The PM’s new fiasco in Punjab
The vote-getting Prime Minister may have cost the BJP a lot of votes as a result of a series of mis-steps during his truncated visit to Punjab on January 5. The controversy created on the so-called security breaches, and several other strands of this episode, and some in the run up to it, point to a style that is failing and a veneer that is wearing thin. All in all, it has been a very poor start to the New Year for the BJP and its star campaigner just as he set out to garner votes yet again.
Modi is prone to a swift slide into this quicksand, a reflection of the “them” versus “us” mind frame, the classical world of prejudice where all the “them” are categorised and painted as threats and all the “us” are to be supported and protected.
Consider the Prime Minister’s remarks at Bhatinda airport on the way back to New Delhi, quoted by ANI: “say thanks to your CM that I was able to return to Bhatinda airport alive”. This is an ugly depiction of whatever happened enroute, when the Prime Minister’s cavalcade waited on a flyover because of blockages reported well ahead on the road. It gets uglier when seen in the light of videos that show a small group of people coming close to the PM’s cars, who were actually BJP supporters carrying party flags and shouting slogans in his support, with the Special Protection Group (SPG) team doing nothing but watch. To cite this as a threat to his life, then to make a mockery of security protocols and reduce them to political scoring points and run down an elected Chief Minister before his officials speaks of a leader who was unduly unnerved, unnecessarily worried about his safety and someone who has begun to imbibe the Kool-Aid he has been so good at selling to others.
The words “your CM” tells us that there is the “ours” and “yours” in the world of Narendra Modi, a division that says "your" government did not secure "our" Prime Minister. Modi is prone to a swift slide into this quicksand, a reflection of the “them” versus “us” mind frame, the classical world of prejudice where all the “them” are categorised and painted as threats and all the “us” are to be supported and protected. Since these words were said by a Prime Minister who probably felt humiliated that a rally he came for could not be addressed, they show him under some stress and bring out how he acts in those circumstances. Words, after all, reveal the inner being; the choice of words is an indicator of the values, the assumptions, the mental models and a lot more about the person.
The problem lies deeper, and we may not have seen the last of the government's anti-people moves and statements
Pictures circulated by others, including the Congress, have pointed out that the real reason for turning back was that the rally he wanted to address and had prepared for had 70,000 chairs but only 700 attendees. The lack of crowds despite the attempt to busload numbers points to the fact that the Prime Minister has suffered a loss of standing so severe that an apology and a withdrawal of the farm laws he wanted to push down the gullets of unwilling farmers has not done much repair, particularly in Punjab. They indicate anger and even a sense of contempt that has gotten deeply embedded in the people of Punjab, thanks to the farm laws project. That anger has, unfortunately for the BJP, boiled to the surface again because of what was said in Punjab this time, remarks that have been seen as denigrating the State. The otherwise little-known Congress Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi has turned out pretty well in this episode by showing around reporters to display how he is stopped on the roads often and how he meets with people and how they then quietly disperse. He drives the point further by saying Punjab will not use force against ordinary people blocking roads in protest, and the contrast with the highfalutin ways of the BJP is complete.
The government will have to work with honesty to fulfill its promises on compensation for those killed in the protests and the MSP frameworks
The entire drama comes as Punjab goes to the polls. Channi has a point when he says that protests in general have increased ahead of the enforcement of the Election Commission’s model code of conduct, under which the decision-making process will stop till elections are done. This is standard across all States at election time. But the empty chairs that waited to greet the Prime Minister are an indication of something different – they tell us that the withdrawal of the farm laws has not closed the case with the protesting communities and groups. The withdrawal of cases against those who were a part of the protests, the disbursal of relief to the farmers who died in the protests and a decision on the Minimum Support Price are demands that will continue to breed discontent unless they are met swiftly and in full.
That brings new significance to the remarks by the Meghalaya Governor Satyapal Malik at an interesting time – post the withdrawal of the farm laws and just when the election activity in the key States of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh is about to pick up. Malik has reported that his personal conversation with the Prime Minister on the farm laws and protests turned into a fight, and that the Prime Minister was very “arrogant”.
The empty chairs that waited to greet the Prime Minister are an indication of something different – they tell us that the withdrawal of the farm laws has not closed the case with the protesting communities and groups. The withdrawal of cases against those who were a part of the protests, the disbursal of relief to the farmers who died in the protests and a decision on the Minimum Support Price are demands that will continue to breed discontent unless they are met swiftly
It tells us again from authoritative accounts that the leader in charge of the nation cannot countenance a different point of view, even from friends and colleagues. Malik said he was dispatched to meet the home minister instead. It is clear from the conversation that the abortive attempt at pushing the farm laws will continue to damage the Prime Minister. Mallik also served to remind the country and the establishment that the issue is far from settled, that the protestors’ have only suspended their agitation, not called it off. The government will have to work with honesty to fulfill its promises on compensation for those killed in the protests, the MSP frameworks and withdrawal of cases.
All in all, the brief but very telling words of the Prime Minister, the rabble-rousing by the BJP to create the impression of a never-before security breach that put the life of the Prime Minister of India in danger, the cancellation of his visit midway and Malik’s cautions to the government tell us that the way the farm laws were sought to be pushed by the insensitive, care-a-damn approach of the party continue to extract a high price for the BJP and its leader. Yes, there is also the question of how the SPG conducted itself, questions on whether security protocols were fully followed, and the competence of police forces -- all of which should be a matter of an apolitical inquiry by professionals. The unfortunate, unfair and uncalled for narrative that was built in an astonishingly short time, as if Punjab was out to harm the Prime Minister, thus demonising a State that is known for its sacrifices towards nation building, serves to tell the people that the farm laws were not a one-time mistake of this government. The problem lies deeper, and we may not have seen the last of the government's anti-people moves and statements. This is a factor that will extract its price and could well cost the BJP at the polls.
(The writer is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)