Have you noticed the bitterness with which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been speaking at public meetings of late, including the one in Kanpur in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh? The lively, interactive speeches, loaded with blunt humour, with which the PM pulled crowds have given way to scornful outbursts that are loaded with an "I know it all" and "you know nothing" bravado. This has been in evidence ever since people began questioning his rationale for demonetisation. Political scientists say when a leader turns bitter at his people, rebukes them for failing to laud his initiatives, and demands deference instead of offering arguments, his fall is near.
This Prime Minister, who once wore a pinstripe suit with his name stitched 10,000 times on it, is convinced that noise is a good substitute for substance.
You don't need a bunch of economists or opposition leaders to tell you demonetisation has backfired. Modi's and Amit Shah's demeanour say it all. Newspapers a few days ago were littered with reports how Shah lost his cool when the BJP's top state leaders apprised him about the public's anger at the cash crunch. This only serves to illustrate how he and his master want to live in a make-believe world where there is only validation and no questions asked. When leaders react this way, it shows that they have not only lost the plot, but that there is little chance of redemption.
Let us quickly look at how Modi's tall talk on demonetisation fell flat soon after 8 November when it was announced. His apologists claimed that with one masterstroke, he rendered all unaccounted for cash as illegal tender. In reality, a huge proportion of the ₹15 lakh crore cash in denominations of ₹500 and ₹1000 came back into the formal banking system.
The Finance Minister then gave a hurried statement assuring that transferring money to the bank would not whitewash the funds; the tax department would make scrupulous investigations and levy fines in fraudulent cases. Really? Thirty percent of the sanctioned 70,000 posts in the Income Tax department are lying vacant. Where are the resources to do this mammoth scrutiny? Are there enough attorneys to take the black sheep to task?
Understandably, the government scrambled to divert public attention towards building a cashless economy—which was not a part of the original discourse on 8 November. But in a country where only 53% of the population have a bank account, cashless transactions remain a utopian concept. "Modi Antoinette", a sobriquet the PM has earned in social media of late, remains convinced though.
The government claimed demonetisation would stop terror funding. The deadly Nagrota attacks of 29 November, and the Pampore ambush that followed, made a mockery of this claim. Naively, the Centre told the people digitalisation would curb black money. Real world examples suggest otherwise. About 75% of Kenya's adult population makes online transactions for all payments yet the country makes headlines for corruption. Other African countries such as Zimbabwe and Tanzania, too, score poor on the transparency index despite high digital transactions.
When Modi talks of Swachh Bharat and Smart Cities, he is only reading out from the UPA's books, after conveniently changing their cover.
What's even more ironic is that the Modi government is not even prepared to metamorphose India's economy into a cashless one. The Digital India programme is languishing. Of the 100,000 village panchayats planned to be connected to the countrywide optical fibre cable network by March 2016, only 8000 have been actually connected. The target for March 2017 is a mammoth 2.5 lakh village panchayats, a day dream given the current pace.
The problem with this government is the extreme over-confidence of the Prime Minister. This Prime Minister, who once wore a pinstripe suit with his name stitched 10,000 times on it, is convinced that noise is a good substitute for substance. His debatable achievements as Gujarat Chief Minister brought him into the limelight, even as his team worked overnight to stifle voices that claimed the majority of the investments he was credited to have brought to Gujarat never went beyond the paperwork. He secured the country's top job in May 2014.
But jumlas come with an expiry date. Now that he is Prime Minister, people are getting disenchanted with all the talk and no show. He talked about Swachh Bharat, but the country's lanes remain littered. He talked about Namami Gange, but the holy water remains polluted. He talked about yoga, but health spending has been swiftly cut down. He postured about surgical strikes, but a record 64 soldiers were killed in 2016, the highest in six years.
A great orator and a great lifter of ideas can create a buzz. But he cannot sustain it.
In a stark contrast to the noisy Modi, Manmohan Singh was a doer. His SEZ Act of 2005 stepped up foreign investment manifold. From rank five in mobile penetration when Vajpayee quit office, India jumped three places by the middle of Dr Singh's term and became second only to China. By expanding the budget of the mid-day meal scheme and emboldening Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, UPA government ensured a giant leap in gross enrollment ratio. NREGA rained jobs. Revolutionary steps in the form of Aadhaar, Land Acquisition Act, GST Bill were envisaged despite BJP creating hurdles. And it may surprise many, it was the UPA's Nirmal Bharat programme and the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission that provided the framework for the sanitation and urbanisation schemes we are seeing today. When Modi talks of Swachh Bharat and Smart Cities, he is only reading out from the UPA's books, after conveniently changing their cover.
And that sums it all up. A great orator and a great lifter of ideas can create a buzz. But he cannot sustain it. In the next two-and-a-half years, the mask can only slip further.