Seven Year Itch
By Poonam I Kaushish
Call it the seven year itch but the cruel Covid summer 2021 has brought Prime Minister Modi to the crossroads. From the euphoria of 2014 on the wings of hope and trust a chai-wallah made his debut on national stage, down riding the crest of popularity wave in 2019 of saab ka saath, saab ka vikas, saab ka vishwas which would lead India on a path of growth, displaying his muscular 56-inches chhathi to metamorphosing as a Himalayan hermitage sage in 2021.
May 30 marked seven years of the Modi Sarkar wherein he dazzled the country with brilliance, his oratory skills, decisiveness and battled with bull. A colossal Pied Piper to whose tune millions banged thaalis, clapped and light diyas.’s If his first tenure was about ‘Swachch Bharat’ to ‘Make in India’, now it’s Aatma Nirbhar, and ‘Go vocal on local,’ NaMo’s progress is a study in chutzpah and grandeur.
Yet, there are visible signs that the war against Covid 19 seems to have dimmed Modi’s sheen in the face of death and devastation and gut-wrenching grief. Amidst the public aakrosh of dead corpses floating in the Ganga, stink of unclaimed bodies, burning pyres, smoked-out crematoriums, grieving families is a reminder of a putrefying political system where citizens totals statistical numbers.
The goodwill of ushering in aachche din has slowly dissipated. Modi seems to be floundering as the messiah of progress and modernity. Today, he seems unsure, uneasy whereby his emotional appeal and tears don’t seem to move even his ardent admirers with an increasingly angry and restive janata demanding answers.
Questionably, has his luck and leadership run out? Can the Prime Minister brush under the carpet that he and the BJP are to blame for the mess they are in today. Will the seven-year itch affect Modi as it did his predecessors Indira Gandhi in 1973-74 and Manmohan Singh in 2011? Will his dream run at the hustings continue? Is NaMo vincible?
Undoubtedly, the second wave has dented Modi’s image and the Government’s credibility in hard political currency. The glossy Teflon-coated protective veil around the Modi persona has been lifted and a governance deficit of callousness and mismanagement exposed. A floundering vaccine policy, lack of hospital beds, medicines, oxygen et al.
So what went wrong? Everything. Sadly, the Government has none but itself to blame for the incredible mess it finds itself in even as it fobs it off on an “pervasive, unaccountable “system”. The BJP tries distractive old tricks by creating a Congress ‘toolkit’ controversy and the Hindutva fountainhead RSS launches a campaign “Hum Jeetenge” and “Positivity Unlimited” to counter ‘negativity’ and apply balm but it comes across as insensitive and jarring.
Worse, it forgot that power is 99% perception and rightly or wrongly, Modi, his ministerial brood and the Party is perceived as arrogant and brash dictatorial running a one-man rock band albeit concentrating power in the PMO. A one-way street full of staccato monologue, no dialogue and questions are a strict no-no.
Certainly, Brand Modi has taken a hit. Asserted a senior BJP leader, “The pandemic has exposed the widening gaps between the Government and Party, denting their reputations. The winding up of additional capacity in Delhi in February as cases were rising in Maharashtra and Kerala, demonstrated our lack of anticipation compounded by the absence of Ministers, MPs, MLAs and workers from the scene to provide relief and aid.”
The coming months pose a stiff challenge. The Government’s future hinges on how quickly and effectively it addresses the issue of mass vaccination of people specially belonging to marginalized and poorer sections of society. Given the pandemic could upset the BJP’s ideological and electoral applecart.
Politically, next year will be decisive as seven States go to polls: UP, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Himachal, Punjab, Goa and Manipur against the backdrop of a relentless Covid shadow. The stakes in UP and five others barring Punjab are high as it promises to become a referendum and a litmus test on the BJP more so post the West Bengal defeat which has dented the Modi-Shah image of invincibility. Consequently retaining these States is vital.
His second challenge is a course correction of the economy. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy rural unemployment rate touched 13.5%, urban joblessness rose to 17.4% totaling a national new high of 14.7% last week. The annual GDP performance in 2020 crashed to -8.0%, the worst amongst all developing nations (Bangladesh grew at 3.8% in 2020). Add to this, rising oil prices, consumers buying less and a slowing economy. Clearly, bread-and-butter issues are back on the economic delivery table. Modi in 2014 had asked for 10 years to put India on track, let’s see.
Externally, China is still playing old tricks. Deep mistrust and lack of confidence is apparent. New Delhi needs to walk a diplomatic tightrope, make some hard choices and pick up the gauntlet. Will he be able to get Beijing to retreat from Ladakh and LAC? India’s new assertiveness would need all the wisdom, maturity and restraint to ensure that it remains in control of the Indo-China script.
Paradoxically, even as Covid 19 gives the moribund Opposition a unique opportunity to put Modi on the mat, hold him accountable and resurrect itself, it is too timorous to claim it. Primarily, because of the disarray within the Congress, the largest Opposition Party which has largely been in suspended animation wherein Sonia-Rahul look more like a bunch of stricken virus patients than like determined champions of the democratic mandate to hold the Government to account.
Their failure to seize the opportunity or the collective Opposition’s unwilling to confront and corner the Government on substantive issues of mishandling the second wave, economic mismanagement to demand accountability along-with the TINA (there is no alternative) factor has ensured that Modi retains his macho numero uno and still enjoys goodwill.
Of course, he is no magician as he has to live up to huge expectations generated by his 3D media campaign on social and digital networking sites, twitter, U tube etc. His task is not enviable and the burden enormous given our fickle and unforgiving voters. Much is expected of him.
Startlingly, Modi has still to address key developmental issues that continue to exercise people: law and order, preventing crime against women and children, inflation, illiteracy and ill-health which are the touchstone of the much-hyped and illusionary deal of roti, kapada aur makan. Look at the irony. Cellphones go abegging, yet people continue to beg for food.
Ultimately, much will depend upon Modi’s political will and priorities in the weeks and months ahead. He knows only too well staying ahead is the name of the game. The leader who survives is the one that rises to meet the moment, who has the wisdom to recognize the threat and the will to turn it back, and does so before it is too late.
Undeniably Modi is still the BJP’s best bet despite his trust quotient and credibility taking a beating vis-à-vis handling of the pandemic. It remains to be seen if the Pradhan Sevak will rise to the occasion as by the term his term ends in 2024, a quarter of the 21st century will already have gone by. The electorate has presented him a historic opportunity. Yet he needs to remember a Hindi idiom: “Bhooka Pait Bhajan Nahin Hoth Gopala” (Lord I cannot sing to you on an empty stomach.) Today, the nation needs a healing touch. Will he apply the much needed balm? Time will tell. — INFA