India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks after laying the foundation for the memorial of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, in Mumbai, India, December 24, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Shailesh Andrade
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks after laying the foundation for the memorial of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, in Mumbai, India, December 24, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Shailesh Andrade

In a little more than 18 months, I had completed two of my career’s biggest assignments. One pertained to the elections in one of the world’s oldest democracies, the United States, and the other was coverage of the general elections in the world’s largest democracy – India.

While the 2012 US presidential elections, which ensured Barack Obama a second term, were an immensely enriching and memorable experience, the 16th Lok Sabha polls in April-May 2014 were all about optimism.

The result was a harbinger of hope for the many Indians who wanted a stable government, as opposed to the scourge of coalition politics – with parochial constituents, vested interests and repeated arm-twisting tactics that had afflicted the country in the preceding decades.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), won an absolute majority – the first in 30 years – riding on an anti-incumbency wave.

As an expert on The World in a Nutshell, a news program with Radio and Television Hong Kong (RTHK), I was positivism personified while speaking on the implications of those elections, asserting that the absolute majority meant stability, an assurance that the Narendra Modi government would last its full tenure come what may, and consequently would have ample time to fulfill the promises it had made to the people.

Five years later, as India goes to the polls again, the mood within the country is divided. While the supporters, labeled bhakts in the Indian media, won’t hear a word against the government or its policies, the others aren’t entirely satisfied. This bifurcation represents two extremes; one is about blind faith and the other is about apathy. Both are not good for a democracy.

Having said that,  there’s no point in being overly critical of the government. No government can ensure seamless administration in a country as diverse and divided as India, where both the people and the parties are perennially guilty of falling prey to parochial interests, regionalism, petty politics and, perhaps most important, misplaced priorities.

It was no surprise, therefore, when a column titled “Prime Chief Minister” argued that despite his current position, Modi’s thought process was more like that of chief minister of Gujarat state (his previous position) than of a nation’s head.

One may or may not agree with the argument, but by hosting the Chinese head of state in Gujarat, ensuring the proposed bullet train’s route was from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, or, for that matter, patronizing the biennial Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit, Modi always kept the interests of his state at heart.

So, one may ponder, what is it that works in favor of Modi at a national level?

The prime minister needs to complimented particularly on two counts. One, for his elaborate speeches, and two, for being the first Indian leader to leverage social media to the optimum, something Obama also did particularly well during his 2012 campaign.

For someone who loves hearing himself speak, Modi has done a remarkable job in keeping Indians glued to his monologues. Even the harshest of his critics will admit Modi can not only speak relentlessly for hours, but also keep the listeners invested. Rhetoric is an art form, and Modi is a master of the same. It is his biggest strength.

Besides his public appearances, through his radio program Mann Ki Baat (“Heart Talk”), Modi regularly interacts with people across the country on a range of important subjects.

The prime minister also admirably grabs the attention span of his compatriots by being hyperactive on the social media about his government’s policies and achievements. The surgical strikes on Pakistan, the fact that India’s poverty rate has declined, that it has become a space power (Mission Shakti), that electricity has reached every village,  and the launch of Ayushman Bharat, the world’s largest health-insurance scheme, are examples of achievements that have been promoted aggressively and extensively through this medium.

And we should not forget that social media also serve as a medium for campaigns like Swachh Bharat, Digital India and the more recent Main Bhi Chowkidar. At times it is tacit, but more often than not it is forced. It works either way.

As for his government’s policies, suffice it to say that while Modi can be applauded for making an attempt … how one wishes time had been invested in doing ample research prior to their execution.

To put it bluntly, most of the government’s major initiatives have been derivatives of successful models of other countries. However, what works elsewhere need not necessarily work in India, considering its huge size, tremendous population, diversity and infrastructural challenges.

The dreaded demonetization, for example, may have been a great idea but had a flawed execution.

Introduced on November 8, 2016, with the demonetization of 500- and 1,000-rupee notes, the initiative suffered a major setback when the Reserve Bank of India in its annual report said that 99.3% of total banned notes had returned to the banking system, indicating that the government’s shock move to deal a body blow to black money hasn’t worked as desired.

The government and its affiliates either didn’t realize or ignored the fact that there were neither enough notes of a lesser denomination to make up for the lack of currency nor enough equipment to print that many alternatives in such short time. It is imperative to mention that digital payments are still in a nascent stage in India, so much so that cash transactions are back in vogue.

Likewise, the goods and services tax (GST), implemented at a time when the country was still recovering from the blow of demonetization, was no doubt a well-intentioned initiative aimed at bringing all the existing indirect taxes under one umbrella. However, the repeated subsequent tweaks not only highlighted its complicated structure but also revealed its shortcomings, indicating that a lot remains to be done before it can be successfully implemented.

Ditto for the “Make in India” initiative.

For a country that is habitually risk-averse, and diligently follows the tried and tested (read successful) formula, Modi’s Make in India seemed a blessing in disguise. It promised more investments, more industry and more employment.

However, after the initial brouhaha, it is making slow progress. According to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the unemployment rate in India was 7.2% in February, the highest since September 2016.

Another CMIE report released in January indicated nearly 11 million people lost their jobs in 2018 after the demonetization in late 2016 and the chaotic launch of the GST in 2017, which hit millions of small businesses.

In fact, according to the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), which is yet to be made public by the government (but was leaked), India’s unemployment rate rose to its highest level in 45 years in 2017-18.

Considering its ever-increasing population, unemployment and a glaring disparity of income will be major issues as India steps into the next decade.

All these factors have had implications no doubt, with the ruling party suffering reverses in multiple state elections. It has also supplied the requisite fodder to the opposition. While addressing a rally, Indian National Congress president Rahul Gandhi was categorical in his assessment.

“Clearly, there is a feeling that PM Modi was unable to deliver what he committed. When PM Modi was elected, he was elected on platforms like employment, corruption. Now, voters are disillusioned,” he told reporters.

“Frankly, Narendra Modi taught me the lesson – what not to do. PM Modi was handed a huge opportunity. It is a sad thing that he refused to listen to the heartbeat of the country. The arrogance came in.”

Gandhi may have a point. However, it is also a fact that the ineffective coalition led by his party was a major reason that gave the NDA a majority in 2014. At the same time, Congress didn’t even have the numbers to stake a claim at being the opposition. And in all these years the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has done little to bolster their credentials as a cohesive and qualitative opposition.

In fact, the upcoming election is probably the most pointless in the history of India. Even as the country goes to the polls, most are aware of the outcome, with the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor looming large.

Needless to say, the incumbents are confident of returning to power. Another five years …

However, this impending re-election also means the one major issue – pertaining to the growing intolerance that needs to be seriously looked into – will instead be conveniently brushed under the carpet again.

Its liberal ideals notwithstanding, India has always been a nation that doesn’t take to criticism very kindly, even if it is of the constructive kind. A right-wing government has ensured that the intolerance level has gone up several notches. Truth be told, the government has taken no countermeasures whatsoever.

As such, while a majority of the media has conveniently become a mouthpiece for government propaganda, the remaining minority prefers to play it safe, diluting opinion pieces for fear of a backlash.

So much so that yours truly, still pondering whether his optimism of 2014 was really worth it, has to turn to a foreign publication. Because in the national media an opinion piece will either be significantly toned down or not published at all.

Reality bites – but it has to be accepted.

Bikash Mohapatra

An alumnus of East-West Center, India-based Bikash Mohapatra has been an integrated communication specialist, a strategist, a consultant and a media professional. On top of that varied experience, he believes that 15 years of travel has taught him more than his two master's degrees.

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