There is intense dissatisfaction with how people's lives are panning out, which has not yet assumed the form of anger.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s panache for dramatic gestures was in evidence in the passing of the Constitution’s 128th Amendment Bill in both Houses of Parliament at the special session last week. It is a law that may not come into effect till 2029, and it has been passed six years ahead of time. It’s a strange, and slightly bizarre, constitutional provision which almost seems to be an afterthought of the Modi government to get something significant done to mark the beginning of the proceedings in the new Parliament building, to make it memorable. This has been his signature for the past nine years.
We saw it first in his televised address on November 8, 2016 when he announced the demonetisation of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 currency notes. We saw it when he convened a midnight joint session of Parliament to launch the Goods and Services Tax (GST) on July 1, 2017. Then in February 2019 he shared in a televised address the surgical airstrike in Balakot in Pakistan-held territory the wake of the Pulwama suicide attack on a convoy killing 40 soldiers. And from March 24, 2020 to May 12, 2020, he made three televised addresses to the nation, starting with the nationwide lockdown, saying that the Covid-19 pandemic would be wiped out by the second week of May, saying that we have to live with the virus, and shifting the focus to the theme of “Atma Nirbhar Bharat”. Whatever we may think of Mr Modi’s political histrionics, there is a predictable pattern in his style.
But in the last few months, coinciding with the Opposition parties forming the INDIA bloc, he has been seen to be fumbling to pick an attention-grabbing issue in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha election. He wanted to make the G-20 summit under India’s presidency a mega-event, but it has turned out to be much too subdued for his taste. The world leaders came, appreciated India’s hospitality, and went away because they were also distracted by the Ukraine war, the climate change problem and the stuttering global economy. The Indian Prime Minister’s rhetoric of the summit theme he had chosen – “One Earth, One Family, One Future” -- did not resonate too much with the guests. They were polite, and nothing more. The Prime Minister, external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman and others maintained a sober tone. This could be seen at the media interaction at the end of the first day of the summit, that was addressed by Mr Jaishankar and Ms Sitharaman, when the Delhi Declaration was adopted. There was no chest-thumping about the grand success of the summit. Even the BJP workers’ meeting to congratulate Mr Modi on India’s presidency of the G-20 at the party headquarters in New Delhi was quite a toned-down affair.
The Narendra Modi government would have liked Parliament to pass a resolution lauding Mr Modi’s and the government’s success in hosting the G-20 summit and the Delhi Declaration with its note of consensus on a prickly issue like the war in Ukraine. The resolution could have been moved in the Lok Sabha and in Rajya Sabha could have been moved by a member of the ruling party. It seemed that was the idea lingering behind convening the five-day special session of Parliament, which really was nothing more than a decorative ceremony. But there seems to be have been an attack of uncharacteristic modesty in the Prime Minister, the government and the BJP.
A flutter was caused when the Cabinet passed a resolution on “One Nation, One Election”. This was followed by the setting up of a hurriedly constituted committee headed by former President of India Ram Nath Kovind. The list of the members came a little later, comprising pro-government personalities like former Lok Sabha secretary-general Subhash Kashyap, former Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad, legal luminary Harish Salve, apart from Union home minister Amit Shah. Congress Lok Sabha leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who was named for the committee, declined to be part of it. It seemed that the committee would prepare a quick report and the government would push the bill through the two Houses because it has a majority in both. But Mr Kovind announced that the first meeting of the committee would be held September 23, a day after the special session was due to end. This too looks a future agenda, but the government may want to pass some kind of legislation before its term ends.
These gestures indicate that the government is still looking for that big issue which would carry the day for it in the next election, and it is not able to decide which one. So, it would end up trying to do several things like the women’s reservation bill, or the setting up of the committee on “One Nation, One Election”. But these issues are turning out to be protracted affairs, and the government can only claim credit for them in only the nominal sense.
It had seemed that the Modi government had plenty of achievements in its bag which would cheer its support base: the Supreme Court verdict giving the Babri Masjid land to the Hindu party for the construction of the Ram Mandir, Prime Minister Modi performing the foundation-laying ceremony for the construction of the temple, and the temple to be inaugurated early next year, much before the general election. And then there is removing the special status for Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370, demoting the state into two Union territories and bifurcating it. But the BJP’s top brass, poll analysts and monitors in the party, seem to be unsure whether any of these things find resonance with a public which is struggling with their daily lives despite the economy doing well at the macro level.
There is intense dissatisfaction with how their lives are panning out, which has not yet assumed the form of anger. The challenge for Mr Modi and the BJP is how to woo a discontented electorate. The promise of India becoming one of top three economies before the end of the decade, or India becoming a developed economy by 2047, are long-term dreams which are unlikely to impress people harried by economic and social stress of the day. The proverbial silver lining for Mr Modi and the BJP is that the Opposition has not yet emerged as a clear force.