More than a year ago before he got a huge mandate for a second term in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was asked who was his biggest challenger. He replied: “Modi’s biggest challenger is Modi himself. I have always challenged myself. I have always tried to improve my own performance, and succeeded.” As he completes a year of his second term on May 30, Modi may still think so.
Today, however, the challenges before his government are not so much because of its shortcomings, but because of extraneous factors. Modi needs to overcome these problems to deliver good governance. That said, Modi has traversed a long course — from the 2014 promise of Achche Din (good days) to Aatmanirbhar (self-reliance) in 2020.
Modi is still perceived as a strong leader who is hugely popular. He is bold enough to take hard decisions and plough the lonely furrow—at the same time, he doesn’t hesitate to let go of things that are not relevant anymore.
These are the impressions as Modi completes the first year of his second term — a year which saw momentous acts such as the scrapping of Article 370 that was fodder for separatism and insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir. In one masterstroke, Kashmir was legally and administratively integrated with the rest of India. However, removing Article 370 did not electorally benefit the BJP nor bring an end to the unrest in the Kashmir valley.
In his second tenure, Modi showed firmness when the much-delayed triple talaq law was enacted to free many Muslim women from ill-treating husbands who were unlawfully ending marriages. This legislation came in the face of stiff opposition from non-BJP parties, some of whom valued their vote-banks more than gender equality. Through this legislation the BJP has moved closer to realising a Uniform Civil Code. Through the amendments to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, Modi strengthened India’s anti-terror law.
By the end of 2019, the Supreme Court delivered its judgment which favoured building a temple in Ayodhya at the site where the Babri masjid stood before it was demolished in 1992. The BJP, which has been vocal of this demand for decades, felt vindicated by the verdict.
The passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was another feather in the BJP’s cap with the fast-tracking of the citizenship process for six persecuted minorities from neighbouring Muslim-majority countries. Though Muslims from these countries were not barred from Indian citizenship — and thus the CAA was not discriminatory — opposition parties backed groups that protested against the CAA. The 101-days sit-in protest blocking an arterial road in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh was the biggest anti-CAA protest.
The resultant misconception over the National Population Register (NPR) as a part of the Census 2021 got mixed up with the trauma of the National Register for Citizens (NRC) witnessed in Assam, making it a no gainer in particular for Home Minister Amit Shah.
The anti-CAA protests turned violent in Murshidabad in West Bengal and in Jamia Nagar in Delhi. Events precipitated leading to the Delhi riots in February, in which more than 50 people were killed. The riots came as a big blot in Modi’s five-year-old claim that his tenure was immune from communal rioting, though there were several instances of mob lynching in different parts of the country.
Among the setbacks, the BJP lost elections in Jharkhand and Delhi, and its 30-year-old ally, the Shiv Sena left the NDA to form a coalition government with the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra. The political uncertainty following the elections here ended up denting Modi’s image as the governor was seen as a willing partner to the BJP’s political plans.
A bold economic step taken in the first year of Modi 2.0 was the merger of 10 public sector banks into four big banks. It lead to rationalisation of manpower and cutting down on running costs. However, the Union government’s overall performance got marred by the slowdown in the economy, due to the global economic situation and falling expectations — in spite of two budgets to fix the ailing economy.
As 2020 began, the government’s budget did not embrace big-ticket reforms that would reset the economy. Neither did the middle- and the salaried-class see any encouragement to increase consumption and spending. The government continued to appear to be diagnosing further ways to rectify the slowdown when COVID-19 struck India.
The Centre’s response to the pandemic by and large is commendable. The overall number of infections are going up, but, the strict national lockdown has meant that the growth rate is dipping.
This has enabled authorities to ramp up much-needed hospital facilities, and increase the number of available ventilators and personal protective equipment. So far, India has managed to have one of the lowest fatality rate at 2.87 percent, and some credit on this account belongs to the Centre. The performance of some states, however, has left much to be desired.
More than the disease itself, the unabated reverse exodus of migrants to their homes in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Jharkhand among other states has haunted the central government. The images of hundreds of poor migrant workers trekking, cycling and crammed into buses or trying to board trains to reach their villages is heart-wrenching. The states have largely escaped the blame for not stopping these migrants, and in the process the central leadership under Modi was made out as the villain of the piece.
Modi’s exhortation for an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ as a panacea to the suffering inflicted by COVID-19 did not find favour among those who believed in direct handing out of cash to the migrant workers. Consequently, the details of the package laid out by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman were not appreciated, though they marked first of the bold reforms while avoiding the route of populism and profligacy.
Modi’s focus remains on big reforms, structural changes and in the ease of doing business. His attention is on the BJP’s 75 milestones (enunciated in the 2019 manifesto) that has to be achieved when India turns 75 in 2022.
If Modi can get India to cross these milestones, he holds the key to great possibilities of India’s new growth story once the pandemic is behind us.Shekhar Iyer is former senior associate editor of Hindustan Times and political editor of Deccan Herald. Views are personal.