What’s eating Narendra Modi?
What’s eating Narendra Modi?
India's Narendra Modi is in a pickle. When he declared victory against the coronavirus this January, he wasn’t just tempting fate but revealing the largest chinks in his armour — ignorance, and hubris. And along came the double mutant Indian variant which has now been named the delta variant by the World Health Organization (WHO). His ardent supporters would learn about his biggest failure (the inability to book enough vaccines for the population) much later. First, they would go through a harrowing nightmare of watching their loved ones die waiting for oxygen cylinders. If that was not enough, they would then suffer the gut-wrenching ordeal of finding ways to carry out the last rites of their flesh and blood. Sitting far away when I came across some of these stories on social media features like Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces, I must say I felt crippled by shock, the intensity of grief on display, horror, and human limitations to console someone who lives out of physical reach. No human being should have to endure such a tragedy. And how do you diminish someone's pain and survivor's guilt when they thought they could arrange life support within minutes of the death of their beloveds?
In the past seven years, I have never been accused of being kind to Modi. And at such moments I do not feel vindicated, I only encounter a deep state of loss in the pit of my stomach. Our cousins next door did not know that the thing they were bringing in with such fanfare was a deadly Trojan horse. And now it has deprived them permanently of happiness. How do you tell them that this tragedy could be avoided?
The effectiveness of spin is inversely proportional to the number of times it is used. As Abraham Lincoln, so articulated, stated: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” Many Indians were shocked to see that instead of helping them out their government was occupied with blocking their voices on social media. When your ruler thinks that the image is more important than the reality the loss of a few hundred thousand lives looks like just another flat number.
Actions have consequences. Failures, doubly so. It feels like the lid of Pandora's box has been lifted and even the most ardent supporters of Modi and his party are seeing him for who he is. Popularity numbers have dipped to an unprecedented low. And because the images are being constantly policed pollsters are compelled to prepare two lists, one, with a minor decline, for the government and the media. The other, with devastating numbers, for the consumption of the powers that be in the deep state and within the RSS.
This has led to three distinct chains of events. Four if you factor in the still raw sense of shock among the big-ticket business sponsors of the Hindutva regime. Let us look at them one at a time.
The first chain of events is institutional. India's democratic institutions, which had gone to sleep for seven long years, are waking up. Nothing dramatic but you can still feel that the old checks and balances are being restored. This means that the wiggle room for the saffron government is shrinking. The media, the judiciary, and very slowly the parliament and the bureaucracy are getting wary of the Modi government's cluelessness.
The second sequence of events is taking place within the ruling party. Modi is being taken less seriously. His party has now witnessed two serious setbacks in populous states. The debacle in West Bengal and local elections in UP may have less to do with Covid and more to do with the Modi and Yogi governance models. Amid infighting, as I write these lines, Yogi Aditiyanath is meeting Modi to reconcile differences. But even if this patchwork quilt works for the time being no one is hopeful for its longevity.
The third and the most serious one is taking place within the RSS, the ideological fountainhead of the ruling BJP. The RSS, which prides itself on its ability to play the long game, is not just wary of Modi and Yogi, the latter not even its member. It feels deeply wounded because of the illiterate and clueless brand image the association with this lot is projecting to the world. The group has big plans for the future and it feels that it cannot influence the world with an ignorant or miseducated workforce. The word has it that it is seriously considering ways to cut the losses by sidelining Modi and his entire cabinet, replacing them with backbenchers until the election, and then withdrawing from the political space for two decades, the time needed to prepare a new and better-educated workforce. The push is apparently coming from the HSS, other foreign wings of the RSS, which includes some of the most diehard supporters of Modi. Way to embarrass your most aggressive fans. This may take time but is the most probable course of action.
Finally, the billionaires like Ambanis and Adanis who bankrolled Modi's campaign and stints in power for personal reasons. They too are shocked by the sheer incompetence on display. Modi's regional policies are now negatively affecting their business concerns. The regional opposition to the Saudi investment in Ambani's refinery project has caused undesirable delays. And now the Modi government is attacking his key partners in the Jio project like Facebook. If benefactors like him decide to ditch support for Modi, then hardly anyone will save his hide. The global trends are also dismantling the international ideological ecosystem that bolstered Modi's brand at home.
Now, the question is whether he can survive all this. Well, miracles do happen. But the only miracle that can save him comes at a heavy cost. Swift peace with Pakistan can create just the kind of disruption that may keep him at least a little longer in power. The Pakistani ruling elite is not oblivious to the usefulness of a diminished populist leader. But to make genuine peace, for mere optics will not cut it any longer, he will have to act first and dismantle the network installed to control Pakistan from within and stifle its economy from without. Despite this cost dispute resolution with Pakistan can turn the tide of public opinion, replenish his image as a statesman, and perhaps along with the Pakistani leadership win him a Nobel prize. But since time is of the essence, I don’t think he has more than a month to act. Can he do it? Of course. But will he? I have my doubts, beside a strong feeling that he doesn't deserve it.