The article by former finance and foreign minister Yashwant Sinha, disparagingly called a “job-seeker at 80” by current finance minister Arun Jaitley, has had ripple effect. There have been several responses, including by his son Jayant Sinha, a minister of state in the Narendra Modi government, and P. Chidambaram, who held the same portfolio in the UPA government. The latest in the line of the government’s critics is Arun Shourie, who repeated earlier assertions. While Sinha Jr argued against his father’s thesis as he has a job to keep, Mr Chidambaram pointed out that what Mr Sinha — both his predecessor and successor — said was nothing new, he too was making similar observations for some time. Moreover, though Mr Sinha made no such demand, the government’s decision to slash excise duty on petrol and diesel for the first time, bringing down prices significantly, can be considered an effect of Mr Sinha’s castigating article. More important, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to use the platform of the Institute of Company Secretaries of India to aggressively defend his government is considerably a result of Mr Sinha’s scathing criticism. This shows that the last word on the subject is yet to be heard.
Mr Sinha stated that the Modi government was extremely lucky to have been met early in office by hugely depressed global crude oil prices but this “unprecedented bonanza” was not “used imaginatively”. The article was published a couple of days before RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat’s traditional Dussehra speech when he expressed concern at economic distress among the outfit’s core constituency, traders and small businesses and middle-class professionals. While Mr Bhagwat broadly supported the government and Prime Minister Modi, the significance and timing of Mr Bhagwat airing his concern cannot be ignored. Mr Modi’s promise that the government would examine issues bothering MSMEs, small businesses and exporters indicates that the political terrain has almost overnight turned vulnerable for the Prime Minister.
There are two dimensions of what Mr Sinha wrote and the storm he triggered. I shall not venture into the economic argument and counter-arguments and instead confine myself to its political impact. Mr Sinha’s first point that his sentiments were shared by several in the BJP but not being articulated “out of fear” is not without basis. Over the past three years there have been several instances when members of Parliament raised awkward questions, only to be silenced by the leadership. Allegations were even levelled by R.K. Singh, who was recently inducted into the Union council of ministers, that financial considerations were behind the selection of several party nominees in the Bihar Assembly elections in 2015. But the majority that Mr Modi surprisingly secured in 2014 has stifled opposition to him within party fora.
The party leadership manages the BJP with an iron hand, such absolutist power being similar to what several global leaders in the past and present wield. For the moment, most party leaders are willing to accept the baton from the presiding duo in the party and pass the mandated message, but there is a lurking sense that the leadership is just one electoral setback away from a rebellion, its intensity depending on the nature of the reverse. After all, the Bihar defeat upset the applecart and four party veterans, including Mr Sinha, joined hands to accuse the duo of subverting inner-party democracy. However, the crisis was overcome with the help from the RSS. But with the Sangh itself restive because of uncertainties created by the twin economic initiatives of demonetisation and GST rollout, a bailout from Nagpur may not be easy to secure.
Mr Sinha attacked Mr Jaitley for being in the Cabinet despite losing the Lok Sabha polls, holding multiple portfolios while being finance minister, that was a huge responsibility, and for embarking on the ruinous path of demonetisation. But all decisions for which the finance minister was targeted were not his own but Mr Modi’s. The Prime Minister used his prerogative to appoint Mr Jaitley despite the clear precedent of Atal Behari Vajpayee not inducting Pramod Mahajan and Jaswant Singh in 1998. Again, it was Mr Modi’s choice to saddle Mr Jaitley with more than he can chew. Finally, demonetisation was, to use Mr Shourie’s words, a decision based on divine revelation that scrapping 86 per cent of currency notes was a brilliant idea.
Mr Jaitley, it may be recalled, was silent for several days after demonetisation, indicating the extent to which the decision stunned him. Mr Sinha could have attacked Mr Modi, but tactically chose not to. In one of the interviews he gave after the article’s publication, Mr Sinha hedged while replying to a direct question on whether he would attack Mr Modi in future. This demonstrates that Mr Jaitley may be somewhat right in accusing Mr Sinha is being a job-seeker, but then what’s wrong with that? After having been in the BJP for over two decades, Mr Sinha is unlikely to either float a new outfit or join another party. His best bet is to force Mr Modi to sack one of his team members and appoint him. Attacking Mr Jaitley is safe as he has no base and is completely dependent on Mr Modi.
Mr Sinha’s thinking, however, is that attacking the finance minister is not equivalent to directing fire at the PM. The moot point is whether Mr Modi too thinks this way.
Mr Modi is not at the helm due to the Sangh Parivar’s support but because of his capacity to secure support of voters. But for the freedom to pursue policies of his choice, he depends on the RSS to keep belligerents within the fraternity in check. Not just Mr Sinha’s article, a host of other developments after a series of reports indicating the economy is struggling has changed the political landscape. To a great extent, Mr Modi’s continuing dominance will depend on the Gujarat Assembly polls’ outcome. Even the slightest jolt to the BJP will alter equations. That’s what people like Mr Sinha are waiting for before making their next move.