NDA report card

Narendra Modi government is not authoritarian – it's authoritative, says columnist Ashok Malik

The prominent commentator weighs in on the National Democratic Alliance's first year in power.

Ashok Malik, a leading right-of-centre columnist in Delhi, is a passionate but not uncritical admirer of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  In this interview, he discusses Modi’s first year at the helm.

Don’t you think the biggest problem for the Modi government is the expectations he raised during the election campaign?
It is a bit unfair to say this government has generated unrealistic expectations that previous governments hadn’t. There were high expectations even in 2009 when the Congress won 206 seats. Perhaps not comparable [to 2014] but they were high. When Rajiv Gandhi won [in 1984] there were high expectations. There are high expectations from [David] Cameron’s victory in the UK.

It is true for all elections across the world that the media will always remind you of every promise you made. Look at the expectations [Barack] Obama generated, for instance. Yes, when you come to power you realise that delivery is that much more difficult than the promises you made. Having said that, I do think the public, as opposed to the 50 of us who sit in Delhi and comprise the commentating classes and the TV anchors, are a little more patient. If they feel the government is going in the right direction and can be trusted, I think they can give it time. Not perhaps five years, but perhaps more than the media gives it.

A Times of India opinion poll says that Modi continues to be popular with only a marginal decline in his ratings. However, the sharpest of that marginal decline, the survey says, is among the poor. Is that a portent?
It is certainly a warning signal for him. I haven’t seen the poll you refer to. The fact is that Modi’s popularity is still way above that of his party. People still broadly have faith in him, in both his capacity and intention to deliver. The day that goes, he’s in trouble. That hasn’t happened so far.

If there is growing disenchantment amongst the extreme poor, if the poll you refer to is correct, then I think he needs some course correction in terms of messaging. If you look at his policies such as trying to create jobs down the line through manufacturing – although the era when a huge number of factory jobs could be created is gone, but it will create service-sector jobs. Urbanisation will bring more rural poor into urban jobs. I suppose he needs better messages for these.

It’s interesting that you see messaging as a problem. The Congress says its main failure in UPA-2 was bad messaging. As for Modi, he’s in fact very obsessed with messaging. Some would say there’s an excess of messaging and PR.
I think we are confusing Modi’s foreign trips, each of which has been an event in its own right, not just a meeting between two prime ministers. Whether it was Madison Square Garden or now China, whether it was Xi Jinping coming to India or Obama coming on January 26, each of these has been an event. There has been a careful selection of symbols for each of these events. One of them went horribly wrong, the monogrammed suit. But otherwise, when he went to Japan, for instance, he very carefully went to a women’s school where the Empress had studied.

When one talks about messaging, I am not talking about these big events, which have been a Year One phenomenon. I guess in Year Two he will…

 Why does a government with 282 seats sound like a minority government sometimes?
You have a point. A government that is so theoretically powerful, that has won so many state elections, is allowing itself to be rendered defensive by media opponents or analysts who only point to the Delhi defeat. They fail to point out that the BJP has actually had its most successful year in history. It is running governments in states it had no hope of coming to power in.

Some of this comes from Modi’s experience as chief minister of Gujarat. After high-octane campaigns in 2002, 2007, and 2012 as well, he moved in to sober, understated governance and ignored the media. It is easy to ignore the media at the state level, relatively difficult to ignore the challenges put forward by the media in Delhi. I think he’s slowly realising that.

Isn’t there an excessive obsession with the media in an age where people set agendas on social media, and whatever the government does sets the agenda anyway? The idea that the media is the opposition, isn’t that an exaggeration?
Well, not all media obviously. There are some 800 channels in this country. But what I may call big media – some channels and newspapers in Delhi, have not quite been fair to Modi in the past ten years. He certainly feels that way.

In the past 12 months, have they been fair or unfair?
A bit of both. They have covered him. They haven’t always been fair. For instance, they jumped on him after incidents of violence on churches, deciding that this was some sort of a grand oppression of the Christian community. It subsequently appears that that may not have been the case.

He has got more than his fair share of criticism in the last ten years, and I’d say in the past one year as well. Maybe the voices have become more muted. Take the pin-striped monogrammed suit story. Semiotically, it sent a very bad message. It cut into Modi’s underdog image. He was criticised for it. That’s fine. But he wasn’t the first person in Indian political history to make a bad call in terms of dressing. I think the stories went too far. After he realised he had made a mistake, he auctioned the suit, like he has done with all gifts given to him in the past 12 years, and donated the money to charity. This is something most politicians don’t do, irrespective of the party. There was no acknowledgement that here’s a prime minister who is doing this, and may be this is a model to follow in a country like ours with such huge inequalities.

Those of us who have known him over the years have seen that he lives a fairly simple life. He may like his computer, and has childlike curiousity for technology, but he is not a flamboyant person with lots of shoes and socks in his cupboard.

You spoke of the attacks on churches and said they did not seem to be an organised conspiracy. But just a few days ago we saw in central Delhi that road named after Mughal rulers were defaced. It seems that a lot of fringe Hindutva elements have been emboldened since Modi became prime minister.
See, four or five churches saw acts of violence. As the police seems to suggest, a couple of them were burglaries. The one in Bengal seems to have been a local property dispute, which is not to blame the nun who was so horribly violated. There is also evidence that other places of worship, mosques and temples, have been attacked. In the case of the convent in Vasant Vihar, only the money was stolen the day school fees had to be deposited. The cash box was full that day. Religious symbols were not attacked. That leads me to believe that it was not a religious attack but an economic attack. That does not make things better, it doesn’t speak highly of the Delhi Police. In terms of an organised attack, I’m not sure if that’s happening.

In terms of the noise from fringe elements, the Godse statue or the ghar wapsi campaign, it’s coming from fringe elements but yes, it’s making a noise. It gets reported and makes headlines. The whole manner in which the ghar wapsi campaign was carried out was to my mind as disingenuous as some of the conversions that are done by caricature Baptist groups.

It could be that some people have interpreted Modi’s mandate in religious terms, which he hasn’t himself. It is possible that some sections of the broader Hindu family want to embarrass him because that section hasn’t been happy with him for the past five or six years.

What I find mystifying is that each time something of this nature happens, people expect the prime minister to react. If the prime minister starts reacting to every fringe act, to every defaced road sign, he’d never stop.

The ghar wapsi campaign didn’t seem fringe. It was organised by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a key member of the Hindutva family.
The VHP or sections of the VHP have had a deep hostility towards Modi for a decade. Still, it is the responsibility of the government to respond to assure religious minorities of their Constitutional rights, and in the case of attacks on churches, he did.

In the case of ghar wapsi too, I think the statement made was that you can’t stop people from converting, whether converting from Hinduism to Christianity or Christianity to Islam or Islam to Hinduism. What can you can curb is bribery-based conversions, but that is decidedly a two-way street. The conversion issue in India – and I am not talking about established churches like the Church of North India but new world Baptist groups – can be problematic. I think we need a more honest debate on this than Hindus bad, Christians good, or some Christians bad, some Hindus good.

We need a nuanced debate on conversions. But is it a priority for this government? I don’t think so.

The representation of Muslims in office is at its lowest. Both in Parliament and in the states where the BJP is winning, Muslims are nearly absent in its lists. It is making them irrelevant to the public discourse.
There are 24 Muslims in the current Lok Sabha. The number was 30 in 2009, not hugely larger. We had a government for ten years that was presumably sympathetic to Muslims. What did it really achieve? Muslims in India have a problem going back to the exodus of middle class and educated Muslims during the Partition. Muslims haven’t really recovered, and we haven’t really helped them recover in 67 years. I am not suggesting Modi has all the answers to this.

There is a larger socio-economic problem with Muslim society, and this is not to blame them at all. The manner in which they have been politically mobilised by parties such as the Congress and the Samajwadi Party. This is not a problem that arose in this last one year.

Muslim society is also going through a churn. Look at the way at which they are choosing non-Congress options in state after state. I don’t think they have found all the answers. What marked this 2014 elections for me was how disenchanted Muslims were with the Congress.

I think of Modi’s speech in Patna, where he spoke of Hindus and Muslims working together to essentially fight poverty. He spoke in that authoritative flourish that comes naturally to him, saying that he dreams of a Muslim youth with the Quran in one hand and a laptop in another.

If Modi starts delivering on the economy – on jobs – it will be good for both Hindus and Muslims. Muslims as a percentage of their community tend to do better with urban jobs, simply because they have limited access to land in their villages.

People used to complain that there is too much power in Delhi. Now people complain that there is too much power concentrated in the prime minister’s office. This government is a one-man operation.
I believe Modi runs an authoritative government rather than an authoritarian one. There is a difference. A degree of course correction was needed after the UPA government, where, good man as he was,  Manmohan Singh really had no power. The PMO frankly reported to the Congress and Sonia Gandhi. He had ministers, strongmen from Congress and from regional parties, who ran autonomous ships. They chose their own secretaries and their private secretaries. Their offices were autonomous. Manmohan Singh was often hamstrung. I think Modi decided very quickly that he was going to change things. It was his government, his mandate, he was going to change things.

Has there been over-correction? Perhaps there has been. Will he gradually begin to loosens up as begins to gain confidence in his ministers? It is already happening to some extent in some ministries, such as coal.

Also remember that we are not a country, unlike, say, the United States, which has a strong system of shadow cabinets and think tanks, and policymakers going in and out of government from think tanks. That kind of engagement with policy does not happen here. Of the 282 MPs the BJP has in the Lok Sabha, 165 are first-timers. Some of them have held important offices, say Jayant Sinha, who has run a company. But many have previously held no executive or policy roles.

The number of U-turns this government has made on policy issues – be it the land border agreement with Bangladesh, or allying with the PDP in Jammu and Kashmir, or taxation – is earning it the moniker of a U-turn sarkar.
To some degree, every government is a U-turn sarkar. You win an election on a certain degree of electoral rhetoric and then you realise what the complex realities are. I’ll give you an example. Very quickly after Manmohan Singh became prime minister in 2004, there was a spate of stories that Singh was a simple person who was horrified to see the BMWs that had been bought for the Indian prime minister by the Vajpayee government. Singh wanted these BMWs sold and he would drive an Ambassador or a Fiat or a Maruti 800. What happened subsequently? There was no question of those BMWs going away. They were needed because they performed a certain security purpose. They were made of reinforced metal. By the end of it, Singh’s cavalcade had more BMWs that Vajpayee’s ever did.

When it comes to the Bangladesh border agreement, I’m glad the BJP did a U-turn. It is good for the country, good for Bangladesh. We need it.

As for J&K, the PDP and the BJP are certainly chalk and cheese. They contested separately. The BJP expected to win a few more seats. The PDP had expected many more seats. The idea that they could form a government together was loosely discussed, because speculatively it had been by people like us in the op-eds. Jammu and Kashmir delivered a result that meant that any government without the BJP or the PDP would be completely unrepresentative, of either the Valley or of Jammu, of Muslims in the Valley or Hindus in Jammu. This is a result we can’t be happy with because it reflects a fractured society. But if they didn’t succeed in making a government, there would have been another election. Was it a U-turn? Yes it was. Was it compromising with facts as they caught up with you? Perhaps.

There are more implications of U-turns. One is that when the government was making those promises, it was deceiving us to win votes. But when you formed the government, you do what any party does. Secondly, these U-turns also show a policy continuity. In which case, are we making too much of right and left, BJP and Congress?
 That is a bit too cynical. One should take too much from right or left because frankly, parties tend to gravitate towards the centre, except for Rahul Gandhi who keeps himself on the left. Yet, parties are different. Take the land acquisition bill. There are fundamental philosophical differences in how Modi approaches it and how Mani Shankar Aiyar approaches it. They are both honest people, but they will approach it differently. There are genuine convictions that are different. In the case of the Bangladesh land border agreement, yes the BJP will have some explaining to do in Assam. It will need to go down there and explain why it did a turnaround and what are the benefits it now perceives for Assam. It may gain or lose because of that. The BJP has gently done a U-turn over the past few years on the nuclear deal, which it should never have opposed in the first place. On FDI in retail it will have to try and find a logical justification.

But what were Modi’s fundamental promises? It was no X promises or Y promises. Fundamentally, he promised jobs, he promised a more stable economy and a cleaner government. At least in the upper echelons of the government, people are certain that there isn’t much corruption. He is very much in charge. The buck stops with someone in this government. He appears to have a plan for creating jobs by putting in place a more urban, industrial economy. These are the fundamental promises his voter is going to hold him to. A U-turn on policy matters here or there does not matter.

How critical are the forthcoming elections for the BJP over the next few years? We will see elections in Bihar, West Bengal, Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.
They come at different stages. Bihar and Bengal come first. The BJP does not have a ghost of a chance in West Bengal. Mamata [Banerjee] should win easily. Bihar is a challenge for the BJP. They have a very good chance of finishing on top. If they lose Bihar, it will be a setback to the party, straight after Delhi, especially after one year of success.

I’d say the BJP has a good chance of winning Assam. UP is two years away, it is difficult to predict. I do see a lot of anti-incumbency against the Akhilesh Yadav government, but Mayawati to my mind remains a formidable challenger.

Punjab is a tough election. There’s a lot of anti-incumbency against the Akali Dal-BJP alliance. But that alliance can’t be broken, it should not be broken, because it is not just an electoral alliance but a social one in a very sensitive state. However, the Congress is a divided house there. They may or may not split, depending on what Rahul Gandhi decides. The Aam Aadmi Party has a presence there, it will definitely cut votes. So which way the elections will go, I don’t know.

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