Monsoon washout: How Modi sarkar has lost the plot, and what it needs to do
The Modi government has made too many elementary mistakes and lost the narrative to the opposition, as the monsoon session washout showed. It has to rethink strategy and tactics
With the monsoon session of parliament a near-total washout and with the NDA government more or less abandoning its reforms agenda for now, Narendra Modi has more or less lost the political initiative for now. With the suspension of 25 Congress MPs for bad behaviour by the Speaker adding to opposition unity, the government’s agenda is being squashed. The government appears as gridlocked as was the Congress after its 2G and Coalgate scams. One can only speculate about whether the Bihar assembly election will send the BJP to a further low, or provide a fillip, depending on whether the results are bad or good.
On the assumption that the government is now blocked on the legislative front for the foreseeable future – nothing will change before 2016-17 on the Rajya Sabha numbers front – this is as good a time as any for Modi to ask himself a few tough questions – and, hopefully, plot a revival. A failure means not only a loss for his party, but a loss for the nation. The country cannot afford a listless government.
The question Modi needs to ask himself are the following: how did we get here after the euphoria of achieving the first majority government in 30 years; what did we do wrong, and what can we do to correct this; and, how did we lose the plot despite having the best communicator around. These days, even Rahul Gandhi seems to be getting his points across better than Modi.
Most important, Modi needs to ask himself – and nobody else – what he was elected for and what he stands for. From these two answers he can plot a strategy to make the rest of his 45-month tenure productive.
My answers, including some counter-intuitive ones, to all these questions are the following:
First, the overt projection of strength is a weakness politically in India. A weak Manmohan Singh was no threat to anyone, and lasted 10 years. A strong Modi is a threat to everyone, from rivals like the Congress to even allies like the Shiv Sena and future allies. Hence a gang-up of friend and foe is only to be expected. The only counter to this reality is to pretend extreme humility and keep arrogance at bay. The BJP is paying the price for its cockiness after May 2014. It may not be too late to change course, but this requires the party to eat a lot of crow. Is Modi ready for it?
Second, no party – however strong – can afford to bask in the glory of a victory. Honeymoon cycles are very short in democracies, and the Modi government’s failure to push through the toughest laws in its first 100 days is costing it dear. Consider how effortlessly it got the National Judicial Appointments Commission bill through – something that was hardly of paramount importance – and how it has been struggling with important economic legislation like the land bill and the goods and services tax.
The BJP was lucky to get the insurance and coal mines bills through in the last budget session, thanks to the favourable circumstance of the Congress being confused with the nearly two-month-long leave of absence of Rahul Gandhi. One shudders to think what would have happened if the two bills had been pushed to the monsoon session. I doubt either would have been passed. The lesson to learn is simple: favourable winds must be harnessed aggressively. Looking back from a vantage point, it is more than likely that if the land bill had been pushed along with the first NDA budget in July, despite Rajya Sabha opposition it might well have squeaked through in a joint session of parliament. Modi is paying the price for not acting fast during his government’s honeymoon period.
Third, if you lose the narrative, you will be defeated, whatever your parliamentary strength. Nothing demonstrates this better than how the NDA has painted itself into a corner over the land bill. There was no public communication over how the bill would help small farmers get a better price, and more jobs in their vicinity. There was no effort to gather a middle class audience, worried about the soaring cost of housing. This constituency could have been woken up to support the land bill. Also, the landless, who have less to lose from land acquisition and more to gain from the resultant investment in infrastructure, were ignored as a potential pressure group. That the bill allowed acquisitions for providing homesteads for the poor should have been a major selling point, but this connection was never made. Net result: the Congress managed to paint the government as anti-farmer, anti-poor. Poor tactics, poor communication, poor results.
Fourth, perception is reality. This means the BJP has to tweak existing perceptions about itself to be effective, even while softening the edges of the negative perceptions around itself. For example, the BJP was seen as pro-business and market-friendly, but far from using this to advantage, the Modi government tried to distance itself from what was seen as its strength. It kept business away from its priorities, forgetting that without a business revival, there can be no growth or new jobs. It could have, with some effective communication, told the people that if business does not grow, they will get no jobs.
But, instead, even without actually doing any major favours for business or markets, it allowed the Congress to paint it as pro-rich (“suit-boot-ki-sarkar”). The Congress believes it has found Modi’s Achilles heel: his fear of being branded as pro-rich, based on his Gujarat credentials, at a time when he is trying hard to be seen as a pro-poor PM. The simple lesson is this: you cannot wish away your brand image all of a sudden. You should, in fact, leverage it, to point out that the Congress anti-business postures were what killed jobs and growth. How difficult is it for a politician to explain that only business can create good jobs? Governments can only create artificial jobs through schemes like NREGA. Instead, Modi has managed to upset his biggest cheer-leaders, the business community, which is now beginning to wonder whether this is what they bargained for.
Fifth, inadequate cultivation of powerful CMs, especially in his own party, has cost Modi big-time. Between them, eight BJP Chief Ministers (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Jharkhand, Goa, and Rajasthan), three allied CMs (Punjab, Andhra Pradesh and J&K), and three non-belligerent, non-allied state CMS (Tamil Nadu, Telangana, and Odisha) can influence policy changes in more than half the country, and especially in the richer half. But Modi has barely used these Chief Ministers as allies to push important policies through at the state level. If these states had moved quickly, the Congress leadership would have been cornered by its own CMs for fear of being left behind in the growth sweepstakes. But, strangely, Modi has not done this despite talking about cooperative and competitive federalism.
This job cannot be left to the Amit Shahs and Venkiah Naidus of the world. This is Modi’s job, especially when the opposition is ganging up to trip him on all issues. Creating a coalition of powerful states for reform is the key to Modi’s ability to deliver growth and jobs when the opposition has smelt blood in scams like Vyapam and Lalit Modi. Cultivating his own CMs should be his first priority from now on. The Congress, on the other hand, has managed to get its CMs to oppose the land bill and other reforms even though they are not that sold on the idea.
Sixth, Modi has shown great flair in diplomacy and foreign policy, but he now runs the risk of trying to do too much with too many countries. He needs to follow the 80:20 rule: focus on the few countries that will deliver the most results, and not on bit players like Kazakhstan. India’s diplomacy will need to focus on the US, Russia, China, Japan, Israel, Vietnam and the European Union, with Bangladesh, Iran, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Myanmar being the neighbours to be wined and dined. As far as Pakistan is concerned, low-level dialogue to sort our minor issues will be key even while staying prepared for terrorism to escalate. Nothing except perfidy can be expected from Pakistan, aided by China.
By focusing on all kinds of foreign trips instead of just the most important ones, Modi has given Rahul Gandhi an opportunity to poke fun at his unavailability back home. Even though it is Gandhi who has been AWOL, Modi’s visible foreign trips tend to make it seem like he has low interest in issues back home. Once again, this perception can damage Modi in future. Also, Modi’s effectiveness abroad will be limited by his effectiveness back home in reviving the economy. A conflicted and slowing India will lose traction abroad.
The monsoon session debacle should be used by Modi to rethink his strategy and change the narrative around this government. If he does not do that, his government will soon be a lame-duck years ahead of 2019.