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At Mid-Term, Narendra Modi’s Biggest Achievement is Narendra Modi

Modi’s mid-term has been marked by highs as well as lows, writes Santosh Desai.

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What a difference a fortnight can make. When I was invited to write this article on a mid-term assessment of the Narendra Modi government two weeks ago, the picture looked very different. Today, it is clear that things have changed dramatically, but it is far from clear as to what the exact direction of change is and where things will come to rest eventually. The demonetisation move is so bold, so sweeping in its ambition with so many long-term implications that any assessment of Modi today must necessarily be subject to many caveats.

The story before the demonetisation is, however, easier to characterise. The Modi government made a tentative start, with its early days being marked by a timid approach to the economy, leading to disappointment even among hard-core supporters.

The skewed weightage given to its cultural agenda, egged on by its fire-breathing support-base, worked against the government, for it gave an impression that it had nothing more substantive to offer by way of governance. Its handling of the media too was ham-handed, and the overall picture that emerged was not the most flattering.
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The Early Losses

Losing Delhi was a huge blow, particularly given the margin involved and the fact that it marked the triumphant return of Arvind Kejriwal, who is, in all likelihood, Modi’s pet peeve. The loss of Bihar was an even bigger blow in real terms, given that the party had done spectacularly well in 2014.

The tactics used in both suggested that Modi did not back his own platform of development; in both Delhi and Bihar, when it came down to the crunch, the campaign slipped back into the familiar mode of trying to polarise votes. While Modi’s personal popularity remained intact, the sense around the government he led was much less positive.

Things started changing on both fronts in the last 12 months. The 2016 budget, followed by the passing of the GST marked a change in tenor of his handling of the economy; it helped that the early expectations about radical change had got tempered with time and thus the benchmarks for evaluation were less stringent.

Also Read: ‘Sadistic’ Modi’s Broken Promises on Currency Ban Enrages Twitter

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Modi’s mid-term has been marked by  highs as well as   lows, writes Santosh Desai.
Modi government has been a somewhat timid performer on the economic front, choosing incremental fixes over dramatic reform. (Photo: IANS)
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Change in Narrative

On the cultural front too, with the award-wapsi and the ‘intolerance’ debates, the narrative began to change. The JNU controversy and the conversion of the Hindutva narrative into the nationalism narrative marked a point of transition that was of great significance. The ‘surgical strike’ underlined the Modi government’s resolve to double down on the nationalism plank and it helped garner the backing not just of the middle class voter but also the media.

Some patterns have emerged in the last two-and-a-half years that give us a clue about Modi’s approach. His government has been a somewhat timid performer on the economic front, choosing incremental fixes over dramatic reform. It has done a lot by way of branding, but not quite as much by way of substantive reform. Some existing programmes have been presented anew, some pending legislations have finally been passed and even the new initiatives like Swachh Bharat discuss a bigger game than they deliver.

Also Read: Votes/Notes/Polls: Has PM Won or Lost the First Note Ban Round?

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Extreme Defensiveness

The lack of ambition on the economic front led to early disappointment and a prolonged period of extreme defensiveness on part of the government. In the last few months, the government’s approach has been more confident and there is a sense of someone steady steering the ship, not taking us anywhere terribly exciting, but navigating matters reasonably adeptly.

On the cultural front, the government has spoken in three voices. One is the official voice – led by Modi who has largely struck the appropriate note and said the right things. On the other side of the spectrum, his vocal support base on social media has been its usual venomous self, providing cover for the government by spewing anger non-stop at its detractors.

Also Read: The Poorest Don’t Have Money and That’s How They Escaped NoteBandi

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Attacking and Defensive Role

It has played both an attacking and defensive role, raking up issues that create and deepen fault lines between communities and at the same time counter-attacking strongly the government’s critics. A third voice used by the Modi government has been the ‘unofficial’ one which takes the form of random ministers tacitly supporting the more radical pronouncements from the fringe, by making ambivalent statements that allow the government to communicate in innuendo, but those are eventually possible to disown.

Overall, at the time that the demonetisation was announced, the Modi government was reasonably well placed, having navigated its early challenges and worked out a way of dealing with policies, both economic and cultural as well as evolved strategies to deal with the opposition and the media. Which is why the move to demonetise has been such a surprise.

Also Read: Modi at Mid-Term: 30 Months of a Govt That Decides and Delivers

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Modi’s mid-term has been marked by  highs as well as   lows, writes Santosh Desai.
A man holds a megaphone asking people to maintain calm while women stand in a queue to deposit, exchange discontinued currency notes, New Delhi, 12 November, 2016. (Photo: AP)
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The Risks Entailed

Politically, there is little reason to take such a gamble. It is possible that some rewards may accrue, but these are not significant enough to merit the risk entailed in such an enterprise. It would appear the move comes from another place and is part of a larger design aimed at cleansing the system. At the moment, there is strong support for the action, but since no one really knows how much and how long the impact of withdrawing 86 percent of value of the total money will last, it is far from clear whether this support will hold.

India wanted a decisive leader and India got one. Looking back at the last 30 months, it would seem that Narendra Modi’s biggest achievement is Narendra Modi. From being an influential, if controversial, regional leader to being the phenomenon that he is today has been a smooth journey.

Also Read: Bypolls: Voters Not Thrilled by Modi’s Note Ban & Surgical Strike

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Strength as Weakness

It is important to recognise that the Modi phenomenon is a truly remarkable one – at a time when politicians have become figures of ridicule and hate, Modi commands the respect of a significant segment of the population. No other leader comes close, not remotely. The problems caused by demonetisation would have resulted in violence and large-scale unrest if there was someone else at the helm.

But if that is Modi’s great strength, it could turn out to be his greatest weakness too. The other issues that have dogged the government were often largely symbolic or affected a small section of the population. Demonetisation is something whose effects will eventually be felt by everyone. If these are as negative as some fear, no amount of charisma will be enough. Half-way through his term, Modi has shown an extremely large appetite for change. Whether the country will be able to digest it, is another question.

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(The writer is a social commentator and an author. He can be reached @desaisantosh. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

Also Read: Note Ban at Mid-Term: PM Modi Changes the Script at Interval

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