Modi’s political stock is falling. From being hailed as invincible just a few months back to now being considered vulnerable to a straggly unified opposition front in the 2019 general elections is a reflection of his rapid decline and his government’s failure marked by big talk and small achievement. Over-confidence in Karnataka followed by a series of BJP Lok Sabha by-election defeats in UP following the earlier trouncings in Phulpur and Gorakhpur — under the disastrous RSS selection as chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, that he endorsed, has had no little role in oiling Modi’s slide.
The appointment of RSS pracharak Manohar Lal Khattar in Haryana and the ‘Yogi’ in Lucknow marked the beginning of the downward spiral for the PM. His calculation that some level of communal polarization is electorally helpful in the 2014 general elections and since didn’t reckon with the mayhem precipitated by the dark forces unleashed by the Hindu fringe that feasted on tertiary political issues — beef slaughter ban, “love jihad”, related anti-Muslim issues, that led to the strangulation of the leather and bovine meat export industry (annually generating some $5 billion in revenue for the country) dominated by the Muslim community. Combined with the farmer and caste agitations it has stirred an embittered reaction against the ruling party in the cow belt and elsewhere that may end up reducing BJP’s national footprint and Modi’s credibility as leader and modernizer. Had Modi’s political instincts been better a scenario minus such excesses combined with the outreach to Muslim womenfolk (‘triple talaq’ and Ujjwala type programmes of free LPG canisters and his focus on economic development for all, he’d have formalised a pan-India, non-communal, political support base for the BJP, and permanently pushed Congress and SP surviving on minority grievance to the sidelines.
His loss of appeal as modernizer is a particularly serious matter that’s been aided by the PM’s jaw-dropping anti-science statements equating Indian myth with scientific accomplishment, such as his claims before an AIIMS audience that in the godly pantheon the elephant-headed Lord Ganesha proved plastic surgery was rife in ancient India, or that the great Kaurava warrior Karna’s being born outside of his mother’s womb suggested expertise in genetics — the sort of nonsense that is in sync with Adityanath’s more recent claim that Lord Ram’s wife Sita was a test tube baby!
For the hundreds of millions of aspiring youth and for the upwardly mobile middle classes in the country this tilt towards an idiotic, lumpen, brand of nativism, has come as a betrayal and shock. Combine this with his election promise of creating crores of jobs proving hollow — 400 million unemployed and under-employed youth in the job market versus 12 million jobs actually created during his tenure (Nitin Gadkari’s figures), and one can see why there’s a steady drop in Modi’s popularity.
There’s some 11 months to the elections — too short a time for Modi to turn around his government or its performance. Whatever new schemes he will announce hereafter with 2019 in mind will be undermined by the popular perception of failure to do anything much with the kind of sweeping mandate the people had given him to reorder the system and revolutionize the government’s way of working.
So what can Modi do to revive his prospects in the short time available to him? New and catchy, alliterative, slogan-promises — yawn! — of radical big bang reforms won’t cut the mustard. Political leaders who have found themselves in Modi’s dilemma have done the obvious thing — started a small war — not rinky-dink “surgical strikes”. A war with China is not practicable. A small war with Pakistan — six months before election date — is an attractive proposition to restore his reputation and get the people behind him. Except the Indian Army and the other two armed services are in no fit state — given the “voids” — to prosecute one that can last more than a week or two. In a conflict of one week or two week duration — which is the most the country can afford and the Indian military can manage, zilch will be achieved against the ready Pakistani forces. In other words, no meaningful objectives can be attained by this option.
There’s another more doable option that will fetch Modi the political results he wants. He can order a genuine big bang — the Big Bang that comes from a resumption of underground testing of big yield thermonuclear weapons that, besides obtaining a proven, reliable, and respect-inducing hydrogen weapons inventory for the country, will mobilize the people (voters) behind him in the face of the expected adverse reaction by the US and the West. If this includes economic sanctions so much the better because then Modi can reasonably make the case for the country coming together to thwart foreign adversaries of India. The more Washington and Western governments threaten and act up the more Modi can stoke the fear of the country under siege, and to paint the opposition parties into a corner as providing aid and comfort to the enemy.
The resumption of thermonuclear testing as a means of strengthening his chances of regaining power in 2019 cannot, however, be too much on the eve of the elections, because then not enough time will be available for the popular feelings to stand by the government in a crisis to naturally congeal into mass support for Modi in elections, because the N-tests will be seen as too obvious an electoral ploy to win votes. So if the elections are called on due date in May 2019, the tests will have to be conducted by December 2018-January 2019 at the latest, with instructions issued immediately to BARC and DRDO to begin preparations. There is, moreover, no dearth of reasons for the tests — China’s assistance to North Korea to secure proven thermonuclear prowess and to Pakistan to build a formidable arsenal of short range tactical nukes, and China’s own nuclear build-up.
And this time the thermonuclear tests have to be full bore, full yield, to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind as to their attributes. DRDO head Christopher Raj has said that tests can be undertaken at a short notice, implying there are spare L-shaped tunnels in Pokhran to set off these test explosions. (See https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/from-cyber-warfare-to-anti-satellite-weapons-india-has-all-capabilities-defence-research-chief-1859580 and https://www.ndtv.com/video/exclusive/news/nuclear-bomb-tests-possible-at-short-notice-ndtv-exclusive-with-drdo-chief-486053 .)
The question as always is can Modi, will Modi, do the right thing by the country and reassert India’s stature as an independent would-be great power and risk upsetting the US and the West — relations with whom he puts much store by — by taking such a course of action, and one which guarantees him an extended stay in office?