The Modi-Shah model of governance—stealth, self-aggrandisement and stupidity

Between benefiting their politics and damaging the republic, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah would always choose their politics. Vipin Kumar / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
30 November, 2019

Demonetisation, the reading down of Article 370 and the early morning revocation of President’s rule in Maharashtra to make way for a hilariously short-lived BJP government—the list is now long enough to illustrate a pattern of stealth, self-aggrandisement and stupidity that marks the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah model of governance. For those of us looking into this rather opaque regime, the pattern is also illustrative of the nature of interaction between Modi and Shah and the dangers they pose to the country.

We now know enough about Modi to glean what matters most to him: his public image. In 2007, while reporting on the election in Gujarat, I spoke to Modi’s then personal photographer, Vivek Desai, who described a photo session that began at 6 am at the then chief minister’s house. The outfits had been pre-selected, Desai told me. “He then stood in the empty room and started giving a lecture to an imaginary crowd,” Desai continued. “It is only when he speaks in this fashion that his expressions come to life. That is why photographers are never allowed to shoot him unless he is giving an emotive interview or speaking in public. On that day, the session lasted four hours.” Worried about his bulging waistline, Desai said that Modi always made sure that he was photographed from the waist up. He added that Modi always ensures that “his hand is always caught mid-gesture, emphasising a point or with his index finger raised.”

Not much has changed after the move to Delhi. As in Gujarat, his focused attention to detail stops beyond the self, and it shows up in the faltering progress of almost all his pet schemes. Once the publicity campaign is completed, Modi’s attention moves elsewhere. For this very reason Amit Shah becomes the foil Modi cannot do without. He may not have been directly involved in running the government in the previous term, but like he did in Gujarat, Shah handled Modi’s electoral machinery. This includes the booth-wise attention to detail, the ability to pick the right set of people to lead a regional campaign, and the effort to build the party structure where it was absent. Modi, after due attention to his self-image, largely prefers to leave such details to Shah.

It is an arrangement that works well. Modi is quick to temper and has difficulty controlling his emotions when he is confronted or challenged, which is the reason he has shied away from interactions with the media that were not pre-arranged to his satisfaction. Amit Shah is at ease in such a setting, and so, he was the one who addressed the media at the end of the BJP’s campaign for the 2019 elections, while Modi sat beside him in silence. Some media commentators, short on information, have chosen to read too much into such public appearances. The fact remains: Modi draws his power from the people—however uncomfortable that reality is—and Shah draws his power from Modi.

The stamp that Shah brings to the government was already evident during demonetisation, in November 2016. He was one of the few who was privy to the decision in advance and could comment on it in public. In fact, the demonetisation model has now become a template. Shrouded in secrecy, demonetisation had caught almost everyone off-guard, it served its immediate political interest handsomely in the Uttar Pradesh elections the following year, and has since proved to be a disaster for the economy. But the main takeaway from the experience, which the duo appears to have adopted as their template, is clear: between benefiting their politics and damaging the republic, they would always choose their politics.

Much the same unfolded when the government revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. The façade of legality was worked out to the minutest of details and Shah put up a spirited defense in Parliament. The same stealth marked the move but, as has been the case with demonetisation, the move is proving to be a prolonged embarrassment, nationally and internationally.

Let us leave aside questions of constitutional morality—which have long been abandoned—and address the decision on the promise of national security, the terms on which Modi and Shah had pitched the move. Even what passed for “normalcy” for several decades in Kashmir is unlikely to ever return. There is scant chance of the heightened deployment of the military and paramilitary forces being scaled down in any significant fashion. The few examples India has ever had of successfully countering insurgency has always required the local police, but the Jammu and Kashmir Police can no longer be relied on in the long term, given the way that the central government humiliatingly disarmed its ranks before revoking the special status.

Moreover, the quality of leadership in the police and the security forces that surfaced under Modi and Shah is evident from the fact that no senior officer stood up for his own troops. To expect such officers to command the loyalty of those they command in the future when under fire is wishful thinking. Meanwhile, nearly four months into the lockdown, Kashmir is yet to see any signs of the much-touted development that the move was supposed to bring to the Valley. Ultimately, the decision makes no sense, even from the rather dubious perch of national security, except in the context of the ideological presumptions of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that drive the politics of Modi and Shah.

While apologists have tried to escape the evident conclusions of the demonetisation and the Article 370 disasters, even they have been forced to squirm after the recent events in Maharashtra. At 5.47 am on 23 November, Modi invoked Rule 12 of the Government of India (Transaction of Business) Rules, which allows the prime minister to revoke President’s rule in a state without cabinet approval when he “deems it necessary,” to enable Devendra Fadnavis to be sworn in as chief minister. The move was precipitated by the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress arriving at a post-poll alliance that would unseat the BJP from Maharashtra. Three days later, Fadnavis resigned after it became clear that he would not have the requisite support from the NCP to form government, becoming the shortest-serving chief minister of the state.

As was the case with demonetisation and Kashmir, the stealth caught everyone off-guard. The same meticulous attention to the facade of legality, such as Modi invoking Rule 12, marked the operation. The only real difference, unlike with demonetisation or Kashmir, was that the public did not have to wait long for the complete stupidity of the move to become evident. What is noteworthy is not the comparative morality of those who formed the government and those who did not—there is little to choose between either. It is the continued inability of Modi and Shah to look beyond the immediacy of what they were doing to the possibilities of the embarrassment that comes their way. For once, no amount of control over the media could shield them from their failure.

While some time in the future, the Modi-Shah version of governance will entertain readers of history, for now, it serves their political interests as they cater to the majoritarian mood. What the public is overlooking is that given their obsession with using national security as a political tool, the lack of consultation with experts, the inability to seek a democratic consensus and the failure to anticipate even the medium- and long-term impact of their actions, theirs is a pattern of governance that poses great dangers. These are men who can quickly lead us into disaster but will be no good at leading us out of it.