Narendra Modi: Statesman or pretender?

Narendra Modi: Statesman or pretender?

It is said that a politician thinks of the next election, a statesman thinks of the next generation

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI Photo

It is said that a politician thinks of the next election, a statesman thinks of the next generation. The reactions to Modi’s repeal of farm laws are divided on predictable lines. Modi’s ardent fans and his senior party members and spokespersons, always taking a cue from his pronouncements, who were till recently heaping abuse on the protesting farmers, calling them ‘anti-nationals’, have hailed Modi’s decision. Home Minister Amit Shah tweeted that by revoking the farm laws, “Modi has shown remarkable statesmanship”. Those from the opposition termed his move as a climbdown. P Chidambaram, the Congress leader and former finance minister, said “PM Modi was not inspired by policy or change of heart but was impelled by fear of elections!”

Apolitical analysts, including many from the foreign media, have observed that his decision to cancel the farm laws, though late, was a way to reverse the political slide the BJP had experienced in the recent by-elections and to regain lost ground. John Eliot, the former New Delhi bureau chief of the Financial Times, says Modi caved in apprehending a setback in the forthcoming state elections, especially in Uttar Pradesh, which would have an important bearing on the national elections in 2024. It has dented Modi’s strongman image.

The sudden announcement of repeal of the three farm laws on Friday took the nation by surprise. However, no one is astonished at Modi’s characteristic way of catching you off guard. The overnight demonetisation of higher denomination currency notes five years ago shocked the nation, sending the growing economy into a tailspin. When the pandemic struck, he announced a nationwide lockdown with just a few hours’ notice, without preparation or dialogue with the states who had to implement the lock down, resulting in the largest mass movement of people -- migrant labourers -- across India since Partition, causing chaos and panic and freezing supply chains of essentials. And last year, he imposed the farm laws without consultations with the various stakeholders, ramming it through an Ordinance first and later rushing them into laws without debate in parliament.

Also Read | Farmers in no mood to forgive despite Modi's U-turn on reforms

Now, the rescinding of the farm laws has startled everyone -- farmers and politicians alike. Though it was increasingly becoming clear to everyone that the farm laws had eroded the voter base of the BJP by alienating and angering farmers in the states of UP, Punjab and Haryana, most people, going by his past actions, thought Modi wouldn’t buckle. Indeed, it appeared so for many months, even as the farmers dug in and defied him. Modi’s political confidantes were emboldened and opted for a strategy of wearing out the farmers while simultaneously attempting to divide them, assuming that the protests would dissipate.

Modi did not defer to either the opposition parties to elicit their views and accommodate them or consult agricultural economists across the spectrum or even confer with own cabinet colleagues. He chose to rely on his own counsel, as is his wont.

He was, in a sense, well served by a few of his earlier unilateral actions. Though the economy may have tanked as a consequence of nullifying 86% of cash from the economy overnight through demonetisation, without any visible gains, curiously, he benefited immensely politically. To the dismay of his opponents, and amazement of poll pundits, contrary to their predictions and hopes, he led the BJP to a landslide victory in the 2017 UP elections. The masses, who had never seen a Rs 1,000 note, truly believed that Modi was slaying the invisible demons of black money, which the rich supposedly hoarded in cash in high-value currency notes, though there was no evidence to support it.

The migrants, small-scale businesses and industry suffered due to his forced lockdown, too, but even that did not dent his image. He swiftly realised (though he has neither admitted nor apologised for it) that the lockdown was a harebrained idea and, when the second Covid wave hit the country, he wisely decentralised and transferred the management of the pandemic to the states, including even the procurement of vaccines at a time when they were about to hit a shortage, only to take back the responsibility just as vaccine production picked up. And fortune smiled on him. The pandemic waned. His detractors continued their attack on him, but it did not stick with the public who forgave everything -- the serious lapses of oxygen shortage, shortage of vaccines and ICU beds and ventilators when the Covid virus raged and killed millions.

All these probably gave Modi a sense of invincibility. Who can be beyond it? Our mythology is full of legends of even sages and rishis who, through their austere penance, acquired formidable power and became arrogant. The jealous gods had to then send the likes of the bewitching Menaka to destroy the arrogance of the likes of Vishwamitra.

Emperor Napoleon, who lived and conquered by the sword and was defeated by it in the end, said that “morale and opinion are more than half the battle.” Modi failed to read the opinion and spirit of the farmers. He underestimated their morale and their stoic courage and perseverance to continue their struggle despite overwhelming odds. Power creates opaque vision and courtiers screen you from reality. Any people’s movement that can sustain for a year will win in the end. This is the same blunder that the Manmohan Singh government and Congress made in dealing with the Anna Hazare-led India Against Corruption movement when he laid siege to Delhi.

A statesman’s head must reside in his heart. This is a good lesson for Modi and for the leaders of all political parties. No one can disagree that the agriculture sector needs far reaching reforms. But reforms, to be successful, require conciliation, consensus, cooperation and patience.

Edmund Burke said, “The great difference between the real statesman and the pretender is that the one sees into the future while the other regards only the present.” Whether Modi is a statesman or a mere pretender is the province of future historians when they view him years from now -- an elapse of time will lend a better perspective.

For now, his decision to repeal the farm laws and his ‘apology’ to the nation and the announcement that he will constitute a committee that will involve all stakeholders, including state governments, farmers and agriculture scientists and economists, is welcome and eminently sensible.

(The writer is a soldier, farmer and entrepreneur)

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