The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), given its penchant for headline hunting, might have thought August 2017 was nicely set up. July had ended with the swearing in of a Dalit President and Bihar's return to the National Democratic Alliance fold. The event line-up for August included Venkaiah Naidu's vice presidentship, Narendra Modi's Independence Day address and Amit Shah's Rajya Sabha (RS) entry. Plus, Ahmed Patel's RS bid was almost trumped. In sum, much excitement seemed to have been in store for party loyalists and friendly sections of the media.
August 2017 has served a reminder of how flawed Modi's governance model is, how his choices of policy and personnel are not infallible, and how dissenting voices are not necessarily conspiratorial in intent.
The above did gather headlines but public mindspace, contrary to plan, came to be occupied by other developments that prompted serious questions around the Modi Sarkar's priorities, capacities and methods. So much so that August 2017 could well go down as the month where things finally started unravelling for it.
Here's are some things that happened during the month.
- A spate of rail accidents and mass hospital deaths took place. The hospital deaths were mainly in the BJP-ruled states of Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh (UP).
- Haryana, another BJP-ruled state, saw the BJP state chief's son being accused of stalking a woman. A few weeks later, followers of godman Gurmeet Singh ran amok on the streets protesting his rape conviction.
- A Supreme Court (SC) judgment on the right to privacy was widely interpreted as a setback to the government's Aadhaar push.
- Much-awaited Reserve Bank of India (RBI) data suggested that over 99% of the demonetised currency was back in the banks.
- In other sidelights: Ahmed Patel made it to the RS despite the BJP's considerable exertions; and, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, manoeuvred out of power in Bihar, bounced back with a series of well-attended public events and the Srijan scam.
Apart from these events, the Modi Sarkar has been under fire before as well—for its woeful job creation record, failures on farmers' issues and the internal security front, and ambivalence to Hindutva brigade antics.
So, what makes last month's happenings potential course-changers?
1. The government's misplaced priorities stand exposed
With rail accidents and hospital deaths, the dangers that Modi Sarkar's misplaced priorities pose stood exposed like never before.
Warnings about how damaging the government's experiments could prove had been made with respect to sectors such as education (where history re-writing and nationalist observances have received disproportionate attention) or the economy at large (where small businesses have been at the receiving end of demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax), but their true import couldn't be gauged because the impacts were either too remote in time or not easily linked to government priorities.
The violence against Muslims in BJP-ruled states hasn't always rung the alarm bells it should have, but the rail accidents, hospital deaths, mob violence have legitimately raised fears of a descent into jungle raj...
Both these conditions did not apply to the rail accidents and hospital deaths. The rail accidents came at a time when a bullet train appeared—and still appears—to be the railway's sole preoccupation. In the case of the hospital deaths, the contrast between the BJP government's zeal for cow protection and neglect of human life escaped few minds.
2. The capacities of several of Modi's hand-picked men were called out
While Raghubar Das has "benefited" from being away from the national media glare in Jharkhand, his performance, ground reports suggest, has hardly been inspiring. Suresh Prabhu, drawn into the BJP from the Shiv Sena, had to be ejected from the Railways Ministry, and two other recently appointed BJP chief ministers (CMs) found themselves in the spotlight for the wrong reasons.
The deteriorating law and order situation in UP ever since he became CM and his insensitive reaction to the hospital deaths in the state, have only cemented early doubts about Adityanath's abilities as an administrator. Haryana CM Manohar Lal didn't acquit himself well in handling the aftermath of Gurmeet Singh's conviction. It was the third time in less than three years that Lal had failed to check mob violence in his state, the latest occasion being particularly concerning given evidence that emerged of proximities between the BJP and Gurmeet Singh's Dera Sacha Sauda.
Importantly, between # 1 and # 2 above, the fires of lawlessness and incompetence threatened to singe a wide cross section of the population.
The violence against Muslims in BJP-ruled states hasn't always rung the alarm bells it should have, but the rail accidents, hospital deaths, mob violence in Haryana and UP's mounting rape and murder count have legitimately raised fears of a descent into jungle raj across the social spectrum. Modi's good governance claims suddenly seem to have lost much of their lustre.
3. The SC judgment and RBI data have given credence to anti-government positions
Until recently, the BJP had dismissed criticism of Aadhaar and demonetisation, and pretty much everything else, as motivated, and found support for its line. The SC judgment and the RBI data may not have led to a nuanced appreciation of the many ways in which Aadhaar and demonetisation are anti-people, but carry enough weight to ensure that the BJP's word on these is no longer considered final.
Going forward, the official line may not be as accepted as readily as it has been in the past, and opposition noise won't always be dismissed as habitual naysaying.
On another level, it also means that going forward, the official line may not be as accepted as readily as it has been in the past, and opposition noise won't always be dismissed as habitual naysaying. It is a much needed recalibration.
A change in mood is discernible in several things. In everyday conversations that mock the bullet train project, dismiss Adityanath and Manohar Lal as inexperienced, quip at the desperation to deny Ahmed Patel space in the RS. In Amit Shah's surprising suggestion to not take stuff on social media seriously. In the organic attention Rahul Gandhi's speech at Berkeley has received. In the lukewarm reaction to Modi's New India pitch on Independence Day.
For now, these may just be straws in the wind, but August 2017 has served a reminder to many outside the Modi Sarkar's conventional critics' circle of how flawed its governance model is, how Modi's choices of policy and personnel are not infallible, and how dissenting voices are not necessarily conspiratorial in intent. The opposition will allow the events of August 2017 to be forgotten at its own peril.
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