Narendra modi has become a prisoner of his own politics

Modi sees any retreat as surrender. Sometimes, not surrendering gets you taken hostage.

(Yamraj at India Gate. Illustration by Orijit Sen)

The ten years the Congress was in power, leading the UPA coalition, it used to be quick in making people resign to diffuse any scandal. Yet no resignation seemed to stem the political decline of UPA-2. Au contraire, the government only looked weaker for it. It looked like the government was pleading guilty and asking for forgiveness.

In the Modi-Shah system, firing people is rare. Even rarer is Modi going back on something because he is pressured to do so by the media or opposition. And apologising? Out of the question. 

In 2013-14, a section of the media was after Modi to apologise for the 2002 riots but Modi refused to do it. He would only have looked weaker for it, and liberals wouldn’t have forgiven him either.

Rare retreats

The incidents when Modi has made a retreat are so rare you can count them on your fingertips. There was the first act, amendments he wanted to make to the land acquisition law, which he dropped after Rahul Gandhi said Modi’s was a suit-boot ki sarkar. Since then, Modi hasn’t dropped any law. He enacts them through ordinance or last-minute surprise in parliament, causing a furore. If the public reaction makes the law untenable, he just doesn’t issue rules, putting the law in abeyance. Technically, nobody can say Modi’s gone back on CAA or the farm laws. They’re just not being implemented. 

When a junior minister, MJ Akbar, faced sexual harassment charges from a number of women journalists, the Modi government tried to hold off on sacking Akbar for many days. Eventually they had to do it only because the headlines won’t go away. The Himachal BJP chief was sacked recently on corruption charges, the Uttarakhand chief minister was changed because MLAs threatened revolt. 

Surrender is suicide 

These exceptions only prove the rule. Even as BJP chief ministers get low popularity ratings, they are not changed. Be it ML Khattar in Haryana, Vijay Rupani in Gujarat, Biplab Deb in Tripura — nobody is a liability for Modi and the BJP. Be it Sadhvi Pragya’s statements against Mahatma Gandhi or Devendra Fadnavis’ nephew getting an out of turn vaccination, nobody seems to have to pay a price. The economy may keep sliding but the finance minister won’t be changed. A Covid second wave may wreak havoc on Modi’s image but the health minister won’t be fired. Yogi Adityanath can oversee an incident like Hathras that threatens Modi’s Dalit outreach but he won’t be changed. Any sacking, any change, would be an acknowledgement of error. It would amount to capitulation. 

The Modi playbook doesn’t allow for capitulation. That makes him look weak. Not retreating makes him look strong. It makes people say, ‘Look how powerful he is, he gets away with so much’. He gets away with demonetisation and a poor implementation of GST, he gets away with unemployment and with hiding away an unemployment report, he gets away with rising fuel prices and with migrant labour dying while walking back home, thousands of kilometres. He gets away because he makes sure he doesn’t buckle under pressure and  finds a scapegoat. He doesn’t stand before reporters to offer a poor explanation. He just moves on to the next jazzy slogan. 

Sometimes you need to surrender 

Yet, Modi has now become a prisoner of his own politics. The idea that one must never come across as surrendering, is behind the crisis he finds himself in with the second wave of Covid. 

As the media and opposition demanded Modi to suspend rallies in West Bengal, he just wouldn’t do it. When people are worrying about Covid spreading through rally crowds, he was praising the size of the crowds. The least he could have done was to not extol the size of the crowd, but then he does it in every rally. In every election rally Modi says this is the biggest crowd ever, like Apple describes every new iPhone as the best iPhone ever. It’s Modi’s way of creating an election hawa for the BJP, so why should he not do it just because a few liberals are screaming about Covid? 

The SARS-COv-2 pathogen is not as predictable as our politicians. The cases and deaths started rising so fast, like a street dog who comes charging at you slyly and bites you from behind. Modi was sure the dog won’t bite because 1.6 lakh deaths wasn’t considered a dog bite. It was considered an achievement.

Modi needed to cut his losses, cancel his rallies for the fifth phase of the West Bengal election. But doing what critics want him to do would be conceding, retreating, capitulating, surrendering. And surrender is suicide. Doesn’t go with the logic of power. 

Yet Modi had to surrender anyway, because power ultimately needs the legitimacy of public opinion.

It was the same with the Kumbh in Haridwar, it was the same with opening up vaccination for 18+ people. The mutant forms of the virus have also upended Modi’s standard playbook. 

This time it’s different

Modi continues to make this mistake with the Central Vista redevelopment. It is clear that the making of a new capital for Modi’s vanity is not going to look good as Covid ravages India for many months ahead. But Modi’s script says he can’t let his critics have their way. It’s bad enough that Rahul Gandhi gets to say Modi is following his advice on Covid. If Modi retreats now on Central Vista, who will think of him as all-powerful? And if Modi doesn’t appear all powerful, how will we say there is nobody to replace him? How will anyone say ‘Aayega to Modi hi’? How will the leader appear invincible, inevitable? 

Yet this time, Modi is over-estimating his playbook. It’s not a lynching or a riot. It’s not one man lynched or even 1,000. This time it’s much, much bigger. And a new house for the prime minister, a new parliament to show off, a new row of government offices is not going to make Modi look powerful. It won’t have the legitimacy of public opinion. If we are still having elections, that will matter.

India should revert its citizenship laws to Jus Soli – citizenship by birth

[This article first appeared in ThePrint on 2 January 2020.]

We have all heard of NRI families who consciously choose to have their baby in the United States so that the child is automatically a US citizen from day one. For this ‘privilege’ of jus soli, or citizenship by birth, NRIs must thank this man:


In 1857, when Indians were mutinying against the British Raj, Dred Scott was a slave in the United States who appealed to the US Supreme Court for his freedom and that of his family. The US Supreme Court ruled that African Americans like him were not US citizens, even if they were born in the US and lived all their lives there, in slavery.

Read more.

How Narendra Modi uses narrative as a political tool to retain his voters and win over new ones

(This essay has appeared in the July 2019 issue of the journal ‘Seminar‘ under the title ‘Modi was the message’.)

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Narendra Modi’s use of narrative as a political tool is akin to how a versatile batsman plays cricket. He can deal with any kind of ball thrown at him, exploiting opportunities to score sixes and warding off threats to remain on the pitch. Continue reading “How Narendra Modi uses narrative as a political tool to retain his voters and win over new ones”

Why BJP will rule India uninterrupted for the next 30 years, till 2049

(This article first appeared in ThePrint on 5 June 2019.)

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In a job interview, the hiring manager decided to put the candidate at ease with small talk. He asked the candidate, what’s your favourite fruit? Considering it is the season of mangoes, surely you like mangoes?

Instead of giving a simple answer, the candidate replied, “I do Vipassana”. The manager was flummoxed. What’s Vipassana got to do with any fruit? Continue reading “Why BJP will rule India uninterrupted for the next 30 years, till 2049”

In UP’s Unnao, voters back a BJP MP who curses and insults them, never shows his face and does no work

Sakshi Maharaj

By Shivam Vij for ThePrint.in, 30 April 2019 Continue reading “In UP’s Unnao, voters back a BJP MP who curses and insults them, never shows his face and does no work”

In Uttar Pradesh, the third Modi wave is as strong as 2014 and 2017

By Shivam Vij

(This article first appeared in ThePrint on 15 March 2019.)

Phulpur/Jaunpur: There’s a lot that has changed in eastern Uttar Pradesh since 2014. Thanks to the Ardh Kumbh Mela, the government has laid out the best roads. On either side of these shiny new roads, stray cows chew away farmers’ fragile incomes. Smartphones are now ubiquitous. Yet, there’s one thing that has not changed: The popularity of Narendra Modi. Continue reading “In Uttar Pradesh, the third Modi wave is as strong as 2014 and 2017”

Why The BJP Can’t Pretend Bihar Isn’t A Turning Point

(First published in HuffPo, 16 November 2015.)

Home minister Rajnath Singh, himself a former president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, has this to say on the BJP’s resounding defeat in Bihar: “Victory and defeat are part of the democratic process. We had won elections in the past, we had lost elections in the past. We will not do justice to future if we decide future only on the basis of one elections.”

The top leadership of the BJP is playing down the Bihar defeat. The opponents came together, they say. We lost to their caste arithmetic. It’s just one election. We still got a good vote-share. Continue reading “Why The BJP Can’t Pretend Bihar Isn’t A Turning Point”

After travelling hundreds of kilometres in Bihar, a reporter’s diary on why Modi lost

(First published in Quartz, 8 November 2015.)

Patna, Bihar

Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has lost a key, prized state election in Bihar. His party’s alliance had done stupendously well in the state in the general elections in 2014, winning three-fourths of the seats. But, in the state elections, the incumbent tied up a better coalition.

The BJP had hoped to transform its 2014 victory into a 2015 win in a state that it has never directly ruled. They had hoped that the Modi government’s performance would be appreciated and applauded by voters in the state, who would thus reward them with a chance at the state level, too.

This has not turned out to be the case. The BJP told voters that the same party ruling the centre and the state would be ideal for Bihar’s development. But voters have clearly rejected the idea, giving the incumbent alliance a two-thirds majority. Why?

Travelling hundreds of kilometres to different corners of Bihar this election, I met many voters expressing disenchantment with the Modi government. Referendum is a strong word, but voters were clear in judging the BJP’s campaign with its performance so far at the centre.

Voters complained, most of all, of food inflation. Thanks to falling oil prices, overall inflation has been under control since Modi became India’s prime minister. But rising prices of certain food products have pushed the retail inflation higher in the last few months. In the middle of the campaign, the prices of arhar dal—split red legume—shot through the roof, becoming a campaign issue.

Voters also complained that the Modi government had reduced funds in social welfare schemes, particularly the Indira Awas Yojana, a scheme to help build pucca houses for the rural poor. They were also unhappy over funds drying up in a rural employment guarantee programme and a food subsidy programme, as well as reduction of the minimum support price for farmers.

“Modi is good for the country. Perhaps he is good for the cities. But he is not good for the villages,” said a wealthy farmer in West Champaran, near the India-Nepal border.

Taking the government’s focus away from poverty alleviation programmes is an article of faith for Modi’s government. When his key aide, Amit Shah, took over as president of the BJP, he said in his acceptance speech:

“We have to understand that the entire emphasis of the Congress-UPA government was on entitlement-based policies. They believed in entitlement first and empowerment later. In our thinking, empowerment has to come first and entitlement would naturally follow. We do believe that people have right to good governance. But more importantly, first and foremost it is the duty of the government to give good governance. Using rights as a vote catching gimmick is just unacceptable to us. We believe that neither framing of an act nor an agitation by the people is required for them to get their rights. It is our considered opinion that we have to create conditions in such a manner that people automatically get their rights.”

The unequivocal response from Bihar’s voters is that the Modi government needs to rethink this formulation of entitlement versus empowerment.

There were many voters across castes, and even some Muslims, who said they had voted for Modi in the 2014 general elections, partly because they needed to oust the Congress government, and partly because Modi showed them hope. Now, they said, they were losing hope. Voters expressing this sentiment insisted that they didn’t care about caste.

Even those who said they were voting for the BJP again, who came mainly from the upper castes, said that food inflation was a problem. Meanwhile, they struggled to name Modi’s biggest achievement as prime minister. “He has improved India’s stature before the world,” they said, and soon became defensive about the prime minister’s frequent foreign trips.

It can easily be said that the Bihar results are a reflection on Modi’s government in New Delhi, because Modi himself campaigned extensively in Bihar, telling voters about his achievements as prime minister so far. He spoke, for instance, of signing up hydropower projects with neighbouring Nepal and Bhutan, which would bring electricity to Bihar. He also spoke of the Jan Dhan Yojana, an effort at banking inclusion, which has so far given bank accounts to 190 million citizens for the first time.

However, poor voters complained that they had queued to sign up for the bank accounts under the impression that they would get money from the Modi government into those accounts. The impression was fed further by the opposition parties, who went around Bihar showing voters a video of Modi from the 2014 campaign. In the video, Modi was seen telling voters that they could get Rs15 lakh ($22,700) each if he managed to bring back India’s black money stashed abroad.

It is important to consider the points voters across Bihar have told me. For the next few days, there will be a lot of commentary on the Bihar results, on the arithmetic of caste and religion, on personality clashes and vote share percentages, but most will miss the voice of the electorate.

Here’s why Modi gets away with his gaffes, while Rahul Gandhi gets called Pappu

By Shivam Vij for ThePrint.in, 27 August 2018

There’s a clip of a Narendra Modi speech that made the rounds of social media recently, where the Prime Minister is talking about converting foul gas coming from a sewer into fuel. The statement became such a butt of jokes that the BJP and its supporters on social media were forced to counter it. Continue reading “Here’s why Modi gets away with his gaffes, while Rahul Gandhi gets called Pappu”

How Narendra Modi avoids the ‘India Shining’ trap

[This article first appeared in ThePrint on 22 February 2018.]

One of the reasons for the defeat of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA coalition in 2004 was the election slogan: “India Shining”. Instead, a better slogan would have been “India Rising”, as L.K. Advani later admitted.

There’s a fundamental problem in politicians trumpeting their success and saying “I did it”. Once the story is over, the audience moves on to something else. It looks for other, newer stories.

A successful election slogan doesn’t seek to end the story but keeps you hooked to it. When a movie ends, you don’t even wait to see the credits before you get up and leave. But a TV series ends with some suspense that makes you want to watch the next episode. That is also how successful politicians present their work. Continue reading “How Narendra Modi avoids the ‘India Shining’ trap”