Sunday, May 28, 2017

Modi movement -- from allegro to andante

Prime Minister Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan before Modi was sworn in as prime minister on May 27, 2014

It would be futile to fault Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his grand gestures, rhetorical flourishes and yen for drama. Theatrics is the calling card of politicians, but Modi has cultivated it assiduously to outflank the liberal media in India and in the world which pinned him down for his acts of omission and commission during the Gujarat 2002 post-Godhra anti-Muslim rioting. Though the Indian media in general, including the liberals, were betting on Modi in 2013 and in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the then Gujarat chief minister barely acknowledged the media doffing its hat to him.
And when he became the prime minister in May 2014, he focused on the grand gesture. He started off by inviting the leaders of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (Saarc) leaders for his swearing-in ceremony on May 27, 2014. The media hailed it as an act of generosity and good will, overlooking the fact that it was both loud and crude. Modi’s swearing-in was no emperor’s coronation, and Saarc members were not vassals. But India’s foreign policy experts were only too thrilled as what they saw as a liberal’s declaration of faith in friendly neighbourliness. Remember, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is seen as an ultra-nationalist right-wing party, and any gesture it makes to mark friendship with neighbours is acknowledged with a sigh of relief. But calling in Saarc leaders for the swearing-in was undiplomatic and impolitic, if anything.
He followed this with visits to Bhutan and Nepal, and he hectored in Nepal’s parliament as to how they should govern themselves. Then came the surprise friendly stopover at Lahore on December 25, 2015 to greet Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on his birthday at the venue of Sharif’s daughter’s wedding festivities. The na├»ve foreign policy watchers at home were ecstatic about this friendly overture, without waiting to see what if any was the fallout of the goodwill visit.
It turned out that 2016 became a testing year in the relationship between India and Pakistan. There were two terrorist attacks at Pathankot on January 3, 2016 and at Uri on September 18, 2016. This was followed by India’s strike against the terrorist camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir on September 29, 2016, which was termed ‘surgical’ by the government, by the BJP and the media.
When he visited the United States end-September, 2014 to address the UN General Assembly session – the address itself carried the self-assuredness of the self-made man -- what marked the visit was his post-election victory rally in Madison Square on September 28, 2014, where he addressed the non-resident Indians, most of whom turned out to be Gujarati businessmen, including a large number of Bohras. He addressed Indians who made the United States their home as though they were the voters back home. There was no doubt that US-based NRIs were indeed the uncritical supporters of Modi, but it was again an undiplomatic thing to do on the American soil.
On November 17, 2014 he addressed another rally of non-resident Indians at the Sydney Olympic Park. Modi was quite unabashed when connecting with the overseas supporters of the BJP. The last big rally of non-resident Indians he addressed was at the cricket stadium on August 17, 2015. It seems that US President Barack Obama, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed Rashid took Modi’s engagement with the NRIs in good faith, and despite the nationalist fervour displayed by both Modi and the NRIs at these events, the bilateral relations remained on an even keel.
In contrast, Modi addressing the Indian-origin Tamils in Sri Lanka, at Norwood in the Central province after the inauguration of India-financed hospital on May 12, 2017 there was nothing similar to what it was in New York, Sydney and Dubai in 2014-15. Modi while lauding the hardships endured by the Tamils, expressed the view that they were part of the warp and wood of the Sri Lankan society. The nationalist rhetoric at Norwood was muted compared to what it was in New York, Sydney and Dubai. Modi is to travel to the United States and have another festive hangout of the NRIs in Houston. But the end-of-June Houston event comes at a time when the Indian diaspora is not experience the high it did in 2014 under the Barack Obama’s second presidency and two terms of George W Bush. The Donald Trump White House does not hold much cheer for the NRIs and they cannot be expected to revel in Modi’s presence. He may want to give them a pep talk instead of a victory speech.
In 2014-15, Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and everyone else in the government that there has been a turnaround in the ‘market sentiment’ about India, and it was attributed to Modi magic. India remained the fastest growing economy in the world with a seven per cent plus annual growth rate, and the Bretton Woods twins, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB), praised India as the bright spot of the flagging world economy. But the encomiums did not boost Indian economy. It seems to have stood where it was – unable to do better than the seven per cent growth rate, which would be equivalent to the old Hindu rate of growth of 3.5 per cent annum of the 1950s and 1960s.
The Make in India (September, 2014), Skill India (July, 2015), Digital India (July, 2015), Startup India, Stand Up India (January, 2016) initiatives were ambitious ventures which are going nowhere like all government initiatives anytime, anywhere and which remain public relations campaigns. What seemed to have impressed people are the good old welfare measures like Jan Dhan Yojana et al. But the economy is not in a happy position that it seemed to be two years ago. And the government does not have any plans to counter the periodic low tide of the Indian economy.
Modi government in May 2017 looks a little tired, a little more cautious and much less sanguine than it did in May 2014 and in May 2015. The only tonic for the government and the BJP was the victory in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. The prime minister and his party are basking in the sliver of light of that success.
To use a Western classical music description, the Modi movement started with an allegro, the emphatic and faster rhythm, and it has settled into a slowed-down andante phase. There are as yet no signs of a complicated and graceful adagio in the Modi musical passage. This is a government that has not shown any grace or magnanimity because it feels that it cannot let its guard down, that it should forever remain on the alert, keep a sharp look out, and it should remain suspicious and aggressive. With the 2019 Lok Sabha looming on the horizon, there is just frenetic activity ahead.


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