading the problem, not solving it.
A third area of increasing institutional concern is the crackdown on NGOs. No sensible person is against accountability, and some cleaning up of the system in terms of getting NGOs to abide by reporting requirements was justifiable. But what is happening is far beyond accountability. It is more like a petulant, fearful state targeting dissent. P. Chidambaram had set in motion the process of giving the state more power over NGOs, taking away the protections they had. This government seems to want even more. While some proposals for online reporting of the activities of NGOs make sense, the infinite expansion of the definition of what counts as anti-national is now becoming insidious. Human rights are anti-national. Working on corruption is anti-national. Missionaries of charity are anti-national. Jeopardising economic security is anti-national. And what is “economic security”? Whatever the government says it is. This is Orwellian speak at its most bizarre. (Full disclosure: I work for an organisation that receives FCRA funding.) And who can hold government accountable for the action it can take, without supplying any reason whatsoever? The government’s actions are damaging India far more than any NGO ever could. We always knew that with this government it would be a contest between its baser authoritarian instincts and an opportunistic sense of institutional propriety. The baser instincts are winning. A sense of fear and intimidation is in the air.
But what is at stake in all three challenges is the credibility of the government. Its lack of institutional credibility will also damage its economic agenda, as the UPA found out. Taxi driver stories are cute and overused. But this one seems appropriate. On a recent visit to Uttarakhand, a taxi driver from the state was waxing eloquent about governance. And then he said of Narendra Modi, “roj ek naya dhol bajate hain (he plays a new drum everyday)”. No matter how eloquent, the prime minister’s own drumbeat cannot disguise the rot he is letting seep in, or drown the silences that will irk the voter.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’.