Few people expected that the
Narendra Modi government would begin to implode less than halfway through its
five-year term. The denouement came on Independence Day when the prime minister
in a throwaway comment at the end of his stultifying 90-minute speech, said,
"I am grateful to the people of Balochistan, Gilgit and PoK who have
thanked me in the past few days. If people of Balochistan thank me, they are
thanking the 125 crore Indians."
The remark provoked an outcry among
the community of foreign policy experts, Modi was accused of reversing an
age-old Indian position: do not meddle in the internal affairs of Pakistan.
Delhi’s line has been to brand their
involvement in Kashmir as interference that is illegal and disruptive of
regional peace. The Independence Day speech was labelled a shocking
demonstration of foreign policy heresy, especially when you consider the nuclear
First off the block in response was
Salman Khurshid, former external affairs minister: "Is Balochistan a part
of India? Doesn’t India believe in Panchsheel? Is it not a departure from
that?" By raising Balochistan, Khurshid said, the government is
"ruining our case on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir."
Warming to the theme, Congress
issued an official statement to stress that the UPA had raised the issue of
human rights violations in Balochistan as far back as 2005, 2006 and had
brought it up directly with Pakistan at the 2009 Non-Aligned Summit in Sharm
The Congress statement asked:
"How does Prime Minister Modi propose to take the issue of human rights
violations in PoK and Balochistan further? What is his government policy as
also 'way forward' on the issue? Has Mr Modi raised the issue of these human
rights violations even once in bilateral talks with Pakistan over last 24
months? Will his government take it up now: either in bilateral dialogue or at
another international forum?"
Amazingly, the media interpreted it
as "support" for Modi. Someone has sprinkled Modi stardust in
journalists' eyes. To them, he can do no wrong even when he has
consistently tripped on major policy issues, foreign and domestic. In this
case, the media went a mischievous step further and tried to suggest a hiatus
between the official statement of the Congress and what Khurshid said.
The Congress reaction was actually
an endorsement of Khurshid’s comment and was aimed at showing up the confusion
in the government’s blow-hot, blow-cold Pakistan policy and pointing out yet
another reversal in the BJP’s approach.
Just to recap: The India-Pakistan
joint statement at Sharm el-Sheikh included a mention of human rights
violations in Balochistan. Sensing an opportunity to continue its campaign of
heaping abuse on prime minister Manmohan Singh, the BJP went to town, without the
slightest understanding of the great game, the strategic and tactical
approaches of the great powers in the region.
During a July 2009 debate in
Parliament, a major daily wrote, "The BJP launched a frontal assault on
the government for compromising India's stated position on Pakistan in the
Sharm-el-Sheikh joint statement and said the 'waters of the seven seas will not
be able to wash the shame' brought on the country through this flawed
After that melodramatic flourish
seven years ago, the BJP sat silent this August 15 as Modi appropriated yet
another policy initiative of the previous government. Without the slightest
embarrassment, the NDA government has adopted UPA policies they maligned in the
past and tried to pass off as their own. This time, however, they may have
walked into a trap.
Insiders say the most recent
Congress statement had the Rahul Gandhi imprimatur. For all the abuse he has
endured from the BJP and its army of internet trolls, Gandhi has managed with
great aplomb to get under Modi’s skin. His "suit-boot sarkar" tag has
stuck to the government, forcing it to make major U-turns on key issues.
For example, about the Mahatma
Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, Mr Modi said in Parliament,
"I will ensure MNREGA is never discontinued. It is proof of your failings.
After so many years of being in power, all you were able to deliver is for a
poor man to dig ditches a few days a month." This was in February 2015
when he was riding high on his 2014 election victory.
His remarks came in for scathing
criticism from across the political spectrum. A few days later, in his Budget
speech, finance minister Arun Jaitley said exactly the opposite. Calling the
scheme a "national priority", he said: "Our government is
committed to supporting employment through MNREGA. We will ensure that no one
who is poor is left without employment."
Rahul Gandhi’s interventions have
served to unnerve the government. It is now widely acknowledged that Modi has
nothing original to offer. His reference to Balochistan in his August 15 speech
was consistent with this trend.
It was the same in Kashmir that his
government’s bungling has brought to the brink; unable to formulate a cogent
response to the fire in the Valley, Modi sent his home minister scurrying to
Sonia Gandhi and some other opposition leaders for help.
Policy bankruptcy has become the
hallmark of Modi’s "maximum governance".
Great at posturing but innocent of
substance, Modi will find that he is now in a pickle. It’s almost as though the
Congress is using him to expose his own duplicity.
Given his penchant for managing
headlines and the unprecedented servility of mainstream media, especially
television news, Modi and his acolytes will try to shrug off their terminal
lack of governance.
However the evidence just keeps
piling up…Lalitgate, Vyapam, beef violence, cow politics, sartorial and oral
faux pas, lack of investment and jobs, insanely high food prices, more taxes,
ridiculed foreign trips, pseudo-nationalist hoopla, hostile judiciary,
The first electoral debacle was
Delhi, next was Bihar, they held out in Assam but then fell apart in
Uttarakhand and Arunachal.
Now they have fires to fight in
Kashmir and Gujarat. The sheen has certainly worn off; now the credibility is
(An edited version of this
post will appear in DailyO.in, August 2016.)