THE PARADOXICAL PRIME MINISTER

Shashi Tharoor says Modi’s ego has left India bruised and Indians fearful

Modi has presided over an ecosystem of fear in India.
Modi has presided over an ecosystem of fear in India.
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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Narendra Modi can certainly be described as Napoleonic in his single-minded pursuit of power and his belief in his own destiny from a very young age. Many of his admirers point to his visionary speeches, his soaring ambition, and his unshakeable faith in his own and India’s destiny as evidence that he has the special qualities that the iconic French leader possessed.

However, while Napoleon is remembered, despite all his shortcomings, for his brilliant foresight and his belief in, and implementation of, many of the ideas that are fundamental to the world today—among them religious tolerance, property rights, and equality before the law—the same cannot be said of Narendra Modi.

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An ecosystem of fear

The Modi regime has generated what I have already quoted a columnist as dubbing “an ecosystem of fear…The India we live in now is a society that is polarised and fearful. Minorities, liberals, women, and Dalits are harassed and brutalised with impunity and lumpen thugs terrorise all and sundry in the name of Hindutva…This is the first test prime minister Modi fails when it comes to being regarded as a “man of destiny.”

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The rise of widespread communal violence, mob lynchings and the bizarre phenomenon known as “cow vigilantism”; the shrinking space for dissent, with those who dare to think differently experiencing the daily fear of vulnerability to intimidation and coercion; the etiolation of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the bulwarks of any democracy; the sidelining and often demonisation of India’s minorities, to a point where many feel unwelcome in Modi’s new India; the unleashing of a crude form of mob bigotry, both on the streets and on social media, that are perceived as enjoying the patronage of the authorities; the hollowing out of institutions built up over decades, whose independence and impartiality are being systematically stifled; the eradication of checks and balances and the exaltation of government-sponsored definitions of nationalism that reduce alternative viewpoints to the category of “anti-national” and “anti-Hindu,” themselves seen as largely synonymous; and the creation of a “new normal” in society which makes acceptable the diffusion of a malevolent communal poison in the name of a triumphant majoritarianism that has eroded the fundamental values of India’s secular and nominally egalitarian republic—all of these have cast a blight on the meaning of our citizenship in Modi’s new India.

Moving on, we come to an area in which PM Modi’s performance has been inglorious.

Self-inflicted blows

The book details a checklist of spectacular failures, headed by a GDP growth rate that, as has been noted, has fallen by nearly 2% because of the twin self-inflicted blows of demonetisation and the botched rollout of GST.

Demonetisation, in particular, has badly dented investor confidence, drastically reducing much-needed investment in the economy. The recently released “back-series” figures show that GDP growth under UPA-1 (8.87%) and UPA-2 (7.65%) was higher than the first four years of NDA-2 (7.35%). Worse, the GDP fell for five consecutive quarters under Mr Modi, hitting a low of 5.7% in the first quarter of 2017-18. The IMF projects GDP growth of 7.3% in the current financial year, lower than it was under UPA, and, than it might have been had the economy not been dealt the “double tap” of demonetisation and GST.

The growth that has occurred has largely been because of an unsustainable government spending spree (at two and a half times private consumption). Manufacturing has contracted, exports have declined (well below the UPA-era peak of $312 billion in 2013-14), growth in industrial production has slowed and agriculture is stagnating (or worse, given the annual rise in the number of farmer suicides). The current account deficit is projected to grow from 1.9% to 2.6% of GDP this year.

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Finally, we come to another great example of the image-building PM Modi excels at, this time on the global stage.

Negated in Nepal, provoked by Pakistan

Here we have a decidedly mixed record of pretension—the prime minister claims that India’s standing has gone up in the world thanks to him, that an Indian passport finally has value it did not enjoy before his ascent, and that prior to his ascendancy, Indians abroad were ashamed to call themselves Indian—that contrasts embarrassingly with what has actually been achieved on the ground and the reality of global perception.

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Yes, Mr Modi is capable of evolution. His reaction to my Dubai Ports World proposal was in my mind when I publicly raised the question of why Mr Modi, in the extensive international travels of his first year, had not visited a single Islamic country. It must be said that he amply made up for it in subsequent years, in particular focusing on improving bilateral relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, to both of which he made successful visits. (He nonetheless also managed a visit to Israel in a way that did not elicit any protest from the neighbouring Arab states, and welcomed an Israeli prime minister to India for the first time.)

If as prime minister he has been able to overcome his prejudices and those of his followers in the greater interests of the nation, that is certainly to be welcomed. But in this he was following the well-worn footsteps of his predecessors, who had laid the groundwork for him to tread upon. Where he acted in accordance with the time-honoured traditions of continuity in foreign policy, Mr Modi kept India on an even keel.

But where he attempted his own initiatives, he has left behind a sorry legacy—with Narendra Modi’s India snubbed in the Seychelles, marginalised in the Maldives, negated in Nepal, sidelined in Sri Lanka, undermined in the US, compromised by China and provoked by Pakistan (and found wanting).

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As he nears the end of his term as prime minister, the country is reeling on several fronts—a fearful populace, an economy that has been hobbled by foolhardy initiatives, a painful lack of jobs, a devastating number of farmer suicides, insecure borders, instability in Kashmir and the palpable failure in implementation of even laudable initiatives like Swachh Bharat, skill development and Beti Bachao Beti Padhao.

In short, Mr Modi’s rule has been bad for India, and it all rises from the Modi paradox…his inability to rise above his narrow-minded, mean-spirited, sectarian political origins to the levels of statesmanship and good governance that a country like India needs and that many hoped he could deliver.

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Compounding all this is the man’s extraordinary ego.

Narendra Modi had been seen, even as chief minister, as being above his party affiliation; he reported to no one, felt accountable to no one (especially after the BJP lost power in the national general elections in 2004) and took his own decisions, without regard even for the views of his old organisation, the RSS.

In the end, therefore, he must be judged for himself; since he claims all successes as his own, his transcendent failures must inevitably also be laid at his own door.

Excerpted with the permission of Aleph Book Company from The Paradoxical Prime Minister by Shashi Tharoor. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com