'Megalomaniac', 'suspicious', 'selfish', 'sectarian': Why critics' tags about Narendra Modi don't wash
Even as COVID-19 sweeps the world ravaging economy after economy, opeds have started emerging on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s apparent failure to spearhead reforms and handle bureaucracy, as well as his alleged personality traits like “megalomania”, “suspicion of experts”, “reluctance to share credit”, and “his inability to transcend sectarian ideology”
The storm hasn’t ended, but blaming the tree for the fallen fruits has begun. Even as COVID-19 sweeps the world ravaging economy after economy, opeds have started emerging on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s apparent failure to spearhead reforms and handle bureaucracy, as well as his alleged personality traits like “megalomania”, “suspicion of experts”, “reluctance to share credit”, and “his inability to transcend sectarian ideology”.
The timing of these pieces is important. India seems to be emerging from a crippling pandemic situation largely unscathed, compared to other major democracies. Its death rate of 2.8 per 100 confirmed cases is less than half of the world average of 5.74. Economic activity is limping back. Public opinion has not turned against the government. In fact, after one year of his second term and despite a global slowdown combined with viral devastation, his rankings are higher than other world leaders and trust in him is intact.
There have of course been inadequacies in handling a massive migrant workers’ homecoming crisis. Relief measures announced and implemented so far have a strong whiff of window-dressing and may not be enough.
But the prime minister’s haters expected far more devastation and chaos. They have been let down.
So, while there is frustration among his opponents that such a momentous calamity is going to waste, they also have a creeping fear that a second wave of civilisational course corrections like the scrapping of Article 370 and the Citizenship Amendment Act will be unleashed as the disease ebbs, lockdown opens and Parliament meets for the Monsoon Session.
The accusation of Modi's megalomania, excessive self-projection and making every event a public relations spectacle is not new. But one has to understand that he is up against the relentless image-building — to the point of hijacking the Gandhi surname — of the Nehru family.
To stand a chance against the Nehru-Gandhis, Modi had to launch an image exercise to counter seven decades of 'mai-baap sarkar' superbranding. The poorest in the remotest corners of the country remained poor, but knew only one symbol to stamp on: The Hand.
Modi had to change that. His ruthless self-projection is well thought out and deliberate.
It is also facile to say the prime minister is suspicious of bright minds and experts. This is a man who handpicked the likes of Ajit Doval, S Jaishankar, Suresh Prabhu, Hardeep Puri and Syed Akbaruddin. He went with Raghuram Rajan for long despite Rajan being a UPA appointee. He built robustly on Aadhaar, coopting its creator, technocrat and 2014 Congress candidate Nandan Nilekani.
He is right in mistrusting part of the bureaucracy addled by Congress patronage for decades and still loyal to its old masters. If at all, it has been the prime minister's failure to weed out that ecosystem that throws a spanner in almost every well-intentioned move.
The Modi government deserves criticism for stymieing investor sentiment and making taxation a whole lot more punishing and complicated, but one cannot dismiss the reformist instincts of a person who had the courage to carry out demonetisation and bring in the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code and the Goods and Services Tax. Even during the COVID-19 outbreak, disallowing global tenders up to Rs 200 crore for the benefit of local companies and proposing deep changes in the APMC Act to help farmers freely sell their produce anywhere are big steps.
Modi is among rare leaders who start a speech thanking a long list of local leaders, many of them too obscure for national media to recognise. He let Amit Shah have a trailblasing run with entire spotlight in the first six months of the second term, repeatedly backed Nirmala Sitharaman in public despite trenchant attacks by critics.
In contrast, recall the towering icons that Jawaharlal Nehru had pushed out of limelight and sidelined mercilessly. How many leaders have Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi shared credit with? Rahul Gandhi did not even give his party’s own serving prime minister due respect, tearing up in public an ordinance passed by the Cabinet while Manmohan Singh was on a foreign tour.
The charge of Modi being communal is dead meat. He has been unapologetically against the politics of appeasement and minority-ism and in that lies his appeal. The secular intelligentsia will never talk about the slew of schemes, loans for traditional crafts, educational scholarships and other measures Modi’s minority affairs ministry has taken.
The prime minister's biggest challenge now is to fix the economy, not listen to habitual whiners who would go to any length, even ally with sinister forces, to restore the old order. A sure way for the prime minister to snatch political downfall from the jaws of unassailability would be to listen to his self-appointed ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’ critics.