Narendra Modi and the fine art of screwing up

I did it again.
I did it again.
Image: Reuters/Altaf Hussain
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It either says too little, or too much. It either does nothing, or furiously overreacts.

But no matter which route it has taken lately, the Narendra Modi government has managed to screw things up—with an uncanny talent for bad timing.

Its recent ineptitude at handling the levers of democracy has preceded the last two sessions of parliament, with the ensuing fracas blocking the passage of key reforms that the Indian economy so badly needs.

And now, thanks to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) management of the affairs at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the upcoming budget session will once again showcase the full repertoire of moves India’s opposition parties have acquired to disrupt parliament.

In the process, the government is doing much more than merely damaging itself, or providing the opposition unending ammunition for ensuring parliamentary paralysis. Its political incompetence could potentially risk the recovery underway in Asia’s third-largest economy.

The tolerance tightrope

The problem with the Modi government is its ambivalence over tolerance: It either tolerates too much, or too little.

When outrage over Lalitgate and the Vyapam scam erupted last summer, the BJP brass in New Delhi decided that tolerance was a virtue. The big guns were brought out to defend foreign minister Sushma Swaraj’s purported involvement in facilitating travel documents for the former Indian Premier League boss Lalit Modi, even as the opposition bayed for her resignation. Questions over the propriety of Swaraj’s actions were simply sidestepped.

In the Vyapam scam, the bumbling response of the BJP’s Madhya Pradesh chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, too, was deemed acceptable, although some openly questioned his complicity in the matter. Eventually, it was only after much defence and drama that the Modi government finally prodded the Central Bureau of Investigation into examining the blood-soaked trail of the $1 billion Vyapam scam.

This patience resulted in the washout of the monsoon session.

But the tables quickly turned once beef was put on the menu. The Modi government deemed that there would be no tolerance for matters to do with the cow and protecting the BJP’s version of Hinduism. So, as the outcry against the beef ban, the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq and other actions of right-wing groups grew to a crescendo, with authors, poets and playwrights returning their awards, the BJP leadership chose to fight back.

India’s culture minister Mahesh Sharma theorised that the death of Akhlaq was an accident. Sangeet Som, another BJP lawmaker, warned that if innocents were framed for Akhlaq’s death, there would be a “befitting reply”, presumably from Hindus. Sakshi Maharaj, a BJP member of parliament, declared that he was “ready to kill and get killed” to protect the cow.

Higher up the order, finance minister Arun Jaitley questioned if the protests and the returning of awards were “a contrived anger and a manufactured dissent.” And Modi, when he finally spoke, had actually very little to say.

Maybe foreboding of the coming chaos forced the BJP to reach out to the opposition parties before the winter session, but whatever consensus was forged quickly dissipated after the National Herald case entered the picture.

With Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi compelled to appear in court for a case filed by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy in 2012, India’s grand old party decided to block and tackle. Others like the Trinamool Congress and the Janata Dal (United) joined in.

Unsurprisingly, the opposition ensured that the winter session didn’t achieve much either.

Expect the expected

If the prevailing anger against the Modi government’s entirely disproportionate response to the events at JNU—and the subsequent incident at the Patiala House courts—is any indication, the upcoming budget session could be effectively over even before it begins.

With several state polls on the horizon, every party worth its salt will likely be out to score political points and take potshots, particularly those against Modi and the BJP. End result: More disruption.

And that disruption could potentially levy a heavy toll on the Indian economy, one that Modi promised to build and nurture into delivering double-digit growth. Already, last November, credit-rating agency Moody’s Investors Services warned that the “investment environment is unlikely to pick up without the key reforms amidst weak global growth.”

“In 2015, the government tried but failed to enact legislation relating to key reforms—goods and services tax and land acquisition—as it lacks majority in the upper house of the parliament. The government is unlikely to win a majority in the upper house if it keeps losing state elections like it did recently in Delhi and Bihar. Opposition parties are unlikely to allow key reforms to go through,” the Moody’s report added.

The numbers, despite the revised GDP growth data, don’t look particularly promising. Industrial activity in key infrastructure sectors is still sluggish, exports are falling and capacity utilisation in Indian factories is dropping. That’s why keen observers of the economy, such as Japan’s Nomura, cautioned earlier in February that India’s economic momentum is already slowing down.

There is, of course, some corrective action that Jaitley can, and probably will, spell out in his budget at the end of this month, but the big reforms must necessarily find their way through parliament. No amount of hoopla over Make in India will draw much-needed investment to the subcontinent as much as making deep and necessary changes to the economy will.

That’s a reality that Modi and his government surely understand, which is why its crude reaction to the protest at JNU—given its political repercussions—is somewhat difficult to decipher. Perhaps it is another costly mistake. Or, it is a talent for screwing up, which has, so far, gone unnoticed.

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