One of the most heart-wrenching images on the eve of this year’s Independence Day celebrations was that of an old soldier, with an array of war medals dangling from his torn shirt, weeping in anger and shame because he had been manhandled by policemen wielding canes and lathis. He was just one of dozens of battle-scarred military veterans who have been peacefully protesting in the heart of the Indian capital against the inexplicable delay in implementing the ‘One Rank One Pension’ (OROP) policy.
Another astonishing visual was that of a hitherto unknown 22-year-old youth leading public rallies by half a million members of the Patel community in the Prime Minister’s home State of Gujarat, to demand inclusion in the quota system for government jobs and school admissions. Television footage showed uniformed policemen smashing the windshields of parked cars with their lathis, and demonstrators setting buses and even police stations on fire. Earlier, there were tumultuous scene in the Indian Parliament as well as agitations by farmers, labour unions, and even students of a film institute. Leading industrialists have begun voicing concern over the slow pace of economic reforms and the slow growth of the economy.
Fifteen months after coming into power, the Narendra Modi government is finding the going tougher than expected. With each passing week new problems and predicaments seem to crop up making it all the more difficult to cope with.
On the economic front, there is no certainty that the volatility in global markets will not adversely impact India. There is no clarity on whether the erratic monsoon rains will ease the agrarian crisis. There is no guarantee that banks will get rid of their huge volume of toxic debts aka ‘Non-Performing Assets’ (NPA) any time soon, or that the rupee will stabilize, that sagging exports will look up, that the GST Bill will be passed even if a special session of Parliament is held, that the slump in the housing market will perk up soon, that the flight of foreign capital will be reversed, that onion prices will fall.
National security is also under strain. There is no sign of guns falling silent on the borders. The threat of terrorist attacks continues to loom large. Yet another round of peace talks with Pakistan has collapsed. The list of negatives is seemingly long. Reassuring statements by official spokespersons that all is well and the nation will soon be on the move again are beginning to sound increasingly unconvincing. The strategy of blaming the previous government for all the ills of today is proving less and less effective. And pointed questions are beginning to be asked.
Is there a discord between the Reserve Bank and the Finance Ministry ? If not, why is the interest rate not being reduced in spite of historically low oil import prices ? How else can business and industry get the kick-start it badly needs ?
Where are the much-promised infrastructure projects and the ‘Make in India’ investments ? And where are the millions of promised jobs ?
What is the Patidar Patel stir all about ? Do they really want reservations or is this some devious strategy to try to scrap the reservation policy altogether ? Is a young man barely out of college really the sole leader or are other political forces behind the surprising impact of the agitation ? Why is this upper caste revolt taking place in Gujarat ? Is Chief Minister Anandiben not a Patidar Patel herself? Does the Finance Minister Saurabhbhai also not belong to the same caste and community ? Is that not true of the Health Minister and the Energy Minister as well ?
Is the famous Gujarat model of development not working ? Then why is it that Hardik Patel is claiming that small and medium traders and entrepreneurs in Gujarat are being suffocated under the government’s Vibrant Gujarat policy that favours only mega industrial houses and big global investors and multi-national corporations ? If the Gujarat model doesn’t really work in Gujarat, will it work in the rest of the country ?
It is almost as if 15 months after occupying the Prime Minister’s chair, Narendra Modi seems to have realized that implementation of ideas and policies is the most difficult thing to achieve in a country of India’s size, diversity and internal pulls and pushes. There are just too many people, too many castes and creeds and religions, too many States and too much income disparity. And too many vested interest groups and even too much politics, corruption and greed.
Even though nobody in ruling party circles has openly admitted it till now, realization is also dawning among Ministers and party leaders alike that the previous Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, did not do too badly after all during his decade-long tenure. If he looked indecisive and even disinterested during the second half of his second term it was probably because he was unable to cope with the complexities of running the country and convinced himself that India could, perhaps, be ungovernable under the present democratic system.
One-fourth of the Modi government’s term of 60 months has elapsed. Voices of dissatisfaction are beginning to be heard. At least some of those who had enthusiastically supported Modi in April-May 2014 are now beginning to have second thoughts. There are signs of a gradual but unmistakable change in the mood of various sections of the citizenry. Whether it is army veterans pleading in vain for one rank one pension, or peasants and farmers worried about reforms that will lead to forcible acquisition of their land, or captains of industry openly voicing their impatience, or students in premier educational institutes fearing cultural imposition, of higher caste youth even in his own home State of Gujarat holding surprisingly aggressive public demonstrations.
The response from government and ruling party leaders has largely been to either ignore such public outcries or to downplay them as little more than minor eruptions of protest from isolated vested interest groups. But public opinion is by nature fickle. Goodwill has the potential to evaporate overnight. Not paying heed to early warning signals could be counter-productive.