Narendra Modi is a magician. In the aftermath of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s huge victory in Uttar Pradesh and its erstwhile component, Uttarakhand, the prime minister is being praised, with justice, as a performer without equal in contemporary India.

After a few years of practice in the first decade of the century, Modi demonstrated he was a masterful escape artist. His great Houdini act was to break free of the Gujarat riots straitjacket. Not only did he transform into conventional wisdom the false narrative that he had been given a “clean chit” by the investigative agencies and Supreme Court for the riots he had been accused of turning a blind eye to, he turned the tables on the Congress party by tying the 1984 anti-Sikh riots inextricably with the 2002 violence under his watch.

The final twist was to cement in peoples’ minds that Modi was innocent for 2002 while the Congress was guilty for 1984. His opponents gleefully watched him squirm, but before they knew it, he was free and they were in the straitjacket.

The Gujarat illusion

For a long time, Modi’s magic act has included hypnosis. He convinced large swathes of India that Gujarat’s development under his rule was exceptional. A number of commentators pointed out, to little avail, that parameters of economic and social development were nothing out of the ordinary in Modi’s time given Gujarat’s history and growth rates across other Indian states. Gujarat came to be known as a magnet for foreign investment thanks to his claims of monstrously big investments, few of which materialised.

In 2005, he declared that the Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation had discovered a 20 trillion cubic foot reserve of gas worth $50 billion in the Krishna Godavari basin. Over a decade, Rs 20,000 crores worth of tax-payers money sunk, and a scathing CAG report later, there’s no sign of the windfall. Yet, he’s faced no blowback even from people who considered CAG reports gospel with respect to the 2G spectrum allocation scam under Congress-led government.

As prime minister, he’s continued the entrancement of citizens. The way we measure GDP growth was changed a few years ago. If the method is applied to the final year of United Progressive Alliance rule, it raises India’s growth rate to 6.9% in 2013-‘14 which is more or less what we can expect this financial year. Yet, back in 2014, we were in a terrible economic slump, and now, with essentially the same GDP figure, we are the fastest growing economy in the world. Mesmerised by slogans and catchphrases – Digital India, Make In India, Swachh Bharat, Skill India, and so on – we forget to ask whether the economy is creating enough jobs or the Ganga is any cleaner, the answers to which would be “no”, and “no”.

World-stage magic

After winning power at the Centre, Modi’s most prominent acts were tours of foreign countries, frequently accompanied by speeches to adoring NRI audiences. You’ve heard of stage magic? Well, Modi took naturally to world-stage magic. Two years after he came to power, I wrote a column about how few practical gains had flowed from his efforts.

Eleven months since then, things have got worse. Mongolia’s moved further into China’s orbit, our Pakistan policy is in a shambles, Nepal is considering instituting work permits for its citizens in India following our misguided intervention in that nation’s vote for a new constitution, China refuses to countenance our entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group – leave alone permanent membership of the UN Security Council.

Meanwhile, the US is making H1-B visas harder to get, hurting our software industry and Russia has responded to our obvious pro-US tilt by growing closer to Pakistan, even conducting joint military exercises in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region despite India’s objections, those French Rafale fighters haven’t been delivered and our strategic counter to the China-developed Gwadar port in Pakistan – and potential access point to Afghanistan and Central Asia – the Chabahar port in Iran, is already bogged down by delays and mutual recriminations.

Coin tricks

In the past few months, Modi added a new segment to his act, the subtle art of picking pockets. “You sir, how much money do you have on you? Rs 5,000? Are you sure? I say you have zero rupees, why don’t you check? Your wallet’s gone? Strange, it’s here, under this hat. Certainly, you can have it back now, be careful where you put it.”

That particular trick seemed a bit clumsy to many of us, who thought viewers would now cotton onto his game, but they ate it up. He has an even bigger challenge coming up later this year with the rollout of the Goods and Services Tax. Considering how awkwardly he handled the currency ban and note swap, or the so-called demonetisation, I am fairly certain his GST routine will appear woefully unrehearsed. But there’s no accounting for the audience these days, Modi may just get a standing ovation for that as well.

Which might be in part because of the lack of talent among his peers. Even those who see through the prime minister’s sleight-of-hand are liable to say, “Have you seen the acts of those other guys, Arvind Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi? They’re pathetic. I know no human can walk on water, but Modi creates a passable illusion of it, and that’s good enough for me.”