Until May this year, things seemed to be going fairly well for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He sailed off smoothly, riding on the back of a very convincing election victory last year. He has a majority in parliament, a foundation so solid that prime ministers around the world can only dream about it.
And he retains it until the next election. In addition to the majority in parliament, his election victory gave him a mandate from large sections of society to carry out new reforms. Even reforms that had not been part of the election campaign.
The campaign Swachh Bharat, “Clean India,” for example, received broad public support, even from members of the opposition. And his call to the country’s bureaucrats, to be in office early and get the files moving, was met with loud cheers and applause.
But now, finally, things don’t seem so rosy anymore. It has been pointed out, over the summer months, that Modi does not deliver on economic reforms. Business leaders who were his warmest admirers express themselves now in cooler terms. The economic reforms many hoped he would deliver on are still waiting.
And on the foreign relations front, the optimistic belief that Modi would constitute a new source of energy, bringing about a long-awaited rapprochement between India and Pakistan, evaporated early, although a little hope remains. That hope was effectively killed during last month’s shootings across the border.
Then, the man himself. The speech he gave on August 15 last year was sparkling and was greeted with enthusiasm. Modi’s conspicuously colourful turban, his confident attitude, and the ideas he expressed thrilled even his opponents.
This year, however, newspaper comments have been much less enthusiastic. His turban was much less colourful, his speech ordinary, almost drab, as in Manmohan Singh's days, and it was empty of exciting initiatives. His speech was just an ordinary review of government policies and an invitation to support it.
And now? There is steady firing across the line of control in Kashmir, and Pakistan remains a significant foreign policy challenge. At home, the opposition has recovered its composure and continues to fire away at will at the government’s errors.
Rahul Gandhi is self-consciously grabbing popular protest issues; and the campaign to weaken the dynasty by taking on Rahul’s brother-in-law has been side-tracked. In addition, there are the riots in Gujarat, in the state he ruled for over 12 years and where his successors now rule.
The demands behind the riots give rise to much irritation and criticism in the rest of the country. There is no support or any understanding, and the matter reflects badly on the party even if it is not directly involved. And lastly, most recently, trade unions joined forces and launched a strike against a new transport policy. The strike was not convincing, but it was a concerted effort by mainly, rather new, leftist organisations.
In other words, India is now back to “politics as usual.” The first year with Modi’s “Raj” was a bit of an exception, with a prime minister who was extraordinarily popular and inspired high hopes among large parts of the population. Today, he is a prime minister just as any other prime minister, with good and bad qualities, caught in the political web which he himself, to some extent, helped spin.
One would need broad shoulders and a lot of courage to want to change India’s deep economic and political structures. Modi had that, but he needed friends and allies and people to work with him. And the further out from the prime minister’s office, the clearer it is.
His party and the administrative apparatus he is part of, and his monied friends, are all part of wide networks reaching across different and contradictory interests. Things will not easily move, and the natural gravity is towards the middle.