How PM Modi squandered his political capital after 2019

With little reference to performance and reliance on charisma in its endless political campaigning, the BJP is wishing away the spectres of an inglorious recent past

PM Narendra Modi at Ram Mandir's Bhoomi Pujan in Ayodhya; (right) youth protest against rising unemployment and fleecing GST
PM Narendra Modi at Ram Mandir's Bhoomi Pujan in Ayodhya; (right) youth protest against rising unemployment and fleecing GST

Aakar Patel

The BJP government went into 2019 with a lot of energy and momentum. The electoral victory in May that year was decisive and rewarded the prime minister with more seats than he had secured in 2014.

With the confidence of that mandate, and the idea that the people were with him on change, he began to spend the political capital he had earned. For one year, till June 2020, this continued and then it ran out of steam.

In this period of 12 months things happened, and much of the aftermath still remain with us. Let us look at how things unfolded.

On 25 July 2019, the triple talaq bill was passed in the Lok Sabha. The Supreme Court had already invalidated it earlier, but now it was made a criminal offence. This was accompanied by a series of ‘freedom of religion’ laws in BJP states banning marriage between Hindus and Muslims. These were against what was called ‘love jihad’.

A few days after that, on 5 August 2019, Article 370 was undone. This was a special moment for the BJP. On 31 August, the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published by Assam, which had begun the process of jailing those who could not prove their ancestors had been in the state before 1971.

Another triumphal moment for the BJP came a few weeks after that, on 9 November. The Supreme Court delivered the Ayodhya judgment and handed the full site over for the temple, capping a three-decade movement by the BJP.

The next month, on 9 December, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed in the Lok Sabha. Readers will recall that the home minister had promised that it was one claw of a two-part pincer. The other being a nationwide NRC.

The peak arrived a few weeks after that with the visit of US President Donald Trump in the Narendra Modi stadium in Ahmedabad. This was possibly the point after which the agenda seems to have been exhausted.

A nationwide movement against the CAA came with global outrage at what India was doing. The riots and arson in Delhi during the presidential visit showed how little control there was even in the national capital.

(Left) Anti-CAA protest in Shaheen Bagh; (right) farmers protest against flawed farm laws at Delhi's border
(Left) Anti-CAA protest in Shaheen Bagh; (right) farmers protest against flawed farm laws at Delhi's border

The next month came the nationwide lockdown which some said was the world’s most severe. It didn’t change the trajectory of Covid infections in India. A few weeks after that was the terrible sequence in Ladakh where we lost 20 soldiers and which altered the national security dynamic of India by default, shifting focus from the west and against Pakistan to the east.

We do not know, and even the foreign minister says he is baffled, why China did what it did.

On 5 June, one year after the victory came the last attempt at big change: the farm laws ordinance. The protest against them stalled the government’s momentum.


In Kashmir, having gutted Article 370, the BJP didn’t appear to know what to do next. It still doesn’t appear to know. Kashmir is the only part of South Asia to not have an elected government. It is three years since Article 370 went out and four years since its assembly was dissolved. Violence is not lower than it was in the few years before 2015 and we have seen the minority Pandits protesting about the way they have been treated.

The laws targeting minorities ran into trouble because they were not passed without application of mind. This month, a legal website ran this headline: ‘Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act: HC finds provision requiring inter-faith couples to declare conversion before Collector prima facie unconstitutional’.

Gujarat High Court also sent a judgment against the law there.

The farm laws were undone with an apology from the prime minister after the largest mass mobilisation this country has seen. The CAA law is now three years old but the government for some reason cannot implement it. The talk of a nationwide NRC has ended.


Finally, even on the economy, not much was possible on the positive side after this period. The government’s data showed that GDP growth slowed across nine quarters, meaning for two years and three months, beginning January 2018.

The arrival of Covid and the hit the economy took masked the damage it had already sustained.

The reason Bangladesh overtook India in per capita GDP was not only because India mismanaged the pandemic. Our neighbour had been catching up since 2015 and it was inevitable that unless India did something remarkable to turn around its trajectory it would be left behind, and it was.

Unemployment data from the government shows joblessness has been at record highs for four years.

The BJP’s 2019 manifesto said one of the indicators of its governance was the improvement in India’s position on the World Bank’s Doing Business (previously ease of doing business) rankings. Unfortunately, this ranking was discontinued in 2020 after some countries were found manipulating the process to improve their scores.

There is not much to show on governance after that one year burst of activity. The second wave finished off any credibility on that front and it was for a reason that even someone as fond of publicity as the prime minister did not appear in public for 20 days.

The listlessness shows in endless political campaigning conducted without much reference to performance, only to charisma. The past is not spoken about though it has not gone away and indeed even demonetisation is being heard by the Supreme Court now though the BJP wants it to be forgotten.

(Views are personal)

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