Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Narendra Modi’s midlife blues

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Column in Business Standard, August 12, 2016

It’s a tough weekend for Narendra Modi. He’s been in firefighting mode all summer: Dousing the flames in Kashmir, stemming the vicious attacks on Dalits by gau rakshaks, replacing a chief minister in Gujarat, shutting up motormouths like Subramaniam Swamy and giving the RBI’s outgoing governor, Raghuram Rajan, a tepid send-off.

Parliament’s just-concluded monsoon session was a mix of the good, the bad and the indifferent, its sole bright spot being the passage of the long-simmering GST Bill, counterpointed by blinkered statements by Home Minister Rajnath Singh such as: “Let us join hands to make Kashmir a heaven.”

The prime minister will be scribbling – if not scrabbling -hard for some new points that could find purchase in his Red Fort address on Monday. That he’s inviting suggestions from the public on what to say – another vaunted example of e-governance – also suggests that his bounce to the ramparts is beginning to drag. If the life of elected leaders is measured in five-year terms, Narendra Modi is hitting midlife blues.

Many of the public schemes he announced in his two previous talkathons – Swachh Bharat, Beti Bachao, Jan Dhan – are limping miserably. Public toilets are scarce or stink or languish, waterless, in village schools – and nowhere near the figure of 111 million conjured up by the government in 2014. Mountains of rotting garbage at street corners lie hostage to corrupt, city municipalities unable to implement clean, cost-efficient waste management. These failures are a slap in the face of Mr Modi’s Clean India campaign. His defensiveness was apparent at the first town hall last week, held at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium in New Delhi, to show off, CEO-style, MyGov.in, the government-citizen portal. Like all Mr Modi-style events – orchestrated stagecraft and vetted questions – the prime minister dripped sarcasm at AAP and non-BJP governments. It was a fashion, he said, to blame even problems at the panchayat or municipal level on the doorstep of the prime minister. “It might be good for politics and television ratings but it wasn’t good for governance.” This is rich, coming from a prime minister scoring points on social media and instant public communication via heart-to-heart radio chats.

Rapists stalk the big-city and small-town streets. As for millions of bank accounts for the poor, or putting Rs 15,000 in every pocket by bringing back black money stashed abroad, what the public sees is public sector banks groaning under corporate debt and bailed out by thousands of crores of taxpayers’ money. Big defaulters like Vijay Mallya and Subrata Roy are abroad, or out on bail, but their allegedly ill-gotten millions are a long way from being reclaimed.

The government’s one effort to clean up the black-money economy is hurting a major growth area – the housing and real estate market – so hard that it is now a source of widespread middle-class angst. Property prices have plunged, the worst depreciation of up to 30 per cent occurring in metropolitan suburbs and smaller cities. For most homeowners a roof to call their own is their primary investment and lifetime cushion. To see this saving being eroded is cause for anxiety and alienation.

Instead the national discourse has been hijacked by cow vigilantes and beef bans, flimsy pretexts for unabated violence by Hindu zealots against Dalits and Muslims. For someone adept at the use of social media and the power of gratuitous one-on-one chitchats, Mr Modi’s responses to such atrocities have been far from instantaneous. When they have come – as at the town hall meet – they are delayed, defensive and overly dramatic. “Shoot me if you want but not my Dalit brothers,” he exhorted at the prospect of huge collateral damage in three big state elections that loom next year.

But Narendra Modi, the new-found saviour of Dalits, is not the same as the Rock Star Modi of performance arenas like Madison Square Garden and Wembley Stadium of yore. He has put his foreign jaunts on pause. It has been sombrely announced that he will not be attending the UN General Assembly next month but will send his popular foreign minister (whose tweets on broken refrigerators and cars are funnier because they are considered and concise).

In one respect Mr Modi is a victim of his make-believe world – the virtual reality of the digital world which enforces a false intimacy but in fact enlarges the distance between leader and elector.

Since he’s invited the public for suggestions for his Red Fort speech, here are my two-paise bits. Don’t make it long and cut out the histrionics. Don’t offer more schemes, but solutions. Be graceful about your government’s errors and shortcomings. Forget the fancy turbans and flourishes. It’s time to batten down the hatches and face up to midlife blues.

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