Modi and `mass movement'

As Narendra Modi's regime enters its mid-term, it is time to assess: has he turned governance into a mass movement?

By Richard Mahapatra
Last Updated: Sunday 08 January 2017
Illustration: Tarique Aziz
Illustration: Tarique Aziz Illustration: Tarique Aziz

This is the last edition of Down To Earth for 2016. The newsroom of India’s only environment and development fortnightly is your impeccable guide to gauge what defined the year. We don’t simply deal with clinical assessment of environment and development but dissect each and every development through this prism. So, our newsroom is the most credible place to track and give a judgement on India’s progress and challenges. What did our news- room, heated up every day by reports from farms, factories and forests, indicate about 2016?

It is certainly the solitary reign of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His every word, every policy declaration, every flight out of the country (lesser than 2015) and every cabinet meeting is a big moment of journalistic expectations. His presence in the development discourse is enviable even if we disagree with his ideas. If political analysts allege he manages headlines as a prime political strategy, he does so with surgical precision. But given his overpowering presence in people’s memory and life, what is the most striking aspect of Narendra Modi’s governance style?

After a long time, we have a prime minister who communicates with the public so often and so forcefully. This is why when he doesn’t speak in Parliament, it makes news. His talking points vary from yoga to squatters to corruption to lifestyle to spiritual revival. But why do these interest us?

A careful analysis of his major public speeches brings out some keywords that reveal many governance strategies that have defined Modi’s two-and-a-half years of governance. One is “mass movement”. It is his favourite prefix for every agenda that he champions. Let’s sample a few headlines: Modi wants Yoga to be a mass movement; Modi wants water conservation to be a mass movement; Modi wants clearing cities of squatters to be a mass movement; Modi wants the journey of development to be a mass movement; Modi wants the smart cities project to be a mass movement. These headlines emphasise his obsession with the term “mass movement”. And in every such pronouncement, he has quoted Mahatma Gandhi who also used this term very often. So, Gandhiji is another keyword that often emerges from his speech.

Now, let us look at what else dominated our newsroom. We got regular ground reports on: non-implementation of the Food Security Act; near death of the Forest Rights Act; official negligence killing the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act; states being allowed to dilute land acquisition laws to facilitate large-scale takeover of private lands; civil society groups being harassed to an extent that they stop being effective and many more such reports.

In our 25 years of reportage, we have tracked the evolution and implementation of all these pieces of legislation. All of them were outcomes of real mass movements that pursued them for decades. But strangely, for all these pieces of legislation and their visible decline in the last two-and-a-half years of the Modi regime, there is no mention of the mass movements that made these possible. There are sincere grievances and protests. But, there are no visible mass movements to resurrect the laws. Rather, Modi has successfully branded them as "flawed pieces of thinking". For example, every protest against land acquisition has been termed by the government "anti-development" and people have begun to buy this argument.

Is it the new normal? The jury is out on this but Modi’s successful articulation of his agenda as a mass movement and public engagement bypassing Parliament is a trend that needs serious probing. Happy News Year.

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