Will 2018 be Modi's annus horribilis?

Updated: Dec 17, 2018, 10:43 IST | Aditya Sinha

BJP's trouncing at the hands of the Congress in three states was balanced by SC quashing a request for a judicial probe into Rafale jet fighter deal

After repeated failures on the election front over the past few years, the Congress party's and with it, Rahul Gandhi's, fortunes are finally on the upswing. Pic/AFP
After repeated failures on the election front over the past few years, the Congress party's and with it, Rahul Gandhi's, fortunes are finally on the upswing. Pic/AFP

Aditya SinhaA roller-coaster of a week ended, in balance, with the Congress party's fortunes, and that of its president Rahul Gandhi, on the upswing. It defeated the ruling BJP 3-0 in the assembly elections in the Hindi states; it sorted out its leadership dilemma in Rajasthan in a way that will bring them five to seven more seats in the 2019 parliamentary elections; it got a reprieve in the controversy surrounding the Rafale jet fighter deal when the government represented inaccurately to the Supreme Court; the appointment of a favoured bureaucrat as the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor came under all-round condemnation; and the two most powerful men, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah, look visibly unnerved by their electoral and other setbacks. Rahul ends 2018 on a happy note.

The wins in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh were hard-fought and well-earned, with painstaking vigilance during the counting, especially in MP, where the Congress had to work overtime in each and every booth to prevent hanky-panky. Ground reports say that officials were ordered to help the BJP in a contest where over 30 paper-thin margins kept see-sawing between the two. Yes, there is sunny glorification of outgoing chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan for "bowing out gracefully" and being of "the Vajpayee mould", which is all balderdash considering the Vyapam job recruitment scandal in the state, in which around 2,000 have been arrested and over 40 - whistle-blowers or witnesses, etc - have died unnaturally. True, the Congress did not cover itself with glory by selecting veteran Kamal Nath as the new CM, as he is perceived to have led a mob during the November 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Yet, it would have been an epic disaster had a local "rajah" like Jyotiraditya Scindia been appointed.

In Rajasthan, regardless of all commentary about freshness, youth and the fact that Sachin Pilot took charge of the state Congress after its crushing defeat in 2013, Ashok Gehlot was needed to maximise advantage in the parliamentary polls in six months. Pilot was rewarded with deputy CM, a clear promise that has benefits – his people will get the lion's share of ministries and his community, the Gurjars, will feel happy, important since it is spread out over Rajasthan, Western UP, Haryana and Punjab. If Modi is dislodged in 2019 by the Congress, expect Gehlot to shift to Delhi.

After the high of the electoral triumphs came the cold splash of the Supreme Court's verdict on the petition filed by Prashant Bhushan, Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha, requesting a judicial probe into the Rafale jet fighter deal. The circumstantial evidence points to Modi having arm-twisted the French into selecting Reliance Defence for partnering Dassault in the offset contract, worth tens of thousands of crores of rupees. On this basis, Rahul came up with <chowkidar nahi chor hai>. The Supreme Court, however, found no need for a probe and said it was the vendor's prerogative to choose its offset partner.

It was welcome news for a desperate BJP, and it seemed that Rahul had lost an issue with which to attack the PM, though it was clear in his press conference after the results that he saw the lack of jobs and rural distress as the main issues that cost the BJP. Still, the BJP could have used the moment to burnish its anti-corruption credentials, except that it shot its own foot by submitting to the court a reference to a non-existent Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report with Parliament's Public Accounts Committee (PAC). This knocked the bottom out of the court's view that there was no need to scrutinise financial impropriety.

The government quickly filed a "corrected" submission, but the court, which has taken several knocks to its image in 2018, cannot be too pleased at the attempt to hoodwink it.

RBI Governor Shaktikanta Das's appointment is an irony because it harks back to the days of a controlled economy when bureaucrats manned the post. The RBI after a period of autonomy is in fear of joining the government echo chamber. So much for "maximum governance, minimum government". Most observers assume Das is there to raid the RBI's reserves of three lakh crore rupees, either to expand credit for small and medium enterprise, or to simply put a chunk of money into people's accounts right before the parliamentary election. Hopefully, the criticism will force Das to go slow on following the government's diktats.

No wonder Modi and Shah look unnerved. Their anti-Gandhi rhetoric had diminishing returns. UP CM Yogi Adityanath's ineffectual campaign meant that the Ram temple demand may also not be a winning trump. Unless the economy turns around, even Nagpur, the seat of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), may rethink its election strategy. For Modi, 2018 was undoubtedly an 'annus horribilis'.

Aditya Sinha is a columnist and writer. His next book, India Unmade: How the Modi Government Broke the Economy', co-written with Yashwant Sinha, is out next week. He tweets @autumnshade Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the website

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