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Modi's Unwillingness To Listen To Criticism Has Knocked The Halo Off His Head

The prime minister has gone from an infallible knight who could do no wrong to a leader under siege in a little over three years.

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"Just landed in Delhi," a Bollywood starlet tweeted on May 26, 2014, "and even the air feels cleaner. #AccheDin"

The crowds that thronged Delhi to celebrate Narendra Modi’s swearing-in breathed that purified air through the Modi mask that had during the election cycle been elevated to a fashion statement. And in response to Modi’s triumphant speech, they responded to his call of "Achhe Din" with chants of "aa gaye", in a symphonic chorus of sycophantic adoration.

Those were heady days. The air was perfumed with faith – "the substance,” says Hebrews 11:1, “of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” A nation saturated with a carefully constructed narrative of UPA non-performance, endemic corruption, and policy paralysis had found faith in the mythological "Gujarat Model"; it now sought evidence of turbocharged performance in the headlines.

On May 28, 2014, Modi talked tough to his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif. Also on May 28, the Modi Cabinet in its first formal act constituted a Special Investigation Team to bring back the black money stashed abroad.

On June 5, he shook up the bureaucracy, told them their leisurely golf games were a thing of the past, and said they should clean up their offices and their act. His tough love energised the bureaucrats, we learned.

The decisions flowed thick and fast; the contrast with the paralytic UPA2 could not have been starker. June 10: Poverty was to be eliminated. June 11: The Supreme Court was asked to take a quick decision on the question of MPs with criminal backgrounds. July 30: Through a “lab to land” policy, steps were taken to increase agricultural output, producing “more crop per drop”. August 7: FDI in defence and railways was increased. August 20: A new irrigation scheme was announced. August 28: Every citizen was to get a bank account.

On September 17, Modi sought his mother’s blessings on his birthday. September 20: Modi batted for Indian Muslims and spoke of the injustice done to them. October 11: Each MP was told to adopt a village. October 23: Modi spent Diwali with the troops in Siachen. October 26: In three quick meetings, defence projects worth a total of Rs 1,20,000 crore were cleared. November 22: Modi spoke of his affection for the people of Kashmir and promised to restore democracy and humanity to the region. November 30: The police force became SMART.

The decisions flowed thick and fast; the contrast with the paralytic UPA2 could not have been starker.

The government had its eyes, and its mind, everywhere. Focus areas were identified with speed and profusion. On June 24, the focus was on redressing public grievances, improving Centre-State relations and meeting the needs of the armed forces. Making his first ever Independence Day speech on August 15, Modi focused on ridding the country of its noisome trash, giving every citizen access to a toilet, improving the lot of women, and boosting manufacturing through a Make in India scheme. On August 22, Modi focused on the Digital India scheme designed to boost the education and healthcare sectors. October 16, Modi focused on improving the business climate and ameliorating the lot of labor.

He charmed the United States and wowed Madison Square Garden. Even the gaucherie of wearing a suit with his name embroidered on it was quickly forgiven when it raised Rs 4.3 crore in auction for the cause of cleaning the Ganga, and we cheerfully lapped up eulogies to his "hotness quotient". He roamed the world in pursuit of India’s energy future, and was hailed as an international rock star. Australia, charmed, returned two antique statues that had been stolen from India. Appropriately enough, Modi won – by a distance – the reader poll for Time Person of the Year.

The markets loved him; shops from Delhi’s famed Sadar Bazaar to Bangalore’s Malleshwaram reaped windfalls from the sale of Modi merchandise. We heard of five reasons why Modi was special; we learned he had a 10-point plan to improve India in 100 days.

“We are going to win so much you may even get tired of winning,” Donald Trump was to say on the stump in May 2016. In India, it felt like we were already living Trump’s boast two years before he articulated it. Who was going to say nay?

Modi, working 18 hours and more each day in pursuit of the promised "achhe din", grew weary of all this winning, tired of all this praise. “I miss criticism,” he lamented. “Democracy is alive only if there is criticism.”

Back in 46 BCE, when Julius Caesar entered Rome in triumph, he had at his left shoulder a man whose job it was to lean over every once in a while and remind him, over the cheering of the crowds, “This too shall pass.” The Modi of 2014 seemingly had everything – except a voice to remind him that praise is fleeting, that it is accomplishments, not accolades, that are worth pursuing.

And thus, on October 4, 2017, 1,005 days after he lamented the absence of criticism, a querulous Modi was reduced to fudging figures and lashing out at a “handful of people” for “spreading pessimism”.

“The BJP is on the back foot” is the word on the streets. Dissenting voices are proliferating across sectors ranging from agriculture to industry to entertainment and beyond. Previously voiceless sections of the media are finding their voices, and these voices are sharp, they are critical, they excoriate. The opposition has upped its game on social media, once the hegemony of the BJP, and reduced party bigwigs to warning of a tool they once gleefully appropriated to their ends.

Fact-checking is the new growth industry. One-time cheerleaders are turning apostate. Allies – the Shiv Sena, to cite the most obvious example – have turned fractious. And even members of Modi’s own party – Arun Shourie, Subramanian Swamy, and Yashwant Sinha to name just three – have voiced their astringent criticisms publicly, openly, almost daring the party to take action, in full knowledge that the now-beleaguered BJP cannot afford to have its own people outside the tent pissing in.

Three years is a very short time in politics – seemingly too short a time for a messianic figure to so thoroughly lose his sheen. To understand why this has happened, turn to the story of Shalya from the Mahabharata. The uncle of the Pandavas was a reluctant conscript in the Kaurava ranks. But notwithstanding, he fought for them with all his considerable skill.

Injuries sustained during battle meant that Shalya was unable to fight, and on the following days he was asked to serve as Karna’s charioteer. At a critical moment in the fight against Arjuna, Karna drew his Nagastra – a weapon that for various reasons would have done his rival in. Aim for the heart, Shalya advised. Karna felt insulted. It was, to his mind, a show of no-confidence in his skills as an archer and his ability to hit what he aimed at. So Karna aimed for the head. Krishna, piloting Arjuna’s chariot, depressed its wheels a few inches; the arrow missed its mark and Karna’s best chance to end the duel was lost.

On October 4, a speech to company secretaries morphed into an attack on his critics, during the course of which Modi compared his critics to the pessimistic Shalya, but missed the moral of the story altogether: Listen to your critics.

Yashwant Sinha, whose critical September 27 op-ed pushed the BJP machinery into defensive mode, and who appears to be Modi’s Shalya-designate, spoke as early as May 2014 of the need to persist with Raghuram Rajan as RBI governor. In January 2015, he charted a roadmap to the goal of Make in India. He warned the PM in June 2015 of the need to concentrate on building infrastructure if Make in India was to succeed. In the same month, he warned banks against evergreening loans and said that was no way to deal with NPAs. In June 2016, he warned that if the Modi government did not take action against Pakistan, terrorism would escalate. In September 2016, he called on the Centre to repeal the Most Favoured Nation status given to Pakistan. In November 2016, he led a committee that reported on spreading unrest in the Valley and suggested remedial measures. Also in November 2016, he warned that demonetisation would cause massive disruption.

As he enters the final stretch of his reign, Modi has been reduced to renaming and reframing already repackaged schemes.

The ageing Sinha, a skilled, battle-tested economic warrior reduced to a charioteer in the token "margadharshak mandal", gave sound advice all along. And he is not the only one.

Arun Shourie drew attention to the ruling party’s lack of original thinking when in October 2015 – before demonetisation, before GST – he came up with his oft-quoted formulation of the BJP as "Congress plus a cow". He was right: 16 schemes of the Modi government, all greeted with fanfare and publicised with crores worth of advertising, are merely repackaged and renamed projects initiated by the previous government.

To make matters worse, as he enters the final stretch of his first term as prime minister, Modi has been reduced to renaming and reframing these same repackaged schemes, now renewed with a few coats of irony. Thus, the Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana became Saubhagya; Mission Indradhanush, first launched on December 25, 2014, to immunize children against preventable diseases, was on October 8 relaunched as Intensified Mission Indradhanush.

Both Sinha and Shourie have reason to feel aggrieved with the Modi-Shah dispensation that now runs the BJP. Both senior leaders backed LK Advani in the 2013 battle for supremacy in the party – a battle ruthlessly prosecuted, and won, by Modi. In its aftermath, Modi sidelined Advani and all who backed him, with the notable exception of Sushma Swaraj. And thus Sinha and Shourie, two capable, experienced administrators, found themselves unceremoniously put out to pasture – this, despite a clear talent deficit in the party ranks. Both have reason to hold a grudge; equally, both have played the part of the canary in the coalmine, giving timely warnings that, had they been heeded, could have helped the government avoid the mess it finds itself in.

Synchronous to Sinha, Subramanian Swamy in September raised waves – and gave the combined opposition a fillip – when he said the economy was in a “tailspin” that, if not corrected, would lead to a “major depression”.

He was, probably with some truth, also accused of the sour grapes syndrome. His criticism was seen as resulting from his ambition to replace Arun Jaitley as finance minister. What is forgotten is that he had previously warned of this very same thing back in September 2015 – fully a year before demonetisation. He followed that up with an op-ed where he suggested how the looming disaster could be averted.

And in June this year, almost a month before the dramatic midnight rollout of the GST, Swamy warned that the country was unprepared for it, and suggested 2019 would be a better target date. If implemented as planned on July 1, he said, “It could become our Waterloo.” Many analysts and economists echoed his view and were brushed aside as naysayers. India Today expanded on Swamy’s tweet and underlined the many problems hasty implementation of GST could lead to.

Even as hubris consumes him, the faultlines have proliferated, ferment has spread to every sector, and criticism has escalated.

The prime minister has not, through his tenure, lacked in "Shalyas" to warn him to aim for the heart of India’s ills – but he will not listen, he will not heed. Not to the opposition, because they are the opposition and therefore deemed to not have the national interest at heart. Not to the media, because he has repeated the once-expedient trope of "media as enemy" so often that he has now internalized it. And not to those members of his own party who he unceremoniously sidelined during his pre-election power grab, because you most distrust those who you have most hurt. And thus, even as hubris consumes him, the faultlines have proliferated, ferment has spread to every sector, and criticism has correspondingly escalated.

In the process, the charismatic, confident, capable knight in shining armour of May 26, 2014, has been replaced by a petulant, fact-challenged, constantly complaining Don Quixote tilting at the windmills in his own mind. The looked-for statesman has reduced himself to a bitter, embattled politician in perennial campaign mode repeatedly, endlessly litigating an electoral battle he won convincingly three and a half years ago; a panicky man who sees conspirators everywhere and in everyone and warns of the fate that awaits them.

There was once a messiah whose mere ascension to the top was greeted by adoring throngs in Modi masks, in the euphoric certainty that the heartache of the past was a thing of the past, that "Achhe Din" was here at last. Now all that is left of that faith, that national outpouring of hope, are the dusty, disused rubber masks, most likely made in China.