As Narendra Modi completes his second year in office, he must be aware that he is not quite the success he expected to be.
It is not only the jibes by Reserve Bank governor Raghuram Rajan about being the one-eyed king in a land of the blind or the unflattering comparisons with Casanova and Machiavelli by a former BJP minister, Arun Shourie, which must be galling to someone who has never taken kindly to criticism.
But the “maut ka saudagar” (merchant of death), an earlier taunt by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, probably feels that the next three years of his term will go by too quickly before he can recover the momentum of 2014.
Why he lost the momentum is something which he has to consider. Is it his inability to push ahead faster with the reforms which is responsible ? Or is it his failure to rein in all the Hindutva hotheads and not just a few like Yogi Adityanath and Sakshi Maharaj which hurts him ?
Modi’s supporters may reject the comments about intolerance in India by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) as biased. But such observations do not enhance his stature at home or abroad.
Although Modi’s approval rating remains high – around 70 per cent – it is well known that he gains from the TINA (there is no alternative) factor, for neither Nitish Kumar nor Rahul Gandhi nor Arvind Kejriwal appears capable of taking over in the immediate future.
While Nitish Kumar is trying to consolidate his position (vis-a-vis Laloo Prasad Yadav ?) via measures like prohibition which will cost the Bihar exchequer Rs 4,000 crore per year, Kejriwal can only prove his credentials if he wins a second term.
Rahul Gandhi, on his part, remains a dilettante who is yet to express his views on the economy – socialist or pro-market ? – or on quotas, bans on books, beef, prohibition, gay rights, etc.
Even then, Modi’s uneasiness can be seen from his return to the theme of Sonia’s Italian origin which once used to be the mainstay of the BJP’s propaganda.
That Sonia herself has been somewhat rattled is evident from her tear-jerker of a claim that she may have been born in Italy but will die in India. Her bugbear is the Agusta helicopter scam. Just as the Bofors howitzer affair brought down the government of her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1989, the dark clouds of corruption are again hovering over her and the Congress party’s head.
Indeed, the clouds never went away considering that Manmohan Singh, too, lost his way because he was suspected to be hand-in-glove – willingly or otherwise – with crony capitalists and the crooks among ministers.
It is to harass Sonia with various legal and pseudo-legal tactics that the BJP has nominated its professional trouble-maker, Subramanian Swamy, to the Rajya Sabha.
The mischievous maverick will not only keep targeting the Congress’s first family on the helicopter deal, but also on the affairs of the National Herald, the newspaper founded by Jawaharlal Nehru which is no longer published but owns considerable property.
As the BJP and the Congress engage in shadow boxing, it is difficult to say who will come out on top. The reason is, first, the legal process in India is so dilatory that by the time the verdict is delivered – if at all – the political scene may have become radically different.
For instance, no one knows as yet whether Rajiv Gandhi was the beneficiary in the Bofors deal although he paid a political price for the suspicions about him. It is for this reason that defence minister Manohar Parrikar has said that he will not let the Agusta issue go the Bofors way. But he may have spoken too soon.
The second reason why it is difficult to predict the winner in the BJP-Congress tussle is that much will depend on how the BJP fares in Assam, the only state among those which are going to the polls.
If it wins, it will breathe a sigh of relief. But only for a few days. For Assam in the north-eastern corner of the country is far away from the main centres of political gravity.
On the other hand, a defeat or a failure to get the majority will be a shattering blow for the BJP. It will then have to redouble its efforts to win in U.P. next year. But the chances are not too bright.
For the Congress, too, much depends on how it fares in U.P. To make a fight of it, the party has roped in the electoral whiz kid, Prashant Kishor, who micro-managed Modi’s and Nitish Kumar’s campaigns in 2014 and 2015.
But it will be a miracle if Kishor can refurbish a scam-tainted and ideologically uncertain party led by a feudal family which has lost its earlier popularity.
It will seem, therefore, that the two national parties are essentially losers with nothing going for them. While a recovery of the Congress is out of the question under the present leadership, Modi can turn things around for the BJP if he cracks down hard on the saffron fundamentalists and breathes new life into the economy. But the jury is out about whether he will be able to do so.