A free fall: politicians’ credibility back to early-2013 levels

This is my latest livemint column

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As far as fortunes of political parties go, the first half of 2013 was truly bad. Mega scams had damaged the ruling Congress and its allies; the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was serially obstructionist and had yet to decide to rally behind Narendra Modi; there was no Aam Aadmi Party (AAP); and regional parties were sabotaging national foreign policy. A nosediving economy and the aftermath of the horrific Delhi rape incident contributed to the general doom and gloom.

Of course, we all know what happened next. The year 2014 was as starkly different from 2013 as could be. First, the AAP won an election in Delhi and then promptly hit the self-destruct button, but managed to keep themselves in the game. The anti-Congress sentiment galvanized and delivered a historic low of 44 Lok Sabha seats. And the biggest of them all—an unprecedented electoral victory for the BJP, riding on the shoulders of Modi.

There was without question, a hope for change no matter how media-magnified it was. The stock of the political class rose on the back of one man, Modi. It made up for the disenchantment with the street-fighting tactics of the AAP. The marginalization of Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh and the Congress across the country added to the narrative of victory of democracy. The string of state assembly successes that followed for the BJP solidified and sustained the sentiment till the end of the year.

Midway through 2015, though, politicians are facing yet another credibility crisis. To be clear though, credibility of politicians no longer has much to do with how effective the state is in driving development. Even secularism and corruption are no longer credibility-damaging factors. What primarily affects credibility today is hubris.

The Congress was never expected to recover particularly quickly, and it has stayed true to that promise. With little credibility of its own, its protestations against the BJP’s misdemeanours sound quite contrived. Certainly, there is very little the Congress can do to restore the credibility of politicians in India. Finally, in the last year, myriad regional parties including the AAP, Samajwadi Party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the parties in Bihar have in their own ways continued to hurt the trust their voters placed in them.

Obviously though, the burden of restoring the credibility of the state and its agents rests on the ruling party, the BJP. And in this regard, Prime Minister Modi has come up way short. First of all, every minister and official in the government, as well as every member of the BJP, have repeatedly proven that this is a Modi government. It follows logically, therefore, that the failings of the government, irrespective of where they originate, must end up at the doors of our Prime Minister.

As he campaigned tirelessly, Modi asked for 60 months to fulfil his promises. He was given that. There were 100-day targets to meet, which led him to declare that the country wouldn’t afford him a honeymoon period. He was not wrong. Expectations ballooned, keeping pace with promises. Predictably, the command-and-control governance style ran into myriad problems within the first year, the biggest of all being a sluggish economy that just refused to be jolted into action.

There was plenty to fix and BJP president Amit Shah’s #AchheDin calculator started showing it wasn’t a matter of one term, but perhaps five. Even repatriation of black money, an effective campaign rhetoric, was derided as a mere chunaavi jumla (election platitude).

The Madhya Pradesh jobs scam was on slow boil since 2009, but under a media spotlight, the brazenness of the BJP, the allegations against Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and the stubborn silence of Modi have further exposed the arrogance of the political class.

Further, the questions around impropriety in the Lalit Modi affair have been brushed aside. Those that had positioned themselves as outsiders to Lutyens’ Delhi have in fact just shown that the names may change, but the hubris seems to be a heritage that gets passed on to whosoever occupies the seats of power.

One sees this hubris also in the manner in which the Film and Television Institute of India chairmanship issue is being handled. It’s hard to escape an uneasy feeling in the cloak and dagger manner in which Reserve Bank of India reforms are being contemplated, or the meddling with the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management, or even in the recent attempt to ban pornographic websites. It is unfortunate that a government that has an overwhelming mandate from India’s youth is ready to squander it away so easily.

In the four years that remain, one hopes our politicians can reverse this trend. If the government alone cannot pull them through, someone else needs to stand up and be counted.

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