Yet to shake off his polarising influence

Yet to shake off his polarising influence

For one so assertive on the campaign trail, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been curiously silent since assuming office. 

After his Bhutan and Nepal sojourns, Modi emerged from the cocoon just days before another overseas trip – this time to the potentially high-yielding destination of Japan. The Jan Dhan Yojana he launched on August 28 plans to end financial exclusion by ensuring every Indian family at least one bank account. Modi spoke on the occasion with measured eloquence about how the scheme would revive the dreams that the 1969 bank nationalisation had left unfulfilled.

The assurance that families of the most modest means would be entitled to a “zero-balance” bank account and attendant insurance benefits did not quite mesh with the market orientation that Modi promised and investors came to expect. Perhaps Raghuram Rajan, governor of the RBI, would see some parallels with the sub-prime mortgage lending fever in the US. As a Chicago University economist, Rajan was among the first to identify sub-prime lending as a serious hazard to the banking system. He was proved right in 2008 and the financial world has never been the same since.

Through his campaign, Modi managed his media projection with practised skill. And since taking office, he showed his enthusiasm for the new media in an early meeting with the CEO of Facebook. He is then believed to have instructed party and ministerial colleagues to use social media to get the word out but stay clear of direct interactions with news media. 

The undeclared embargo on the media produced curious returns. Just days before the ministry touched the 100-day mark, Home Minister Rajnath Singh emotionally denounced rumours set off ostensibly by an envious cabinet colleague about Modi having firmly put down his son’s political ambitions in Uttar Pradesh. Rumours were quick to emerge that Rajnath, having handed over party leadership to Modi’s close confidant Amit Shah, was being marginalised within power councils.

 Even if that was the longer-term intent, the prime minister was averse to a public rift within his cabinet and a possible alienation of the powerful Thakur lobby in UP. His office promptly issued a statement – echoed by the BJP president – that there was no truth in the rumours. It was a curious stratagem for the PM’s office to deny rumours that few were aware of.

Soon afterwards, another cabinet colleague suffered the grief of filial bonds. Railway Minister Sadananda Gowda’s engagement party for his son was rudely interrupted by a movie personality claiming recompense for the betrayed promises of an earlier entanglement. This public relations fiasco is yet to fully play itself out.

Surveys of economists and business leaders showed a degree of optimism as the 100-day mark approached. The April-June quarter has registered the best growth rate in over two years. Yet, in substantive terms, the Modi government has done little that would distinguish it from the preceding Congress-led government. 

Expert commentary prior to the government’s first Budget had spoken of a potential renewal of the growth impulse through a focus on projects of immediate benefit. But Finance Minister Arun Jaitley instead chose to play safe, only appeasing the BJP flock through a plethora of schemes – some named after ideological mascots of Hindu nationalism -- all uniformly allocated a symbolic sum of Rs 100 crore. Of the 28 such schemes announced, several could vanish off the books, possibly leaving only their names as a symbolic bequest to future governments.

Early optimism 

Early optimism of renewed engagement with India’s prickly neighbour dissipated when the foreign secretary -level talks were called off in offended hauteur at the Pakistan High Commissioner’s meeting with separatist Kashmiri leaders in Delhi. In later explanations, the government reiterated its stance that India and Pakistan were the only two sides to the talks, but that Kashmir could be discussed within that bilateral framework. In principle, the response to the Pakistani envoy’s meeting could not be reconciled with Modi’s late-August meeting with the leadership of the Tamil National Alliance of Sri Lanka at which constitutional reform in the island nation was reportedly discussed.

The BJP, meanwhile, had signalled its intent to bid strongly for power when Jammu and Kashmir goes to the polls later this year. Shah is by all accounts working on the `polarisation’ strategy that fetched massive dividends in Lok Sabha elections, ensuring that candidates of the Muslim faith did not win a single seat in UP, even in the western constituencies where the community has a significant presence. As UP prepares for a number of by-elections to the state assembly, BJP campaigners have sounded ominous warnings about the so-called “love jihad” by which young Muslim men are allegedly ensnaring girls of other faiths. And in naming Yogi Adityanath, the deeply divisive MP from Gorakhpur to lead the campaign, the BJP has signalled that communal schisms is a policy it intends to actively pursue.

Modi’s failure to speak up is read as consent. And if as prime minister, he intends to step beyond the partisan fray, the refusal by opposition chief ministers to appear in public with him because of heckling several among them have faced, does not suggest a future of concord. Since Modi stepped onto the national stage early last year, there were a number of observers who feared his polarising influence. After a 100 days in power, he is yet to prove them wrong.

(The author is a New Delhi based Political commentator)