The Prime Minister is seen as politically dominant if not invincible and with good reason. However, it has not been noticed that on the side of agenda or governance, his second term has been dotted with setbacks and even outright failures.
On the economy, GDP growth had begun to soften before 2019, when 3.7 percent was achieved. In 2020, COVID, and more particularly the national lockdown, sent India to negative growth for the first time in 40 years. If we set aside the data that is distorted because of the low base, current growth numbers have returned to the 4 percent that seems to be normal now. On employment, a government survey just before the 2019 election showed that joblessness had doubled to 6 percent and it has remained above that since. It was over 7 percent in the last quarter according to another government survey, which also says that unemployment for youth under 30 with a college degree was 29 percent. This year India will become the world’s most populous nation but there will be no demographic dividend.
On COVID, the BJP passed a resolution in February 2021 that thanked Modi for “defeating” the pandemic. A few weeks later the second wave’s awful visuals of people dying without medical care or oxygen or beds exposed India as one of the worst hit if not the worst hit nation in the world. Crematoria and even rivers overflowed with corpses. It is not well known that from 25 April, Modi disappeared for 20 days, making no public appearances. The resolution was deleted from the BJP website. On inflation, the good luck that India had had with petroleum prices ran out and Rs 100 petrol arrived. Retail inflation has been above the Reserve Bank of India’s band of tolerance, but there seem to be no good ways of reining it in.
In 2020, the BJP government’s unwritten national security thesis had to be scrapped. From counterterrorism in Kashmir and Pakistan, the government was forced to shift to Ladakh and China. Four divisions (each with 18,000 soldiers) have been shifted from facing Pakistan to China. Parliament has yet to be told whether or not it is correct that the Indian Army can no longer patrol some areas in Ladakh. For three years there has been neither a military briefing nor a parliamentary discussion on this and even a BJP MP’s question was disallowed for national security reasons.
Pushback from civil society undid some of Modi’s agenda items, one of which was on the party’s manifesto. This was the National Register of Citizens, which would be “implemented in phased manner across the country” after it was done in Assam. Neither happened. The Assam NRC left out 19 lakh names from the list published on 31 August 2019 and there is no clarity on how or whether or when this will be implemented because the BJP government in the state is reluctant. The Citizenship Amendment Act was passed in December 2019 but three years and three months later has not been implemented. One reason is the brave protest led by Muslim women. Farm laws passed without consultation through an ordinance during the pandemic were advertised as a big reform. The farmers disagreed and rebelled. It was obvious to everyone that once the farm unions mobilised and arrived in Delhi in the tens of thousands, the laws would fall. However, for a year they were kept on the roads and in November 2022 the laws were withdrawn with an apology from the Prime Minister. There is no more talk of doubling farmers’ income. After the failure to implement CAA and the rollback of the farm laws, the government gave up on ‘reforms’. It has also given up on conducting the census, the first time in over a century that this has happened.
Persecution of minorities continued through the BJP’s state governments which introduced more laws criminalising interfaith marriage and possession of beef. Permission to pray on Friday in allocated areas was withdrawn in December 2021 in Haryana. The wearing of hijab was banned by Karnataka in February 2022. In the same state, churches came under sustained attack.
Kashmir was demoted from statehood and split into two, but after this, the Prime Minister doesn’t appear to have a plan. Today Kashmir is the only part of South Asia to not be under democratic rule. It is unclear when the next election will be and other than continuing with the heavy military presence what the plan is.
Finally, on corruption, the BJP has been on the back foot since late January because of the Adani affair. The silence of the party, its decision to not openly defend the billionaire, its refusal to address the matter in Parliament and its focus on distraction indicates to us that it is troubled. Perhaps the Prime Minister is hoping the story will blow over on its own. Unfortunately, fresh news almost daily, confirming the allegations, has kept the story alive globally and the markets cannot be tamed as the Indian media can be. The refusal to activate the agencies on Adani means that future claims of “na khaunga na khane dunga” will be met with scepticism.
Politically the BJP was able to capture major assemblies in Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra, and did well recently in the northeast. It lost Bihar, and in the most significant state election, in Bengal in 2021.
Overall the record of the second term reveals a contradiction between the image and the reality. The image, especially on media and social media, is one of the man at the height of his power, and unstoppable. The reality of governance is someone who has found it difficult to get things implemented and is unsure of what to do next.
By Aakar Patel
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