Modi's Mission Shakti speech: BJP appears nervous, celebrating missile could be PM assailing his fears

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's address to the nation announcing the successful testing of the anti-satellite missile on Wednesday encapsulates the essence of his political style as seen over the past five years — he stokes popular expectations to the point where it become impossible to meet them. Disappointment follows.

For nearly an hour separating Modi's tweet stating that he had an important announcement to make, to when he actually spoke, the nation was caught in the frenzy of feverish speculation. Does India have Maulana Masood Azhar, the Jaish-e-Mohammad chief, in its custody? Or has he been killed in a covert operation? Or is it the largely forgotten underworld don, Dawood Ibrahim, who is being brought to India? Or has India conducted yet strike against Pakistan?

This level of speculation is testimony to how Modi has become synonymous with soaring expectations and a muscular national security policy; and his nationally televised address as a harbinger of disruptive policies, regardless of his motive. The latter perception gained ground largely because of the demonetisation policy he announced in a televised speech in November 2016.

 Modis Mission Shakti speech: BJP appears nervous, celebrating missile could be PM assailing his fears

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. ANI

So when the nation was asked to stand by for an important announcement on Wednesday morning, it hoped as well as feared for a breathtaking declaration from Modi. They were either disappointed or relieved — not really the emotions that Modi had hoped to trigger by announcing that India had entered the exclusive club of nations that possess anti-satellite missile capabilities.

The successful testing of the anti-satellite missile is, indeed, a technological breakthrough, but it lacked the 'oomph' to captivate his audience. For one, it required prior knowledge of space technology to appreciate what India had achieved. For the other, within minutes of Modi's announcement, links to a 2012 India Today story detailing India’s capabilities to destroy satellites in space starting doing the rounds. Modi's speech seemed a case of reinventing, or merely testing, the wheel.

This is as true of many of the policies that the Modi government has announced over the past five years. From opening Jan Dhan accounts to constructing toilets, to Skill India, to Stand-Up India, to creating smart cities, Modi has reeled out a slew of programmes that were projected as unprecedented, even revolutionary, steps to create a new India, a developed India. These policies are intrinsically worthy, but their projection spawned expectations of instant change, which was impossible to meet. It led to many, including the Opposition, accusing Modi of spinning, of pouring old wine into a new bottle — and then selling it.

It is an irony that the expectation-disappointment dyad invariably built into Modi's political style should have played out so quickly, so vividly, in just a couple of hours, that too at the fag-end of his five-year term.

In choosing to make the announcement regarding India's space breakthrough, Modi had an eye on the forthcoming Lok Sabha election. He was seeking to foster the feel-good emotion by fanning national pride. He was also building upon the nationalistic fervour that the terror attack in Pulwama on 14 February and the subsequent India-Pakistan aerial confrontation generated. Feel-good emotions do not linger as long as darkled feelings, such as those arising in the wake of, say, falling incomes.

Modi's announcement on Wednesday, therefore, gave us a hint of his electoral strategy: He will seek to churn emotions and ride them through the Lok Sabha election. Emotions swamp reason; they disable people from examining government policies; a prolonged feel-good feeling among voters is psephologically considered advantageous to the ruling party.

It is possible voters may ask what they will gain from India's prowess to destroy a satellite in the space. In this context, it is appropriate to remember the seaplane ride that Modi took on the day the campaigning for the 2017 Gujarat Assembly election was to end. The ride was projected as an attempt to boost tourism in Gujarat through hi-tech. For many, a plane landing on the Sabarmati must have been a sight.

It is hard to tell whether the seaplane shored up the BJP's prospects at the last minute. However, it can be presumed that the seaplane ride did not have a negative impact on the BJP, since it won the Assembly election. It can also be said that the emotional surge in Gujarat might have checked non-ideological voters from deserting the BJP. In much the same manner, the anti-missile system gives Modi and BJP cadres a point to crow about.

Whether or not it will have a popular resonance is debatable. With Indian politics increasingly resembling Bollywood in style and content, emotional campaigns have an utmost impact when these also produce an identifiable villain. Refreshingly, the talk on the anti-satellite missile testing has not yet produced one. But who can tell how the talk will be tweaked over the days, or what other tactics will be employed to stoke national pride.

However, campaigns built around emotions are often unwitting expressions of nervousness dogging a ruling party. Is Modi nervous and unsure about the results of the forthcoming elections?

There are two possible views:

Yes, he is, because of the comeback the Congress staged in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh last year. Then again, in Gujarat, Modi's home turf, the Congress gave the BJP a close run for its money in the 2017 Assembly election. BJP had taken all of Gujarat's 26 and Rajasthan's 25 seats, 27 out of Madhya Pradesh's 29, and 10 out of Chhattisgarh's 11. It does not seem it can repeat its 2014 performance.

There is also a powerful alliance of the Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP and its ally, Apna Dal, had won 73 seats. No one knows who Priyanka Gandhi will adversely affect — the alliance or the BJP. So here too, its tally will likely dip. Barring Karnataka, the BJP does not still have a foothold in the South, where it is dependent on allies to boost the numbers of the National Democratic Alliance that it heads. It can make up for a percentage of its expected losses in the Hindi heartland in the East, but it can't offset it by 100 percent.

The other view is that he does not wish to repeat the mistake of former prime minister AB Vajpayee in 2004, who thought his Indian Shining campaign was good enough to win him another term. Modi wants to put his bets on as many issues as possible, particularly those emotional, to boost his party's tally. This is vital as the BJP, as of now, does not look like nearing its 2014 tally of 282 seats.

This means Modi will have to lure allies who are not in the NDA's camp. It will require bargaining; it could see him face competition from leaders within the party, most of whom unable to assert himself. It will, above all, dilute the kind of power he wields. It will turn him into the Modi that he fears becoming. His decision to announce the successful testing of the anti-satellite missile was, perhaps, an attempt to assail his own inner fears.

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Updated Date: Mar 29, 2019 00:48:19 IST