Two developments are telling signs that the Modi government is worried after the worst communal riots in decades shook Delhi and robbed the much-hyped visit of US President Donald Trump of much of its sheen.
One is the decision to send National Security Advisor Ajit Doval as its proxy to douse fires that are still smoldering amid an uneasy calm.
Although Doval is a former police officer, it’s hardly in the NSA’s brief to don the cap of Delhi Police Commissioner and restore peace or play politician and extend the healing touch.
Doval is Modi’s left hand, while Union Home Minister Amit Shah is his right one. Parachuting the third most important man in the government into violence-hit areas in Delhi speaks of anxiety at the very top as Modi’s aides struggle with a cost benefit analysis of the impact of the recent riots.
Amit Shah’s ‘Studied Silence’
The other indication of worry is the studied silence of Amit Shah and the low profile he is maintaining under the deluge of evidence of the colossal incompetence, and even complicity, of the Delhi Police which he oversees as home minister. Although a carefully crafted PR exercise suggests that Shah is very much in control from behind-the-scenes and that Doval is working in close coordination with him, the home minister is keeping himself invisible in these troubled times.
He did not even turn up for a key event organised by the RSS to mark Hindutva icon Veer Savarkar’s birth anniversary although he was the chief guest for the event.
Invitees were eagerly awaiting his speech, hoping he would say something about the recent riots.
Of course, Shah can’t hide forever. The Budget session of Parliament reconvenes next week and it will be interesting to track him. When will he show his face? Will he make a statement on the Delhi riots? What will he say? The answers to these questions will be important markers of government thinking, its future strategy and Shah’s own position after the twin hits of losing the Delhi Assembly elections which he led and the total collapse of policing in the capital during the violence.
Why the Government Should Be Concerned
There are many reasons for the government to be concerned. One obvious reason is the tarnishing of Brand India and the effect this will have on much-needed foreign investment to revive a sluggish economy and boost growth. Most of the world media was present in Delhi to cover the Trump visit. However, instead of the pomp and show Modi had laid on to impress the US President and the rest of the world, Delhi’s communal riots became the focus of attention.
This was not a rising power on the march. It seemed to be a country plunging into social instability and anarchy with riots happening in the heart of the capital, just a few kilometres away from where Trump was being feted, as some of the western media stressed.
Rarely has India’s image taken such a beating with report after report and commentator after commentator slamming the spread of hate politics promoted by the BJP and the damage it’s done to India’s secular democracy.
UN organisations, Organisation of Islamic Countries, political leaders in the US and Europe have since rushed to criticise India for not protecting its minorities and targeting them instead through the amended citizenship act.
In neighbouring Bangladesh, students of Dhaka University poured out on the streets urging Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to “disinvite’’ Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the 17 March celebration of her father and the country’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s birth centenary.
Worrying for Modi?
It must be galling for Modi to see the unravelling of the hard-work he put in during his first term to build his international image and gain acceptance as a leader to be reckoned with.
It must also be worrying for him as he scrambles to woo foreign investment for the economic turnaround he must script to be re-elected for a third term as PM, in 2024.
Which investor would want to put his money into a country whose capital is rocked by communal violence during a crucial foreign state visit, whose administrative machinery might collapse and whose ruling dispensation breeds promoters of hate politics?
Government aides and advisors are scrambling to find ways and means to contain the damage. Various departments, especially those who monitor the media, are busy in a daily flurry of meetings to discuss next steps. However, a plan of action is yet to emerge.
While the international fallout and its impact on foreign investment seems to be the top-of-the-mind worry, the government would be wise to look at the domestic implications as well. Sane voices in media columns and editorial pages reflect a growing concern over deepening social schisms as highlighted by the BJP’s vitriolic hate campaign during the Delhi elections and the riots that followed its defeat.
Editorials of leading newspapers, and these are by no means radical ones, have called for the government to rethink the controversial clauses of the amended citizenship Act and to clamp down on hate-mongers in their ranks.
Has Worry at the Top Percolated Down?
Clearly, opinion makers, professionals, corporates and the educated middle-class are worried about the sharp rightward turn the country has taken and its rapid descent into social turmoil. This section may not matter numerically in electoral terms but they drive the economy, create jobs and spin the narrative. A government can ignore them only at its peril.
Ironically, the worry at the top does not seem to have percolated down.
Lower levels in the BJP privately boast that the party will reap huge electoral dividends from the communal violence that gripped Delhi.
They are looking specifically at the next Assembly election that is due in Bihar. It’s a must-win poll for the BJP which is already reeling under a string of recent defeats.
These sections feel that the Dalit-Muslim alliance that trumped the BJP in Delhi and was in the making under the leadership of firebrands like Chandrashekhar Azad (meem-bheem alliance, they call it), has collapsed after the Delhi violence. Significantly, most of the riot-hit areas are populated by migrants from Bihar and UP’s Poorvanchal regions. Sections of the BJP feel that the Hindutva message has reached Bihar already.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. 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.)