Speaking at a virtual gathering of ‘Utkarsh Samaroh’ in Bharuch in Gujarat on May 12 as part of the celebrations to mark the completion of eight years in office, Prime Minister Narender Modi, recounted his talk with a senior opposition leader, who had asked, ‘‘Modiji, now what else do you want to do? The country has made you prime minister twice?” Modi told the gathering, “He thought that becoming prime minister twice was a huge achievement. He doesn’t know that this Modi is made of something else… it is the soil of Gujarat that has shaped him. It is not enough that I should rest now.”
For sure, being India’s prime minister for two consecutive terms is no mean feat. There is no better opportunity to affect the lives of 1.3 billion people. During the first term, the fresh itch or excitement makes leaders initiate a number of policies. But it is in the second term, if one is bestowed with one, that prime ministers need to think of how they want people to remember them when they are no more at the helm. This is when one starts to think of one’s legacy.
So, what will be Modi’s legacy?
Could it be of the man who initiated numerous schemes?
More than 50 national missions and schemes have been announced by Modi since 2014. ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ to encourage girls’ education and address the skewed sex ratio, ‘Mission Indradhanush’ for immunisation, ‘Jan Dhan Yojana’ for financial inclusion, ‘Jal Jeevan Mission’ for har ghar paani, ‘Ujjwala Yojana’ for LPG gas connections, ‘Smart City Mission’ to address urban mess, Ayushman Bharat for health for all, the ‘Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana’ for housing for all by 2022, ‘Swachh Bharat Mission’ to ensure safe sanitation by addressing open defecation, ‘MUDRA Yojana’ to encourage entrepreneurship, ‘PM Garib Kalyan Yojana’, Start-up India, Khelo India, Skill India, Namami Gange Yojana, Digital India Mission – the list is long.
Several of these schemes are strategic and much-needed initiatives to respond to the national requirement under the Sustainable Development Goals, where each country is supposed to develop a framework and link its targets to specific schemes and programmes.
These schemes have led to the creation of a new category: labharthi, beneficiaries of these schemes. On the one hand, these beneficiaries could be quickly reached through specially targeted provisions such as direct benefit transfers, and on the other hand, they could be easily mobilised during an election. In the recently concluded UP election, labharthis have been identified as a major reason for the BJP’s win.
This new nomenclature also reflects a metamorphosis of the ‘right’ of the people to certain inalienable basics to lead a dignified life into ‘benefit’ doled out by the benevolent sarkar. However, this is also a testimony to continuing and maybe escalating large-scale poverty, destitution, and vulnerabilities. For example, the coverage target of Garib Kalyan Yojana is 80 crores; suggesting that two-thirds of India’s population is poor and vulnerable.
Or will his legacy be as the ‘man of masterstrokes’?
Appearing on television to make sudden pronouncements has been a hallmark of Prime Minister Modi. Be it the demonetisation, the goods and services tax (GST), the Balakot air strike, the dilution of Article 370, or the COVID-19 lockdown, or the promulgation and then the repeal of the three farm laws – all have the stamp of Modi’s style of functioning – sudden significant grand announcment, seeming to be strategic and effective governance decisions.
This sets him as an instinctual leader who abhors consultation and expert advice. His ‘hardwork over Harvard’ comment was not a one-off utterance; he seems to believe in it. More often than not, these announcements have been sans any thought-through planning process, and have been found wanting in terms of details when implemented but are still justified and hailed as ‘masterstrokes’ by the media and his supporters.
Or does his legacy lie in the incessant electioneering?
Modi is his most usual self, berating and castigating opposition, extolling himself and his achievements, and very often indulging in partisan politics when electioneering. This partisanship seeps into other activities too – from liking and disliking to silent treatment to selective tweets to individuals depending on their views or background to selecting candidates for state and national elections to governance. This also assumes the shades of vindictiveness, seen, for example, in states’ actions during the CAA-NRC protests and ‘bulldozer politics‘.
Or could it be the governance via ceaseless stress and strife?
Since 2014, it is hard to think of a time when India was not grappling with a polarising issue. Gau raksha, vigilantism, lynching, love jihad, shamshan–kabristan, population policy, JNU, Jamia, Rohingyas, Bangladeshi migrants, triple talaq, religious conversion, CAA, the farm laws, ‘corona jihad’, riots, hijab ban, meat ban, bulldozer politics – the list, once again, is long. Hardly does a month go by without something new getting added to the list, putting everyone – whether they are in favour of these policy decisions or against – in a state of perpetual fervour and agitation.
Or could it be the claim to India being the ‘Vishwaguru’ and India emerging as the global power?
Be it his pronouncement on India being a ‘pharmacy for the world‘ in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic or India being able to feed the whole world in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Prime Minister Modi has time and again taken a hyperbolic route to claim India is fast emerging as a significant player on the global platform. Contrary to previous leaders who interacted with local journalists, influencers, business leaders and people, Prime Minister Modi has focused on mobilising the Indian diaspora during his foreign visits.
Starting with mega rallies in Nepal after winning the national election and becoming Prime Minister in 2014, he has events for the Indian diaspora community during his visits to the US, Germany, Japan, extolling his achievements while castigating previous governments, especially the Congress, in his speeches. This is seen and promoted by his followers as Modi’s popularity growing and India’s global influence rising.
So, what will Modi’s legacy to India and her people be? Or is it too early to think of it, like he said to the senior opposition leader? If “Modi is made of something else,” do the normal rules of the game and terms of legacy not apply to him?
This article was first published in TheWire as What Will Narendra Modi’s Legacy as Prime Minister Be?.
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About the Author
Devender Singh, is the Former National Program Officer (Population & Development), UNFPA India (2015- 2021) and a Visiting Senior Fellow at IMPRI.