The beginning of the third year of Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s second term would be an apt occasion to look at the early days of this innings. He began as a run-hungry batsman, eager to notch up a big score, belting out sixes and fours to every corner of the ground.
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government divided Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and abrogated Article 370 in one fell swoop. A new Union Territory, Ladakh, emerged and J&K’s full state status was done away with. The practice of triple talaq was declared illegal. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) always had these issues in its sights, but Modi is the one who grasped the nettle.
His vow of making India a $5-trillion economy by 2024 meant removing certain hurdles to growth. He zeroed in on non-performing assets of public sector banks as one and a merger of 19 banks into four was executed. Despite unprecedented opposition from farmers and the Opposition, agri-sector laws were changed and the path to the privatisation of government undertakings was cleared. Modi meant to show that he would not hold back on economic reform.
Then disaster struck in the form of the lethal coronavirus. Of the three major challenges facing the government, this has been the biggest the NDA has faced by far. As of Saturday, the death toll from the virus is around 3.22 lakh. The Opposition and some experts claim that the death toll could be higher and a third wave may be in the offing. They also say that if 70-80% of the population is not vaccinated without delay, the waves will keep coming.
The government claims that everyone will be vaccinated by December but so far there is little to inspire confidence in this assertion. A vaccination drive for those above 18 years has been announced, but hundreds of vaccination centres are running short of vaccines for this cohort. In fact, the whole vaccination strategy, which was to be a model for the world, is now in trouble. Vaccines are in short supply and prior commitments made to foreign nations for vaccine supplies cannot be fulfilled.
The state governments are up in arms about the paucity of vaccines and have accused the government of ignoring the threat from the virus for political gain.
The pandemic may eventually peter out but it has seriously damaged the economy. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the rural unemployment rate reached 13.5% in the week ending May 23. On May 9, it was 7.29%. The unemployment rate in cities was found to be 17.4% and the national unemployment rate has climbed to a new high of 14.7%. If the lockdowns do not end quickly, the situation could worsen. Certainly, the government will have to address the deteriorating financial condition.
The second challenge Modi faces is political. Next year, assembly elections will be held in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Goa and Manipur.
The groundwork for these has begun. Despite the victories in Assam and Puducherry, the defeat in West Bengal has dented the BJP’s reputation as an invincible election machine. During Modi 2.0, the party has won only four out of 10 state elections. In these, the role of the allies was crucial. That is why many political critics feel that even though there is no alternative to Modi at the Centre, the voters prefer strong state-level parties in the assembly elections.
As on March 2018, the NDA was ruling 21 states, with 71% of the country’s population. In April 2019, it was reduced to 18 states. However, in terms of demography, now 49% of the population is ruled by the NDA.
The seven states where elections are to be held next year are crucial to the BJP. All of them are governed by the BJP, barring Punjab, which is ruled by the Congress. Retaining power in these states is going to be the political litmus test for Modi. In Punjab, so far, the BJP has been fighting elections in alliance with the Akalis. This time, it is on its own. Over the last five years, the NDA has lost almost all its old allies.
The third challenge the Modi government is from across the borders. China is still up to its old tricks. Will Modi be able to get China to retreat from the border areas it has encroached on? It seems improbable at the moment.
These are all daunting challenges for PM Modi. His track record on meeting difficult situations head-on is well known. He is a past master at political manoeuvrings. Will he rise to the occasion now as well?
It remains to be seen but this is why the seventh year of his prime ministership or his second term as pradhan sevak as he likes to term himself, will prove interesting to both his admirers and critics.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan
The views expressed are personal