To most supporters of Narendra Modi, including those outside the saffron fold who welcomed his economic agenda, the prime minister’s tenure so far has been disappointing. That he has sensed the uneasy public mood is evident from his directive for action against non-performing bureaucrats.
But, apart from disciplining the officials, what is expected of him is the kind of sternness which he showed as the Gujarat chief minister. As a result, he was able to marginalize his predecessors like Keshubhai Patel and silence rabble-rousers like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Pravin Togadiya.
In Delhi, he has taken similar effective action against incorrigible trouble-makers like Yogi Adityanath and seems to have persuaded Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat to refrain from saying that all Indians are Hindus.
But his task remains incomplete as the hooliganism of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) activists recently showed in Allahabad University where they held a senior journalist hostage in the vice chancellor’s office to prevent him from speaking at a seminar. Their charge against the journalist was that he was “anti-national”, a label which they also used to defame the Dalit student, Rohith Vemula, who recently committed suicide in the Hyderabad Central University.
It is patent enough that Modi’s call for upholding constitutional governance, under which anti-nationals are to be identified only by the state and not vigilante groups, is not being heeded by some of his party members and associates.
There is little doubt that their words and deeds are reflexive in nature. Having being tutored in the RSS shakhas (schools) to regard themselves as the epitomes of patriotism, the saffron-tinted activists have routinely dubbed those not adhering to their creed as enemies of the nation.
Their pursuit of the same line, despite Modi’s restraining efforts, is the main reason why sections of the intelligentsia have expressed misgivings about the prevailing intolerance in their view. Had the prime minister followed up his general advice with firm admonitions on specific occasions, the sense of despondency might have been dissipated.
But perhaps because he feels that it is below his dignity to react to the various incidents which can appear to be minor in the larger perspective, he prefers either to say nothing or leave it to party president Amit Shah and others to speak to those who step out of line.
However, his “dangerous silence”, as the New York Times once called it, has begun to hurt the party as mavericks like Subramanian Swamy continue their campaign for building the Ram temple and suggestions are made by the RSS chief to regulate the media “to ensure that no ill-effects prevails in society” as a result of their writings.
Although the temple is unlikely to be built in the near future – if at all – or Mohan Bhagwat’s veiled plea for censorship implemented, it is a familiar tactic of fascistic outfits to keep on harping on their provocative projects to sustain communal tension.
It is not surprising, therefore, that an opinion poll has shown Modi’s ratings to be higher than the BJP’s. There is little doubt that at the national level, the people across the board continue to repose considerable faith in his pro-development programme even if it is yet to reach the take-off point.
But what the BJP has to be wary of is, first, the significance of the party’s lower approval rating and, second, the fact of its inconsequence in states like West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puduchery which will go to the polls this year. Only in Assam, which will also go to the polls, can it expect to fare reasonably well, but it is still a touch-and-go affair.
In Uttar Pradesh, too, the BJP may face a hard time next year because of the alienation of sizable sections of Muslims and Dalits in the aftermath of the targeting of so called beef-eaters and the suicide of Rohith Vemula.
Amit Shah is right in saying that just as the political polarization at one time pitted Indira Gandhi against the rest, it is now Modi vs the rest. But there is a slight difference – the middle class today is much larger and more politically active than it was in Indira Gandhi’s time. Modi’s high approval rating comes from this segment of society, which was also largely responsible for his victory in 2014.
But it is also a group which will not take kindly to the antics of the ABVP, the Shiv Sena and other Hindu militants. It is also possible that they are siding with Modi at present because there is no alternative at the all-India level. But this isn’t the case in the states, which is why the BJP is unlikely to have an easy run in the assembly elections.
To give the party a nationwide edge, the prime minister will have to crack the whip much harder where the saffron fundamentalists are concerned, for even an eight percent growth rate will not help him to usher in the missing achhey din if the extremists continue to rave and rant against the “anti-nationals”.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at [email protected])