The implosion in CBI adds to a series of events showing Modi no longer sets the agenda.
The embers from the implosion in the Central Bureau of Investigation this week will continue to fall in different directions for some time. They have already fallen on the Prime Minister’s Office, the Enforcement Directorate, the Research & Analysis Wing, the Rafale deal, and so on.
Who’s to tell what further fires these embers might yet cause? It is likely the Modi government will be fire-fighting the CBI implosion for the next few weeks. In the midst of an election season, the timing couldn’t be worse for Modi & Co.
It is not often that a sitting CBI director rebels against the government. It is not often that a top bureaucrat would even dare to revolt against a Prime Minister known to be a strongman. The revolt itself is diminishing for a Prime Minister who came to power striking a contrast against a collapsing UPA-2. Modi was to be the decisive man in control of things, as against the weak Manmohan Singh. Turns out, Modi can have his Manmohan moments too.
Regardless of what the Supreme Court does in response to Alok Verma’s petition, Mr Verma could soon become to this government what CAG Vinod Rai was to UPA-2. Verma has already claimed to be a martyr of political interference, its alleged agent being his junior Rakesh Asthana.
Over the past four and a half years, the CBI has brazenly gone after the Modi government’s political opponents. It has done so to heighten the contrast in the public eye between the ‘Corrupt Opposition’ and the ‘No Corruption Government’. With the Rafale controversy and the CBI implosion, the Modi government’s corruption-free image is going the way of Maa Ganga: dirtier than 2014.
Losing the brahmastra
Over the past few weeks and months, the Modi government has been losing its grip over the political narrative. The BJP managed to retain Gujarat with great difficulty in December 2017, but the election did highlight rural distress across the country. While the Modi government has tried to address it, its total control over the headlines is collapsing by the day. Despite having almost every major news channel turn into the government’s propaganda arm, the Modi story is looking weaker by the day.
Or perhaps the downfall began even before Gujarat results, when the impact of demonetisation first showed on GDP numbers in mid-2017.
Six months before the general election, Narendra Modi seems to be losing his brahmastra of occupying headlines and mindspace. One after the other, the top headlines are only showing Modi as a PM no longer in control. We noted how the narrative slipped out of Modi’s hands in April this year; the process seems to continue.
Just consider a few recent headlines. Rising fuel prices and the falling Indian rupee. An RBI report confirming what we all knew about demonetisation. Far-Left activists arrested and made into scapegoats for the real culprits in the Bhima-Koregaon agitation. Farmers tear-gassed at Delhi’s doorstep. Another Gujarati businessman flees the country after an alleged bank fraud, just another Rs 5,000 crore of public money. An infrastructure finance company goes bust with Rs 91,000 crore in debt. Headline after headline suggesting that the government unduly favoured Anil Ambani in Rafale offsets.
The best example of how poor this government has become at political communication was the M.J. Akbar fiasco. The government dilly-dallied over the issue for days, getting flak from the media, even its friendly channels. The government allowed the headlines to be overtaken by M.J. Akbar, brazening it out in a manner that appeared to suggest they didn’t want to appear to be yielding to a few liberals. After sending conflicting signals, suddenly Mr Akbar was out. The handling was so poor they couldn’t even claim to be acting in good faith and take credit for championing women’s rights.
A boring film
For most of Modi’s prime ministership, his main skill has been political communication. For long periods, he has had a nation glued to his speeches, acronyms, ideas, his images, his voice. There has been not much else to show. He has mastered the art of winning elections, and every election victory makes him appear invincible. But now, something has changed. Modi’s showmanship isn’t covering up the chinks anymore.
Modi does something or the other with some app every few days. Now he’s claiming to be the inheritor of Subhas Chandra Bose’s legacy, now he’s projecting surgical strikes as World War III. Now he’s saving Sardar Patel from the Congress ignominy and here he is, posting a fitness challenge video.
But Divert and Rule is no longer working. The show’s been going on for far too long. It’s become a grand Bollywood film high on spectacle and low on substance. Modi’s silences are ringing hollow. Be it Sabarimala row or an encounter in Lucknow, be it a setback in Aadhaar or a crashing stock market – the Prime Minister is no longer part of the national conversation. He isn’t talking about what we are talking about. He’s in his own world, lost somewhere in the comfort zone of the NaMo app.
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