Has Narendra Modi lost the plot?

Narendra Modi Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Narendra Modi swept to power with an overwhelming majority last year

Has India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi lost the plot?

This week, his BJP government backed down on its controversial land acquisition bill, which would have made it easier for land to be used for industry and infrastructure projects. It has, more or less, returned to the old law approved by the former Congress party government which actually made it tougher for industry to acquire land from farmers.

This is a big blow to Mr Modi's land plans and is seen by many as the beginning of the end of reform.

In fact, the prime minister has shown little appetite for reform so far: last year his government rolled back a suburban train fare hike after protests from commuters, a move that a once-sympathetic columnist now says was an act of "spineless populism".

Hasty and inept

Presently, parliament is gridlocked with protests by opposition parties, who are demanding the resignations of two prominent BJP leaders - Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje - for helping former IPL cricket chief Lalit Modi, who lives in London and is wanted by the Indian authorities over corruption allegations he denies.

With an outright majority in the lower house but lacking one in the upper house, Mr Modi's BJP has fumbled badly in parliament, displaying little strategic acumen and poor political management, as one Indian newspaper remarked.

Key bills, like the goods and services tax, India's single biggest tax reform after independence, are stuck. Rahul Gandhi, leader of a weakened Congress party and apparently short of original ideas, is suddenly looking belligerent and his party resurgent - despite only having 44 MPs.

That's not all.

This week's hasty and inept decision to block access to internet porn and almost immediately lift the ban made the government the butt of social media jokes. And many believe that Mr Modi's government is being petty, vindictive and partisan in browbeating critical NGOs, hounding a prominent social activist and packing educational institutions with people whose credentials many find dubious.

In a piece full of foreboding, analyst Mihir Sharma accused the prime minister of misusing state machinery to hound critics and target NGOs, adding that Mr Modi was "intelligently putting into place the structures that will change the nature of India's liberal democracy forever".

Clearly, Mr Modi's honeymoon has ended earlier than expected.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Congress is again resurgent after forcing the BJP on the back foot on the land acquisition bill

Political scientist Ashutosh Varshney believes that Mr Modi's legitimacy has been declining for a while. Despite his useful globetrotting and foreign policy successes, he is seen to have been less successful at home.

The prime minister has often been silent in the face of rabble-rousing by hardline elements in his party.

February's debacle in the Delhi elections, when the BJP was trounced by the anti-corruption AAP, was attributed by many to BJP hubris. Commentators like Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar now say Mr Modi has been "vacillating and unwilling to fight to the finish on any difficult issue", happy "coining slogans rather than in implementing tough decisions".

Mr Modi, says Mr Aiyar scathingly, "presides today over apathetic sense of drift, defensiveness and lack of conviction".

So can Mr Modi turn the tide?

Political scientist Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington says Mr Modi's honeymoon may have ended prematurely in part "because of his government's inability to sell its programme for reform".

"This has two aspects: the first is devising a coherent reform vision in which all government agencies are marching in lockstep. Unfortunately, the government has stumbled on this first step; even within the finance ministry, for instance, there have been a multiplicity of voices on how strongly to break with past policies," he tells me.

"This incoherence has been complicated by a second, related problem: an inability to use the government's megaphone to sell its plan to the masses."

It is still early days for Mr Modi's government. Also, the hand the Congress is playing is limited and its electoral future remains bleak.

Observers say Mr Modi needs to swiftly script a recovery: less arrogance, a better team of ministers and advisers, initiating crucial institutional and regulatory reforms, and learning the arts of political and social bipartisanship could help spur a recovery of sorts. But it won't be easy.

If the BJP wins crucial state elections in Bihar, it will prove that Mr Modi's personal popularity still remains reasonably high. If it loses, it could be a sign that Mr Modi may have squandered the massive mandate that a very hopeful India awarded him last year.

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