Forget, for a moment, that Narendra Modi as prime minister has been nothing like the market-friendly, business-friendly reformer that one expected him to be. In the 21 months we have seen him at 7, Race Course Road, we have witnessed nothing remotely resembling a Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher in him.
However, this is no reason to rubbish his record, for we tend to notice the big failures (the land acquisition bill, and possibly GST), but not the little successes, which have been more frequent, but have largely gone under the radar. A small list: The successful coal and spectrum auctions, the insurance bill, the rise in coal production, the rise in FDI, the deregulation of diesel, the Jan Dhan financial inclusion scheme, the implementation of direct cash transfers in lieu of LPG subsidies, the Uday scheme to fix discom debts, and the steady improvement in public investment and infrastructure in terms of road and railway projects, among other things.
Overall, the economy — aided by benign oil prices — is set for a cyclical turnaround.
The real thing you can fault Modi on is not his refusal to play Thatcher or Reagan or even a Lee Kuan Yew, but his reluctance to lead visibly when confronted by a crisis — real or manufactured. If he fails in 2019, it will not be because his efforts in the area of economics were found wanting, but because his politics has been disastrous. His political leadership has been underwhelming. Maintaining radio silence when the country is going up in flames, even assuming the flames are being fanned by his political rivals, is not a golden virtue.
His opponents, as he lamented the other day, may be digging a pit for him, but the consistency with which he has allowed himself to be dragged into it is due to his own unwillingness to speak with sincerity and clarity on hot-button issues.
Let’s take three recent instances: The violent Jat agitation, no doubt hatched by the Congress party; the JNU anti-national slogan-shouting affair; and the Rohith Vemula case in the Hyderabad Central University. In all three cases, he let things slide when a small intervention and/or statement from him would have helped at least correct the impression that he does not care.
In the Vemula case, where a Dalit commit suicide, he stayed mum for nearly a week while the Congress and other politicians were lighting the fire. It was only when, at one of his own public meetings, some people created a ruckus over it, that he spoke of the mother’s loss of a son — and quite emotionally at that. It was too little, too late. This is inexplicable given the lengths to which he has gone to woo Dalits to vote for the BJP — and with considerable success so far.
In the Jat agitation, his party had an even greater stake, as this community had only recently warmed to the BJP in 2014 in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. What happens in Haryana is bound to have an impact in UP next year, when Assembly elections are due. Modi needed to be active early, when things were beginning to spin out of control, and offer the promise of jobs through skilling or the setting up of industrial units in those areas. That Jats do not qualify for OBC reservations is obvious, but despite this, the prime minister had no solutions and options with him. Haryana Chief Minister ML Khattar, a non-Jat, was all-at-sea before seeming to capitulate.
Or take JNU. The BJP has a big claim to the nationalist position, but at the very least, the stick of nationalism needs to be used sparingly to be effective. Instead, when the Delhi Police acted with haste and arrested Kanhaiya Kumar, the JNU Students Union President, possibly on the basis of doctored video evidence, the nationalism card was wasted.
Not only that, Modi did not comprehend the reality that if he does not speak, those who do – and crudely – will be deemed to have spoken for him. And this is what happened. Lawyers at Patiala House, apparently linked to the BJP or its ideals, went on the rampage against Kanhaiya and the media, and embarrassed the government. Not only that, the police’s reluctance to register a case against them – all caught on camera - made it seem as if the government was holding their hand.
How can this not affect Modi’s credibility?
The simple reality is this: Nature abhors dead air. If Modi is silent, someone else will fill the silence and build the wrong impression. This is how Sangh hotheads repeatedly undermined even the good things that Modi did to reach out to estranged communities — like his speech to a convocation of bishops in Delhi last year after the alleged “church attacks”. This conciliatory gesture got overtaken by the RSS chief’s blunt and negative views on Mother Teresa.
Not that Mohan Bhagwat was wrong or not entitled to his views, but when the left hand negates what the right hand is doing, it is Modi who pays the price.
Modi is also making a mistake with the media. Granted, large sections of the Lutyens media is hostile, having been pampered by the Congress and left-wing forces for 50 years, but that is no reason to make it even more hostile by ignoring them. Small favours to limited sections of this media would have helped counter the growing negative perceptions about the BJP government. Moreover, it is not as if Modi courted the regional media to counter-balance this bias. The media, in a media-driven national agenda, is a factor in building perceptions, positive or negative. Modi needlessly dropped this card while playing his hand.
Another mistake is for Modi to believe that what worked in Gujarat would work equally well in Delhi.
Not by a long chalk.
Delhi is where the international and national media intersect, and this is why a small-time city mayor like Arvind Kejriwal has become a national figure. The national and international media seldom bother about what happens in states other than Delhi. Tyranny of the worst kind goes unnoticed, or abandoned after a few perfunctory efforts at coverage. Consider how quickly the Lalit Modi and Vyapam and Sarada scams have vanished from the headlines. But the spotlight on the prime minister, and his real or imagined failures, will be relentless. Modi has to change his gameplan for the media.
If Modi has to rescue the remainder of his three-years-plus term from ignominy, he has to adopt two parallel strategies: Develop a communication strategy that scans and develops positive narratives early for issues that can blow up in the government’s face; and two, develop a more effective communication strategy for various stakeholders — from the Opposition parties to his own MPs and the broader Sangh parivar, among others. He needs a strategy even for his bhakts on social media.
Even if the Congress is reluctant to play ball, it is not clear why the regional parties are not regularly talked to. Unleashing a Venkiah Naidu on them is not enough. It is his persona that will make a difference.
The Sangh – and the bhakts on social media – have become unguided missiles because Modi has left them to their own devices. Bhakts without a clue on what Modi is thinking can quickly turn into abusive kambakhts. Modi’s inability or reluctance to communicate regularly with them is making them talk nonsense, making it seem all their talk has Modi’s nod. It is through engagement with them in formal forums that Modi can hope to channel their enthusiasm in positive directions. An army of bhakts without direction can go berserk.
In two lines, the message for Modi is simple: He is a great communicator in broadcast format (in public speeches or his Mann ki Baat), but if he does not use these skills and his personality to address other stakeholders in closed-door interactive sessions where there is a real dialogue, he will lose control of the narrative. And his troops.
Politics is about engaging several constituencies at the same time, and it is in politics that Modi is seen to be failing. Good economics needs good politics at the base.