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View: PM with the silver bullet style

By Sadanand Dhume

Do complex problems like Kashmir and corruption have silver bullet solutions? We live in an age where many people believe they do. Arguably Narendra Modi is India’s most popular prime minister in decades not despite his penchant for such policies, but because of them.

For instance, virtually all pundits agree that India’s economy is currently in the doldrums. They disagree only on whether the slowdown is merely cyclical or in fact structural, a potentially terrifying return to sluggishness we had hoped was consigned to history books. Yet, apparently, Modi’s popularity continues to grow. Last month, a media poll predicted that in fresh elections the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party would win an even larger majority than it did in May.

Needless to say, many streams feed the prime minister’s popularity including his stirring oratory and reputation for incorruptibility. But one factor, borne out both anecdotally and in surveys, looms large: Modi’s reputation as a bold leader. The so-called Balakot bump – a boost to BJP fortunes after Indian airstrikes that targeted terrorist training camps in Pakistan – may have made the difference between a close election victory and what ended up being a comfortable one.

Sometimes boldness and wisdom go together. But the trouble with quick fix solutions in real life, as opposed to fairy tales, is that their consequences can take years, or even decades, to become clear.

If you’re an optimist, you may feel as though you’re on the cusp of a new dawn, a golden age that will throw up solutions to problems that have bedevilled India for decades – black money, separatism and Pakistani interference in Kashmir, perhaps even the snobbery of English-speaking elites. A skeptic will likely recoil at what looks like government rashness. Today’s bold decision could easily become tomorrow’s historic blunder.

Modi’s silver bullet style of governance stands upon an elaborate edifice of hope. Take, for instance, the prime minister’s justification for last month’s sudden voiding of Article 370, which had granted Jammu & Kashmir a measure of autonomy, and the bifurcation of the erstwhile state into two federally administered Union territories. In his televised address to the nation, Modi implicitly promised to turn Kashmir into a cross between Singapore and Switzerland, at peace, prosperous, and helmed by politicians of integrity. Who could possibly quarrel with this vision?

Or take the explanation for demonetisation three years ago, when Modi suddenly vapourised almost 90% of India’s currency by value. We were told it would excise the cancer of illicit wealth from society. In eastern Uttar Pradesh, not long thereafter, a patriotic rikshawala explained to me how he thought it would work. Everyone knew that rich people stored their wealth in fat bundles of notes in steel almirahs. Now they would be worthless. Poof ! Problem solved.


As a thought experiment, you could apply similar logic to the idea that Hindi must be given pride of place as India’s national language. Imagine a deeply integrated country where Tamils, Bengalis and Nagas speak to each other in flawless Hindi, and the arts, sciences and literature flourish in Hindi belt states liberated from the yoke of English preeminence. Do you resent how people with better English skills enjoy better career prospects? Not to worry. A solution is within easy grasp.

Unfortunately, reality tends to lean toward complexity. We know in hindsight that demonetisation was an unmitigated disaster. Instead of ending black money it further corrupted state-owned banks, plunged the informal economy into crisis, and damaged corporate balance sheets in ways we’re only now beginning to understand.

It’s too early to say how Modi’s Kashmir gambit will play out. Perhaps we’ll look back on it in ten years as a brilliant move that ended Islamist terrorism, returned Kashmiri pandits to the ancestral homeland they were forced to leave, and forced Pakistan to give up its obsession with the so-called “unfinished business of Partition”. But just as easily you can see this differently, as a harbinger of strife, centralisation of power and constitutional breakdown.

You don’t need a crystal ball to predict how any attempt to impose Hindi by force on non-Hindi speaking states – thankfully not on the cards, according to home minister Amit Shah – could run horribly awry.

Has technology raised the odds of populist governments doing staggeringly stupid things? In the case of India, yes. By appealing directly to the people, over the heads of traditional elites, in a way Modi has deepened Indian democracy. But he has also stripped it of the usual checks and balances. If your feedback loop consists mostly of supine subordinates and hysterical fans on social media, then the odds of doubling down on a bad decision, instead of revising it, increase dramatically.

What happens next in Kashmir? Nobody knows for certain, but suffice it to say that shutting down mobile phones and the Internet for an entire population for more than six weeks does not suggest that everything is under control. Sooner or later something will have to give, and when that happens we’ll get a sense of whether the silver bullet has worked as wished. For the sake of everyone involved, let’s hope that this doesn’t end up being the political equivalent of demonetisation, wildly popular in the moment, but ultimately a failed and foolish move.

(The writer is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC.)
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