It’s been three years from that day in May 2014 when, in the sweltering summer heat on the expansive red-sandstone Rashtrapati Bhavan forecourt, a former chief minister took oath as the prime minister with the entire subcontinental state power in attendance as witness.
Since then, we have had the fifties-vintage Planning Commission give way to NITI Aayog, telegenic surgical strikes, new and colourful rupee notes replacing old ones, a mass expansion of zero-balance bank accounts, a new unifying tax regime in the works, Aurangzeb giving way to Abdul Kalam on a street sign, the PM’s address turning into 7 Lok Kalyan Marg—no Race Course Road anymore—and yes, transformative elections. We were on our way to a Swachh Bharat, mukt of counter thought. The man who never lost an election in Gujarat largely retained his winning streak on the national stage, with only a few losses in between. But the victories have been sweeping statements—not mere wins—as if to totally overwhelm the old order.
The modes and intensity of communication too changed in three years, with the successful leveraging of social media in combination with the use of one of the oldest modes of messaging—the All India Radio.
The impression was that of a government in constant and direct communication with the citizens, in contrast to inaccessible leaders in the rarefied zones of the older order. Whether it was yoga or the cleanliness drive or stand-up, start-up schemes, digital India or the board exam anxieties of students, the PM set up a connect unparalleled in many ways, sharing ‘his mind’ on what the Opposition claimed were small and mundane issues.
But like the self-attestation of documents, this directness altered the perception of the common citizen’s relations to the levers of power. Modi became the man of small reforms, less remote and less remote-controlled for his voters. It was not so for the established media which had to become shriller to maintain its relevance to match the polarised voices of social media.
The selective dismantling of old apparatuses—to remove, undo or refashion what was grudgingly called ‘the Congress system’ (barring some big flagship programmes)—happened step-by-step, programme by programme, election by election, institution by institution, bureaucrat by bureaucrat.
The process is still under way. It sometimes came with suddenness, sometimes through meticulous planning and plotting. But never without surprise. Shock treatment, not minimalism, seemed to be the unstated policy of the government. Waiting at the home office of a political veteran April 2016, I was asked by his long-time aide, “Which way is Assam going?” This was by way of small talk, since most of Delhi's heavy hitters were camping in Guwahati. I shared my feedback that the BJP is winning. The stunned look on the face of the once-powerful Lutyens’ native is not something I would easily forget.
A large part of the media may be writing requiems to the Congress—for those who grew in politics fighting the Grand Old Party, its decline is celebrated but not without a sense of bemused surprise. A BJP chief minister in Assam thus became a far bigger trophy for Modi than the second sweep in Uttar Pradesh. It gave a sense of expansion—the arrival of a new order—more than any other. Little wonder the PM has decided to celebrate his third year in office not in New Delhi, not in Lucknow, but in Guwahati. Not with his allies and the media over dinner in 7 RCR/LKM—distributing booklets of achievements. Instead, a compilation of the PM’s ‘Mann ki Baat’ will be released by the president, with a live version of it on Sunday. The PM will talk to his people through the intimacy of the small transistor radio.
The Opposition, pushed to the wall, lived the last three years losing most elections spectacularly, but also winning some here and there—hopping from one issue to another, one press conference to another. The Congress ministers who used to keep the media at arm’s length with a supercilious air took to writing columns and doing their politics through myriad press conferences and protest marches to Rashtrapati Bhavan. This aloof politics was on display all through.
When vigilantes killed an Air Force man’s brother in UP on suspicion of beef-eating; when they slaughtered men in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal on suspicion of cow smuggling, or beat up ‘Romeos’ on town roads, and brutal rapes hit the headlines. When campuses rose up in protests, young Vemulas committed suicide, Dalits clashed with Thakurs, when fuel prices refused to come down, and Kashmir remained on the boil, they addressed press conferences and set up committees. The Congress, the biggest opposition party with just 44 seats in the house of people, was minuscule in any case.
Not winning elections, except in Bihar and Punjab, and losing UP so resoundingly, and still haunted by what felled it—corruption charges—it seemed to have ceded more and more ground to Modi in these three years. The presidential election is giving them a chance to coalesce, but the contradictions are so deep that to accommodate Mamata Banerjee and Sitaram Yechury on the same agenda, Sonia Gandhi had to scale down a meeting to a lunch.
In Odisha, Naveen Patnaik is still undecided whether to stay aloof as he has done all these years, or get embroiled in opposition politics to survive. Nitish Kumar has already declared he’s not in the 2019 race, while Rahul Gandhi seems to have again made way for his ailing mother to put the house back in order. As a PM unit official shares: “You are wrong, we are not preparing for the third anniversary, or 2019, our programmes and projects are for 2024.’’ In the short term, the PM is preparing for his next round of foreign visits that will end just before the Gujarat campaign starts. Well, the calendar is packed.
Political Editor, The New Indian Express