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Is Modi’s honeymoon over?

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In Brief

It has been just over 100 days since Narendra Modi took office amid global euphoria, but the ‘honeymoon’ period seems over for the Indian prime minister’s government and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). As the media were dishing out the new administration’s ‘report card’, the party lost several state by-elections across the country. It raised the question of whether the ‘Modi wave’ is on the wane so soon.


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The BJP’s three earlier losses in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand within five weeks of the parliamentary triumph went largely ignored. But now the message is clear: Modi and his party are vulnerable to the vagaries of a diverse and demanding electorate, and their stupefied opponents may be down, but not out.

The defeat in Bihar, where the BJP and allies had won 31 out of 40 Lok Sabha seats, is significant. A ‘secular’ alliance won in six of the 10 constituencies. Two former chief ministers, Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar, patched things up after two decades of bitterness and — with the Indian National Congress — forged a successful anti-BJP phalanx in time for the assembly polls due next year.

In addition to state-level losses, the BJP also lost some parliamentary by-elections including in Karnataka in the south and Punjab, which is ruled by Akali Dal, a BJP ally and party of the Sikhs.

Even before these losses — which may not add up to much in the long-term other than puncturing the ruling party’s euphoria — critics and even supporters had started to accuse Modi of squandering his powerful mandate.

Modi’s supporters think he is not moving fast enough, while his critics say his first budget, and many other measures, seem like carbon copies of the ousted Indian National Congress.

Belying expectations that Modi would foster a business-friendly agenda, Modi retained programs subsidising grains, sugar and fuel, as well as caps on foreign direct investment, which limit fresh capital for business ventures. He stressed his vision to transform the nation’s economy. But the national budget was widely panned as being an extension of the previous government’s populist and enormously expensive policies.

Rising commodity prices fuel high disenchantment. Newspaper opinion pages give voice to complaints, and grumblings can be heard in city bazaars. Kitchen staples, like potatoes and tomatoes, continue to rise in price to well over a dollar per kilogram — exorbitant for most people. The festival season is on and Deepavali is but two months away. Jokes abound, lampooning Modi’s opening promise of achhey din or ‘happy days’.

Independent analysts also say Modi’s government should be allowed some breathing time. But within four or five months more regular criticism will start. This may be accelerated by the way some party officials and lawmakers conduct themselves.

Given Modi’s loud promises to crack down on corruption and cronyism associated with the Congress-led government, his push for close ally Amit Shah to be the BJP president appears odd and inconsistent. Shah undoubtedly contributed hugely to the parliamentary election success, but he is accused of illegally ordering police to kill a small-time criminal and his wife in Gujarat. Jailed for three months in 2010, Shah was expelled from Gujarat and remains on bail.

Politicians with pending criminal cases are an issue in India’s public life. The Supreme Court last week refused to recognise pending criminal cases against lawmakers as a disqualification for their appointment as ministers. But it said that both the prime minister and state chief ministers ‘owe it to constitutional morality’ not to appoint persons with a criminal background as ministers. It urged the prime minister ‘to set an example’.

The ball is in the court of the prime minister and the chief ministers. The message is clear from the higher judiciary, which frequently resorts to judicial activism.

On the foreign policy front, his visits to neighbours Bhutan and Nepal have gone off well. The visit by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to eastern neighbours Bangladesh and Myanmar have also paved the way for greater understanding and cooperation, although no new initiatives have been announced.

Modi’s visit to Japan, however, has been path-breaking thanks to his presence and rapport with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. No nuclear deal was signed, but a strategic pact was that opens way for huge Japanese investments in India in the coming years.

Modi holds all the ropes now with little resistance. The party has edged out veterans LK Advani and MM Joshi from its parliamentary board — the highest policy body — by making them ‘mentors’, a post not mentioned in its constitution and which certainly carries no clout.

A fiery speaker, Modi still speaks with passion but from a distance. He has become conspicuously quiet since taking office, displaying the caution that his new job demands. He has kept aloof from the media, not forgetting how he was targeted after the 2002 sectarian violence. There are no interviews and no media conferences. He has done away with the old practice of media accompanying the prime minister on tours, especially on foreign visits. This may hurt his rapport with the masses.

One section ‘missing’ him is the youth, whom he mesmerised during the campaign. This group took his promise of change seriously, giving the BJP a parliamentary majority, despite its winning only 31 per cent of the votes.

Modi has miles to go to retain the crucial support of India’s youths — millions are added to this group daily.

Mahendra Ved is a New Delhi-based writer and columnist.

A version of this article was first published here in the New Straits Times.

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