The present may be kind to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but history will be harsher on him. Modi has been getting away with all his imprudent decisions that include blunders, and will perhaps continue to do so in the years to come, with benign voters showering their awe on him, making his grandstanding overpower everything else. However, history will remember Modi as a prime minister who won a massive mandate, but failed to make any real contribution to nation–building.
As former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Monday criticised PM Modi for his Galwan statement, one was reminded of the famous remark he had made towards the end of his term in 2014 — “history will be kinder to me than the contemporary media, or for that matter, the Opposition parties in Parliament”.
For Modi, it will be the other way around — he may be smooth-sailing now, but history won’t be kind to him — if he continues this way and instead remember him for catering to a very narrow vision and for initiating steps that have caused more harm than good.
From an ill-advised demonetisation to bulldozing his way through decisions such as the dilution of Article 370, followed by a strict clampdown in Kashmir and introduction of contentious and polarising laws, Modi has left the political environment vitiated and caused India’s relations with its neighbours to deteriorate. The Prime Minister has set many milestones that are unlikely to seem flattering when history around him is written.
Modi: The present
There is little doubt that Modi is among the most popular leaders, with a cult-like following that independent India has not seen before. I have travelled extensively to cover elections and other events, and found his popularity to be overwhelming. It cuts across gender, geographies and socio-economic backgrounds.
It is this massive goodwill and an uncanny ability to connect with the masses that has held, and will continue to hold, Modi in good stead. His blunders don’t matter. The opposition’s shrill attacks fade in front of his masterful histrionics and he ensures that his spin mastery overcomes the most challenging of situations.
Nothing has really hurt Modi politically so far: be it the ill-thought-out decision to demonetise high-value currency notes in one go in November 2016 or the hasty rollout of GST soon after — both of which adversely impacted voters across segments. And yet, when Modi is attacked, he only becomes stronger. No one can forget how former Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s chowkidar chor hai campaign in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election and his corruption allegations in the Rafale deal, both of which directly attacked Modi, boomeranged.
An unquestioning electorate that laps up almost anything that the PM says and a splintered, incoherent and often scared opposition have been Modi’s biggest strengths. The present, therefore, is kind to the Prime Minister. But what will he be remembered for in the future and what is the legacy he will leave behind?
Where history won’t be kind to Modi
Among a number of adverse policy decisions, especially on the economic front, demonetisation, followed by a “flawed” and hastily rolled out GST will top the list, with their negative impact still lingering on the economy. While Modi sold them to the country as his big-ticket economic reforms, aimed at curbing black money and formalising the indirect tax regime, respectively, the reality is that they were twin blows to an economy that was running fine up until then.
That was his first term. In his second term, where he returned with an even-bigger mandate, the Modi government passed a number of legislations that have ended up straining the social fabric of India, and has left it polarised like never before.
Modi will be infamously remembered for presiding over a government of a party that played polarising politics across states. History won’t forget that when Amit Shah compared illegal migrants to “termites” and said that they will be thrown into the Bay of Bengal, it was Modi who was India’s Prime Minister.
History will not be kind to Modi for turning Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) from an ethnic issue into a communal one, or for bringing in the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
The triple talaq law, questionable amendments to laws such as RTI and UAPA, and going all jingoistic about the ‘outsider’ — all show how the Modi government’s emphasis has only been on catering to its blinkered vision.
The Covid crisis is unprecedented and harsh, but the Modi government’s handling of the labour crisis, its thoughtlessness and how it tried to undermine the federal structure by towering over states will forever be questioned.
A poor bench strength in the government and the BJP, and his inability to groom a solid second-rung of leaders or retain true talent have also been Modi’s big weaknesses.
Modi’s poor handling of India’s foreign policy is another point that puts him on a sticky wicket. Be it the ongoing standoff with China at the LAC that has led to the death of 20 Indian soldiers, a combative Nepal unilaterally changing its map to include Indian territory or incessant attacks on the security forces in Kashmir, India is being challenged by the neighbours more frequently than ever before.
Modi’s statement on Galwan at the all-party meet created a furore, which further shows he thinks more as a politician pandering to voters than a leader thinking geo-strategically.
While the issue of Bangladeshi infiltrators has impacted ties with Bangladesh, the Sri Lankan dispensation under the Rajapaksa brothers also isn’t friendly to India, and is known for its proximity to China.
Where history will be kind
One can’t say Modi hasn’t achieved anything at all. The welfare platform laid down in his first term — from providing rural housing to cooking gas connections, rural electricity, health insurance, the Aadhaar emphasis to weeding out implementation glitches in schemes, and the robust use of the Socio-Economic Caste Census to extend benefits to the poor have all been extremely popular, useful and sound policy steps.
Diplomatically, the growing India-US ties is a key foreign policy achievement of the Modi government. The cross-border surgical strikes in 2016 and the Balakot air strikes in 2019 have also helped add to Modi’s muscle.
However, the Modi government’s focus on welfare and governance seems to have all but disappeared in the second term. The past one year has been entirely around Modi catering to a narrow vision of fulfilling a majoritarian, nationalistic impulse, and closing historical issues that matter to his core constituency at the cost of more pressing issues.
Modi will probably continue to win elections for a while to come, but what will he really be remembered for in the long run, besides his amazing ability to command votes? That is a question that must haunt Modi, if he wants history to remember him as a nation-builder, and not just an election-winning, smooth-talking machine.
Views are personal.
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