The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJB) left no stone unturned in praising Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s diplomatic coup after he made a quick visit to Lahore in an effort to revive India-Pakistan peace talks.
National spokesperson MJ Akbar called the move “remarkable,” “extraordinary” and “unprecedented” and the Jammu and Kashmir unit of the party called it “transformative.”
Yet the party needs to be extremely wary of praising, capitalising and campaigning on the back of Modi’s success, as its own experience over the last few years especially with Acche Din, have shown.
During Modi’s campaign to become the country’s Prime Minister, the party put out print and television ads specifically promising Acche Din (good times).
A catchy jingle was put together to suggest that good times were not just coming but they were around the corner, and that Modi would be hastening that arrival and the tagline stuck.
The Good Times
Almost two years into Modi’s Prime Ministerial term, though, it has turned into a taunt. The lack of a sudden, immediate change in the fortunes of most Indians gave Modi’s opponents an opportunity to attack him with his own campaign’s words.
The BJP has itself acknowledged that the party overpromised in the run-up to last year’s elections and that change will be incremental, not sudden.
But the collective memory of Modi the campaigner has helped feed a counter narrative that looks upon the Prime Minister as someone who promises plenty and fails to deliver most of this.
The BJP’s electoral fortunes in 2015, where they were soundly defeated by opponents who pointedly asked where the Acche Din were, speaks exactly to this.
Another aspect of Modi’s optics has also followed this trend.
The Prime Minister’s initial high-decibel visibility whenever dealing with foreign leaders was celebrated.
Finally, it was said, a Prime Minister who forces people in other countries to sit up and take notice of India. And indeed, that was very true – until Modi wore a suit monogrammed with his own name to a meeting with United States (US) President Barack Obama.
Flight Mode Modi
That’s when the storyline jumped the shark, so to speak. From the man who had injected fresh energy into India’s foreign policy, the narrative started to portray Modi as the person who would rather fly around the world giving speeches to Non Resident Indians (NRI) and make easy headlines than stay and work in India.
Both of these turnarounds, Acche Din and “Flight Mode” Modi, started off as net positives for the BJP but turned into taunts because of overpromising and underdelivery.
It’s not uncommon to now hear people asking, “what has Modi got from all his foreign trips?” even if the people asking don’t exactly want to hear the nuts and bolts of India’s diplomatic achievements.
If the public is promised good times and transformative change over and over, then it tends to expect something that looks and feels exactly like that.
If the promise lacked nuance, the delivery cannot fall back on technicalities.
Going up four spots on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index will not be accepted as Acche Din, no matter how senior the analyst calculating that change was.
Playing with Pakistani Fire
This is the fire the BJP is playing with as it lauds the sudden surge of energy in the India-Pakistan dialogue process, spurred on by Modi’s birthday diplomacy.
The government obviously knows how treacherous it can be to deal with Pakistan and has handled that relationship with care, to the extent that the policy has at times seemed incoherent.
Modi has pulled off a coup and no matter how sour the Congress might sound about it, it is precisely the BJP’s right-wing hawkish image that gives it the leeway to pull off stunts like this.
Former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may have been “blocked” from going to Pakistan but that was as much because of a suspicion about his government’s competence abroad and on the national security front.
The Christmas visit both adds and takes away pressure. Seeing as the major step of visiting Pakistan has already happened, the actual diplomatic work can take place without constant questions about whether Modi would be going to Islamabad for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit next year. But Modi’s visit, and the party’s claims that it is “unprecedented” and “transformative,” can easily turn back and bite the BJP.
If the Foreign Secretaries and the rest of the negotiating team are not able to settle on actual deliverables, the transformative promise can easily become the new “Acche Din”, a taunt to throw back at an overpromising, underdelivering BJP.