City City Bang Bang, Columns

The anatomy of disenchantment?

Barring the most committed supporters of this government (and this is not a small number), the general feeling, including reportedly within BJP circles, is that the party will not do as well in the next elections as it did last time around. Time will tell, of course, if this fairly commonly held view turns out to be correct or not, but it does reflect the feeling on the ground that the hold that Mr Modi had over the imagination of so many is not quite what it once was.

The core base is rock solid. The connection that this government led by Mr Modi has with this group operates is a visceral one. Having felt delegitimised by all previous regimes including the Vajpayee-led NDA government, this is a set of people that are believers in the truest sense of the word. Their support is not contingent on what the government does but on who it is, and more importantly who it stands against, and hence nothing can shake their sense of belonging.

On the other hand, there were always those that have from the outset been staunch critics of Mr Modi, and this group has only intensified its dislike for his government, and again there is nothing new to report here. It is amongst some of the government’s erstwhile believers that some change is visible, and this is worth studying. Passionate belief has in some cases made way for a more pragmatic preference (who else is better suited to do this job?), while in some others it has led to gradual disillusionment.

Part of the reason for the disenchantment has to do with the expectations that were built up. Revolutionary change was expected by those who voted him in, and four years on, there is a sense that not much has changed, at least not in any fundamental way, nor does it seem to be on the cards. The big experiments of the governments have played out. Demonetisation is by now commonly understood as a disaster. Whatever its immediate electoral benefits might have been, today it is a liability, which is why the party rarely brings it up. Soaring petrol prices and the falling rupee also provide a numerical account of the perceived failure in managing the economy.

In a larger sense, the aura of control, so successfully exuded by the Modi-Shah duo is beginning to crumble. If the Rafale controversy wasn’t bad enough, the turmoil at CBI, and in particular the government’s handling of it paints a picture that is far from the image of ‘everything under tight control under a strong leader’ that the government has tried so hard to project. This is a crucial development, for central to the Modi brand is the aura that exists almost independently of his actions; and it has been created by the image of strength and certainty that he projects. When that gets dented even a little, it carries significant consequences.

Then there is Mr Modi’s silence. As a strategy to stay above the fray, and to apparently engage in the lofty goals of nation-building, while others debate baser issues, it has been quite valuable. But increasingly, this silence is now becoming burdensome, for it suggests that no answers exist. Silence is a potent weapon in the larger context of presumed strength, but when that presumption begins to fade, the same silence begins to signify an absence of control. The government’s belief in its own ability to brazen out any issue, by refusing to acknowledge any possibility of wrong-doing, is beginning to reach a point of dysfunction. The manner in which the decision to back M J Akbar unravelled is a pointer to the limits of the brazen-it-out strategy.

But perhaps the real source of disenchantment lies in the apparent peace that this government made with itself. Its own stance has moved from transformational to justificatory- energies seem to be focused on claiming success in its many branded initiatives and defending its past actions. Its ability to control the media narrative has given it a false confidence in being able to manage various controversies. There is also a vastly diminished presence of the future in its pronouncements, and by inference, in its imagination. To those disappointed by what the government has been able to achieve in 4 years, there seems to be little to look forward to. The agenda does not appear to be unfinished, but forgotten.

For all the talk about New India, the narrative that the government is trying to shape lapses back into the past very frequently. Old animosities, the constant harking back to Nehru, the Patel and Shivaji statues, cultural issues that have little to do with the concerns of the day- if at all the government appears interested, it is in these kinds of questions.

What stands out as unfinished business, and one about the which the government is truly serious, is its Hindutva agenda. This is where the party and its functionaries, major and minor, seem to come alive. By all accounts, in the run-up to 2019, Ayodhya is likely to be the party’s key mobilising instrument. While this issue galvanises the party’s base, it does nothing but increase disquiet amongst its less ideologically inclined supporters.

Disenchantment is a gradual process; the transition from being passionate believers to firm detractors takes place gradually. The first doubts take time to set in, but once they make an appearance, then there is a significant change in the degree to which one is open to observing missteps and flaws. It would be hasty to conclude that this disenchantment, whatever its extent, would necessarily find electoral expression. In the absence of a perceived alternative, Mr Modi might well be preferred even by those disappointed in his government. But the stakes are high even if that happens. The aura around Mr Modi is the party’s biggest asset and it is something that the party cannot afford to lose.

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