Unexpect the unexpected.
Modi kuch karega, Modi will do something, goes the expectation. Nobody knows what it could be.
Narendra Modi’s electoral fortunes have been declining and his iron grip over the national political narrative has been weakening since mid-2017. Gujarat was nearly lost, Gorakhpur was lost for the first time in 27 years. Ajmer was lost, Bellary was lost, Madhya Pradesh was lost, Rajasthan was lost, Chhattisgarh was lost devastatingly.
As people have seen the fall, as they have seen Modi lose his Midas touch in agenda-setting, as the Chankayan halo around Amit Shah evaporates, we have wondered: Modi kuch to karega, Modi will do something.
The expectation comes from Narendra Modi’s past record on giving surprises, making pre-emptive moves, and bombarding us with his publicity blitzkrieg around them. Before people could get over one Modi move, he would make another to stun us.
On a visit to Afghanistan in 2015, Modi berated Pakistan. Then, he made a surprise stopover at Lahore to visit the Pakistani prime minister. After a militant attack from Pakistan, Modi said he didn’t want to wage war against Pakistan. A few days later, the Indian Army announced it had carried out cross-border raids across the Line of Control. On another occasion, Modi decided to suddenly address the nation through TV on a November evening. Everyone thought he was going to announce a war, instead he said he was demonetising 86 per cent of the Indian currency in circulation.
The Modi government is obsessed with giving surprises. It doesn’t want to be predictable. A BJP beat reporter told me she knew in advance from her sources that Satyapal Malik was going to be the next governor of Jammu & Kashmir. But she didn’t write it. “This government sometimes changes its decisions just to be able to say the press got it wrong,” she told me.
No wonder we are constantly expecting Modi to do things we can’t anticipate. Surprise in itself has become an expectation.
We can’t believe Modi can go down just like that. Surely, he has many more tricks up his sleeve? Yes, we may speculate what those could be. War? Riots? Escalating tensions in Kashmir? Another round of demonetisation? Universal basic income, aka putting some cash in Jan Dhan accounts? Abolishing income tax? Bypassing the Supreme Court to build a temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya?
If we can guess it, he won’t do it. It’s not a surprise if you expect it.
Modi’s surprises defeat all calculations of the opposition. They make pundits sound like fools. They make reporters run around like headless chickens, googling to understand what just happened while trying to get an expert’s byte for TV. And, they make op-ed writers like this one grope in the dark. Modi might as well be called the ‘Surprise Minister of India’.
The only problem is Modi may well have run out of surprises, like a movie that had frequent twists and turns in the first half, but slowed down after the interval.
When Narendra Modi announced demonetisation in November 2016, he asked people to give him just 50 days to show results. On New Year’s eve, he didn’t have much to say. The ‘rewards’ he had to offer seemed like small change.
He has tried. He announced ‘Ayushman Bharat’, a free health insurance for 50 crore Indians. But such a move will take years to help create a health infrastructure in the poorer parts of the country. In the recently held state elections, there was no buzz about Ayushman Bharat or any of his other schemes.
After the cataclysmic losses of stronghold states on 11 December, a Reuters report said the Modi government was preparing a massive farm loan waiver plan. Now that it has been put out, should we expect it?
When Santa doesn’t arrive on Christmas
Short of policy moves to surprise people, Modi’s surprises are now about deflecting attention and showing the opposition in a bad light. When the state elections got over and it seemed almost certain that the BJP would not fare well, the government had Robert Vadra’s associates raided by tax officials. When the Reserve Bank of India was about to bring out its damning assessment on demonetisation, the government had five Leftist activists arrested on ludicrous charges of colluding with Maoists.
None of these moves are stemming the decline of Modi. The failure of demonetisation and the flak he got for GST seem to have severely inhibited his ability to take risks. Surprises are risks. What if they backfire?
It is Modi himself who has encouraged us to expect the unexpected from him. To make us expect surprises and not deliver them will make us feel betrayed. Like Santa Claus not arriving on Christmas. If Modi has no surprises left, it may be the voter’s turn to surprise him.