Does the BJP need to rein in Narendra Modi?

Since May 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has been running in fits and starts. Some stalwarts keep themselves busy spinning tales and lawyerly arguments to defend the government and defame the opposition, quite forgetting that it is this reliance on moralistic rhetoric that partly led to the fall of the United Progressive Alliance-II government. The misadventures with the land acquisition bill, corporate taxation policies, pension funds and most recently, Uttarakhand, betray a mix of incompetence and arrogance.

At the same time, even as a handful of senior and junior ministers—Sushma Swaraj, Nitin Gadkari, Jayant Sinha, Suresh Prabhu and Piyush Goyal—continue to impress, every piece of public communication by the government is curated to carefully credit only Narendra Modi for these successes. Needless to say, the failures have been glossed over and, one can be sure, will be airbrushed from the annals of history by a set of complicit cheerleaders in the media and the new political establishment.

But several recent events suggest that it is important to ask: does the BJP need to rein in Modi?

Take the recent #PoMoneModi fallout. This was a familiar script. The principal actor was a familiar one. As Modi belted out yet another aggressive election speech, this time attempting to shame the voters of Kerala by comparing the state’s human development indicators with that of Somalia, there was a feeling of déjà vu.

Yes, Somalia is that insignificant country where our prime minister is unlikely to make an unscheduled stopover. It is that country which will never host a grand Modi stage-show. And Kerala is that state where the BJP will struggle to establish a significant political footprint for a few more years. Therefore, Modi’s speech-writers must have decided that none of this really matters. But what it did do was make both the prime minister and his party an object of ridicule everywhere.

Moving away from Kerala, one only needs to be reminded of the manner in which Modi seemed to auction—in an election campaign speech—Bihar’s poverty in exchange for a notional central package. The vocabulary during the Delhi assembly polls prior to that was vicious as well, with the prime minister himself cautioning voters against thebazaru media. All of this has now become the new normal—the bombastic speeches and the personal attacks— and one wonders how this affects the ‘cooperative federalism’ that Modi so loves to talk about.

It is one thing for states to go to elections and witness bitter contests. It is an entirely different matter when the prime minister of the country turns up and converts state elections into a race of competitive populism, or worse, lowers the discourse further by indulging in name-calling and polarization. Of course, he has had able assistance from an excellent supporting cast. And this is not helping, as Delhi, Bihar and Kerala show.

Let’s quickly look back at 2013-14. The UPA government’s handling of Parliament, the economy, the national auditor, investigating agencies and even our police and internal security forces had left us with institutions that we could not trust. As he started his Lok Sabha campaign, Modi promised change, and an escape route from all that was rotten with the previous regime.

A careful analysis of his track record in Gujarat would have revealed every single problem we now see with the central government: the tendency to centralize power; over-reliance on bureaucrats; misuse of the police and investigation agencies; penchant for showmanship over deliberation; and systematic suppression of opposition—both political and non-political.

The wider political implications have been serious. For one, the BJP has settled upon a strategy of keeping minority communities and student campuses in a state of simmering tension. When it comes to the Congress, corruption cases are another part of the strategy—those that are juicier as allegations rather than conclusive investigations. This ensures that political opponents (and more significantly, non-BJP state governments) continue to engage with the BJP purely in retaliatory terms. This, too, is a strategy that has a clear Modi imprint, one that was perfected over a decade of political machinations in Gujarat.

And this is now eating away at the core of the BJP. The galaxy of superstar chief ministers that the BJP had just over two years ago has been dismantled and replaced with a set of pliant politicians who are too eager to please the prime minister. The personality cult that Modi has built around himself and the substitution of cerebral foreign policy with event management has resulted in utter fiascos with Nepal and Pakistan. Analysts have pointed out how Indian interests have suffered in trade deals with the US and the Dassault deal in France due to the over-eagerness of the prime minister to claim quick glory.

In sum, we often obsess over the statements made by “fringe elements” within the BJP and its spiritual parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Arguably, many of those instances tend to blow over quite quickly, not in the least because of the frequency with which they come, as well as their bizarreness quotient. But when the prime minister starts making too many gaffes, it is a completely different matter.

There is no disputing that Narendra Modi led the BJP to power and remains its biggest vote-catcher. That his stature is unparalleled within the BJP is not in any doubt. But do not be mistaken by the obeisance that his party workers and Internet fans shower upon him. The lessons from setbacks at home and abroad are quite stark and should worry serious strategists in the BJP. Is there any chance of a course correction? Let’s wait and see!

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This is my latest livemint column

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