I think it will be disastrous for the country to have Narendra Modi as the PM,” Dr Manmohan Singh had said in January, 2014, at his last press conference as Prime Minister. Heckled by a section of the media, he declared that history would treat him and his government more kindly. On both counts, his words turned out to be prescient.
But could he have minced his words and evaded the question on Modi? Could he have been more diplomatic and politically more correct? How indeed was he so sure that Modi would be a disaster?
We may never get to know the answer because Manmohan Singh, contrary to what many had hoped, has no plans to write a tellall memoir. “I believe I should not write a book in public interest,” he had explained without elaborating. But he did add as an afterthought, “Somebody someday will write a book on the conspiracy against my government.”
Four and a half years later, his words appear prophetic as the Modi government lurches from one self-made crisis to another. Narendra Modi himself appears diminished, a caricature of his old self. Cracking a joke directed at him would have been unthinkable earlier. But cartoons, memes and jokes on him now abound and stand-up comics are increasingly mimicking him despite the backlash and trolling by the faithful. The bully in Modi is still there. And he has not lost any of his bluster. But the effect is just not the same.
He also sounds like a cantankerous, old man. Responding to the debate on the no-confidence motion in the Lok Sabha, he famously referred to Rahul Gandhi walking across the aisle and giving him a bearhug as the Congress president’s unseemly haste to occupy his seat. It sounded like a Freudian slip. Unable to explain the dramatic rise in bank NPAs and bank frauds, he now darkly hints that the economy was in a far worse state than he suspected when he took over.
He also sounds increasingly more bitter and acrimonious. Unable to tell the country that he has made mistakes or his government has mismanaged the economy, he has taken to finding scapegoats everywhere.
No Prime Minister before Modi has invested so much in projecting himself. Every time he goes out, a 40-member crew from state broadcaster DoorDarshan is deployed to beam the event live. As if on cue, all private TV channels pick it up, often without acknowledging the source of the feed or the footage. He has relied on hope and hype to build a larger-than-life image. An expensive publicity machine grinds 24x7 to promote him through events, billboards, TV time, Radio talks, print advertisements, social media, WhatsApp and his seemingly endless travel.
But despite the puff jobs, a pliant media and the government hounding critics and dissenters and Modi himself replacing the politics of hope which had brought him to power with the politics of fear, a sense of impending doom has enveloped the country.
The economy is a shambles; the prices of essential commodities and fuel have gone through the roof, the Rupee is at an all-time low, manufacturing and exports have declined, corruption in government offices remain the same, jobs are harder to get, trains no longer run on time and criticism of the PM even on facebook or Twitter is enough to land one in jail.
But gold and diamonds are still forever, with or without Nirav Modi or Mehul Choksi. The Prime Minister’s imperial ‘Presidential’ style of working was never more evident than on November 8, 2016, when in a televised address to the nation at 8 pm, he declared that at the stroke of midnight, 86% of the currency in circulation would become mere scraps of paper.
The Reserve Bank of India was arm-twisted to give its consent within the past 24 hours. The Finance Minister and the Chief Economic Advisor were not kept in the loop and the Cabinet was barely informed ahead of the PM’s address and kept captive while he went live.
The Reserve Bank of India’s report on Demonetisation has finally taken the wind out of the government’s shifting justifications for what is now clear was a monumental mistake. Less than two years later (See Page 8 on why Notebandi inquiry is needed), it is now known that it did not achieve any of its avowed objectives even as it wiped out 1.5% of the GDP and millions of jobs.
Amidst growing clamour for an apology from the Prime Minister, The Guardian wrote in an editorial, “Mr Modi is determined not to concede the folly of demonetisation, which cost 100 lives, at least 1.5m jobs and left 150 million people without pay for weeks…Mr Modi claims to be a religious man. That perhaps explains why his belief in this wrong-headed policy has never wavered. He had promised that “if any fault is found…I am willing to suffer any punishment”.
Plenty of faults have been found, but Mr Modi is not interested in accepting them…His hubris may mean his party meets its electoral nemesis. Voters ought to take the opportunity to punish Mr Modi for his mistakes if he won’t own them.” Narendra Modi has himself to blame. In the run-up to the campaign for the 2014 General Elections, the exuberant challenger had pretended to have the medicine for all that ailed India.
He mocked and smirked his way through over 400 election rallies, college town halls, youth conventions, ‘Chai Pre Charcha’ etc. and took the country by storm.
He left nothing to imagination, nobody in any doubt that he was the Arch Angel himself and held Aladin’s Lamp that had the cure for everything.
Black money? Wait for 100 days. Unemployment? One crore jobs a year. Manufacturing? Make in India and FDI in defence and retail. Joblessness? Trust Skill India. Slow growth? Build 100 smart cities. Ganga is still dirty? Namami Gange. No pride in India? International Yoga Day. Poor sanitation? Swachh Bharat. Rural India in distress? JAM over MNREGA. Poor train services? Bullet train between Ahmedabad and Mumbai. Bihar is backward? How much do you need? Rs 1.25 lakh crore?
Coming from any other leader, the promises would have been seen as reckless. But Narendra Modi managed to make them sound credible. It may not entirely be due to his acting or oratory, his reputation as event manager or even his ability to deliver spectacles. It may not also be the case that he is so cynical that he believes he can fool people all the time.
To give him the benefit of doubt, he may have actually believed that he had a vision for India, that he was indeed God’s gift to the country. What the country, however, has learnt to its cost is that Narendra Modi’s autocratic governance skills have limitations, that he tried to put the cart before the horse. While he boasted of ‘Team India’ and ‘India First’ and glibly spoke of ‘Sab Ka Saath aur Sab ka Vikas”, he acted and behaves like a lone ranger.
Now we do know that it did not work in Gujarat, that his Gujarat Model was sham. And this is certainly not working in a large, diverse and complex country like India. Questions are being raised on the PMO micro-managing everything and his inability to delegate. Political considerations seem to outweigh administrative imperatives.
He appears to believe that video-conferences with Chief Secretaries and monitoring projects by the PMO are enough to ensure implementation; that he alone can initiate reforms in Education by telling students how to prepare for examinations in his radio talk or by allowing a ghost-written book, “Exam warriors”.
He does not seem to have the patience or the wisdom to see the damage caused by placing mediocre teachers at the helm of educational institutions. Privatisation of health services and allowing insurance companies to run away with public funds is no substitute to universal and affordable healthcare.
The first few months of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister now appear like a fairy tale compared to what followed. The triumphant PM-elect flew into Delhi in a plane belonging to the Adani Group and rode into the city, waving to delirious crowds of people while he himself hung out of a SUV like a rock star.
He charmed Lutyen’s Delhi in no time, putting his forehead on the steps of the Parliament, following up with a statesman-like address from the Red Fort and calling for a national mission to make India clean. But as he increasingly felt more at home in New Delhi, surrounding himself with Gujarat cadre officers and bringing in his personal staff, said to number around 60, from Ahmedabad, the charm and velvet gloves have come off, replaced by a cold, piercing glare that officials, ministers and even his party MPs have come to dread. “Even when he laughs and jokes with you,” confided someone who has known him for long with a nervous laugh, “you have this uneasy feeling that he is very unhappy with you.” The euphoria is clearly over as the country comes to terms with the disaster.