There seems to be a clear pattern between the multiple pandemics that India is facing today and the paradox in the prime minister’s personality. Before going any further, let me state two points. First, by pandemic, I am referring in a broad sense of the term to a crisis that affects the whole of India and has the capability of inflicting heavy mortal or moral destruction in both the short and long term. Second, my focus should have ideally been on the whole National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government but I am restricting it to the prime minister. This is because Prime Minister Modi is the strongest head of the state that we have seen in decades and no colleague of his in the government comes even close to match his stature. This leads to the prime minister’s absolute control over every policy of the government.
Prime Minister Modi’s admirers respect him for what his detractors concede as well—he is a self-made man. He is also someone who has come from the grassroots and always has his fingers on the nerve of the public opinion. Rising within the ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), he has an admirable ability of continuously working hard. There is another quality in his personality. Just listen to any of his speeches, and one will find a common theme—he always talks about small things connected to daily life and how his government is weaving policies around that. The list is long but includes abolishing open defecation, distributing sanitary pads, solid waste management, organic farming, electricity and gas connection for the poor, khadi, roads and highways, yoga, dogs, among many others. With his acute understanding of the life of the poor and his vast wealth of knowledge about every part of India, one would imagine that his government’s policies would surely be in-depth and on the mark. After all, he proclaimed as the prime ministerial candidate that he has spent at least a night in every district of the country. However, herein lies the Narendra Modi paradox: despite his love and talk of small details, he is great at event-management but rather lacking in administrative minutiae. Perhaps he never digested the maxim: the devil is in the details.
The first pandemic facing India is, of course, the epidemiological pandemic—COVID-19. India moved swiftly to enforce a lockdown for containing the pandemic. However, in the shock therapy that the prime minister wanted to give the patient by announcing the lockdown at a notice of only four hours, millions of migrant workers’ lives were devastated. The grand show of enforcing a strict and complete lockdown without pondering over the huge amount of internal migration in India was a big catastrophe. Later, multiple lockdowns proved incapable of halting the spread of this pandemic in the country. While most nations in Europe and across the world have successfully bent the curve or are on the path of doing so, India is about to become the nation with the second-highest tally of coronavirus positive cases. Truly, the next slogan of the Modi government can well be, “America First, but India Second. You are welcome!”
The second pandemic India is facing today is the financial pandemic—Economic Recession. The present state of the country’s economy is worse it has been since Independence. Unemployment is at an all-time high while the last quarter’s GDP growth rate was close to negative 24%! Yes, a part of it is due to COVID-19. But, it was not as if the nation was able to bend the curve at the cost of self-inflicting a huge economic loss. Importantly, the economy was already on the decline from more than a year before COVID-19. The shock and surprise of Demonetisation that the prime minister gave to the nation on November 8, 2016, inflicted a wound from which the economy has not healed yet. Again, this is another example of suddenly bringing a new policy without pondering over the details. Almost all of the cash came back to the banks and thus no black money was ceased. Additionally, the cash circulation today is back at the pre-Demonetisation level and thus no “Cashless India” has yet taken birth. The only ones who gained from Demonetisation were the rich who found loopholes to convert their black money into white.
The government failed yet again with the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST). A big event at the Central Hall of the Parliament was organized to launch the GST as if it was a major anniversary of India becoming independent for which such events are usually reserved. “One-nation One-Tax” was an attractive slogan but instead what we received when reading the details were multiple tax slabs and a convoluted set of rules beyond the understanding of a small business owner. The details were again overlooked and now the states are justly demanding the government that they should be compensated as had been promised to them earlier. The mismanagement of GST was another destructive wound. Surely there were people in the Ministry of Finance to alert the prime minister but who had the temerity to dare say something adverse to the almighty Ceasar?
The third pandemic afflicting India currently is a defense pandemic—the standoff with China. From the past few years, Prime Minister Modi actively approached China with what has been called “Summit Diplomacy.” These one to one summits between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping were aimed at enhancing mutual trust between the two nations. Clearly, this repeated show of “all is well, let’s pose for pictures and eat samosa” has failed. These summits have been all gigs and no substance. The news channels were always gaga over the photos they showed from these summits without questioning what exactly transpired during the conversation between the two leaders or if anything tangible in writing came out these summits. Too much reliance on personal diplomacy by the prime minister without following it in the details through his diplomats is the failure we are dealing with in Ladakh. The sad situation today is that our defence minister is going to Russia on a second visit in three months to urgently acquire more weapons. But, perhaps my assessment is entirely wrong since as per the joke these days, “Modiji ne kiya to kuchh sochke hi kiya hoga.”
The fourth pandemic facing India is the least visible (literally) but may prove in the long run to be the most catastrophic of all—the ecological destruction. Our cities are crowded and full of slums. We cannot even guarantee clean air for our young generation. The government talks of planting trees and cleaning Ganga, but at the same time it produced the draft of the Environmental Impact Assessment with many regressive measures. The government has not yet replied to the objections raised by many environmentalists. This is the same response as it had when the prime minister had proudly unveiled the Char Dham Pariyojana on the high mountains in Uttarakhand. No oversight was maintained and no Environmental Impact Assessment was carried out for the project. I am personally a witness to the catastrophic damage that this project has done to the Himalayas. Now an 800-page report has been submitted by a committee of experts to the Supreme Court detailing the vast amount of destruction that this project has inflicted. Imagine an India without the Himalayas. Yes, you cannot because it simply cannot exist. But, of course, our almighty never-failing prime minister would never accept it (literally) as a “Himalayan Blunder” just like the father of our nation did once for one of his blunders.
This is a time when all socially and politically aware citizens of the nation should contemplate over where the nation is headed. I want to ask my generation if this is what we imagined growing up when we used to think about the grand vision of 2020? Is it alright if amidst all these pandemics, our debates are today reduced to the death of Sushant Singh Rajput or discussions of Hindu-Muslim enmity? The prime minister knows his politics very well and may continue to win elections but the Narendra Modi Paradox of missing the details even after exemplary political sensibility is causing much (perhaps lasting) damage to our society, our democracy, our nation.