Distance gives perspective, followed by analysis and attitude. Last week saw an unusual political formation in Maharashtra, and afterwards a spontaneously choleric outburst by industrial paterfamilias Rahul Bajaj in Mumbai. The TMC stymied its obit writers with three massive bypoll victories. Suddenly, there was the scent of change in the air that indicated nascent freedom from fear—perceived or real. Know-all celebs have announced that the glitter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah’s charisma and control are fading.
Why? All three events have a common factor: BJP’s defenestration. The embarrassing Maharashtra experiment that saw Devendra Fadnavis’s unceremonious exit within 80 hours of swearing and swearing-in proved beyond doubt that the Centre’s grip is not holding as before. The BJP’s humiliating defeat in Bengal indicated its diminishing appeal. It was a triple whammy—Bajaj’s verbal volley which lambasted the power troika of the Home Minister, Finance Minister and Commerce Minister gave heart to India’s cowering corporate world.
Yet, his is an isolated voice. So are the bypoll verdicts. Though such events hardly impact the leader’s institutional authority, they create doubt about his omniscient, omnipresent infallibility and reflect popular anger against the perceived arrogance of the ruling establishment. The BJP has been upbeat in West Bengal ever since it won 18 Lok Sabha seats from the red bastion cum secular sinecure. With barely a little over a year left for the state elections, the unexpectedly huge margins of TMC’s victory punctured saffron egoistic posturing—it lost two of three seats to Didi. One was vacated by state BJP chief Dilip Ghosh after he was elected to the Lok Sabha in May.
The increased margins in TMC’s vote in all the three seats indicate a seismic swing away from the BJP within a span of six months. It had pressed into service money, muscle and manpower: senior Central leaders camped in the state for longer than required. Mamata exulted, “People have rejected BJP’s arrogance.” The same electorate had handsomely rewarded Modi and Shah with a record number of Lok Sabha seats just a few months ago.
The dire disconnect between the BJP’s suave urbanised campaigners who were clueless about rural Bengal may have been the cause of the setback since they were paradropped by Delhi to lord over local leaders. The party’s numerical enormity doesn’t come from natural and organic organisational growth. It bulged optically due to massive defections and choreographed public meetings of so-called Bangla speaking arrogant intellectuals flown to Kolkata from all over the country to influence the local
discourse. Their invocation of the Modi-Shah mantra couldn’t convince local voters whose expectations exceeded New Delhi’s gestures. Arrogance and Ignorance of BJP’s second-rung leaders and
newcomers has brought avoidable agony.
The message later last week at a Mumbai conference where the rich and mighty had gathered revealed similar distressed dissatisfaction. The attendees generate over 40 per cent of India’s GDP, but lacked the gumption to publicly fault sarkari policies or environment during the past six years. They had stuck to the usual laudatory remarks about the government; they praise all governments anyway, although some were acerbic towards UPA-II.
Denied uninhibited access to the Prime Minister and senior ministers, they whispered about reprisals and fear but never in the open. Bajaj broke the rule with politically incorrect insinuations by commenting “None of our industrial friends will speak about it, but I’ll say that openly…You’re doing a good job, but despite that, we’re not confident you’ll appreciate if we openly criticise you.” During his three-minute intervention he indirectly mentioned a leader being kept in jail for 100 days (Chidambaram). Shah’s response showed uncharacteristic softness and calm—“I don’t think anyone will believe people are scared after you asked this question,” said he, who holds ostensibly India’s second-most important job.
“The government has been run in the most transparent way, and we’re not afraid of any sort of opposition. No need to fear anything. The Narendra Modi government has been criticised continuously in media. But, if you are saying that there is such an environment, we need to work to improve this,” he concluded. This assurance of corrective introspection was belied the next morning when the BJP started trolling Bajaj with his old statements and actions. Sitharaman tweeted: “Home Minister Amit Shah answers on how issues raised by Rahul Bajaj were addressed.
Questions/criticisms are heard and answered/addressed. Always a better way to seek an answer than spreading one’s own impressions which, on gaining traction, can hurt national interest.” She was followed by other colleagues in the party and the government indicating that the leadership wasn’t in a mood to tolerate criticism. The PM has avoided taking direct potshots at his adversaries and political snipers. Last week, Manmohan Singh had presaged Bajaj’s sentiments when he remarked that there was “profound fear and distrust among our various economic participants”. He added that a few industrialists and bankers have said that Modi’s government, which came to power in 2014, poses a threat to India’s traditions of tolerance and public debate. Neither Modi nor his party reacted to Singh’s salvo.
NaMo’s admirers feel that he is either misinformed or kept in the dark about the ground reality which has led to an eventual erosion of his credibility and authority. For example, Modi-Shah is being held responsible for the botched Operation Maharashtra. Not only was Modi given an utterly unrealistic report on both the unsustainability of the state government and dissension within the Congress and NCP, he was induced to use a special law and wake the President up in the wee hours of the morning to stamp the swearing-in by lifting Central rule.
Not only did the report given to the President by the PMO and Home Ministry turn out to be infirm, it also raised a serious question mark about the bureaucracy’s plausibility. Losing financially significant Maharashtra also reinforced the contagious perception that the BJP is incapable of retaining its states. Despite many wins in the past six years, it has also been undone in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. It hardly made impressive gains in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. It seized power in Karnataka using floor crossers’ help.
It formed the government in Haryana with post-poll allies. Victory in Jharkhand, Bihar, Delhi, West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where elections are coming up, seems to be in doubt. The Opposition is manoeuvring to destroy the invincibility of Brand Modi and the strategic moxie of Shah whose speciality is converting defeat into victory. Fadnavis and Khattar were Modi’s personal assets who let him down. With the BJP’s strong state-level leadership in a vacuum, the Opposition will keep chiselling away at Modi Might to bring down the edifice he has built with words and will. Kolkata and Mumbai are the first chips of the new bloc.