Narendra Modi is still living off an image put together during the election. But like all packaged products, it will have a limited shelf life. Nobody knows what Modi, the prime minister, is like. That image is yet to evolve before the public eye.
The image for the electoral battle was constructed by a careful release of information - through professional Twitter-handlers, press-release writers and friendly journalists. However, the image of "Prime Minister Modi" is struggling to take shape against the cloak of secrecy adopted around government functioning and has little opportunity to show its mettle in political debate as the oppositional discourse loses steam.
The prime minister whose image owed much to a friendly media before the election, has little use for it today. His refusal to take media along with him on his official foreign visits suggests that he sees himself as the sole keeper of Indian democracy. The media contingent that used to accompany the prime minister served the purpose of educating the public about the contours of India's vision of the world, through interaction with the accompanying officials, ministers and even the prime minister. Denying this interactive process creates the impression of a prime minister who is reluctant to deal with unpredictable questions and lacks the ability to think on his feet.
An impression has gone around that dissent will not be tolerated within the Council of Ministers. While the sycophantic culture of Indian politics cuts across party lines, the inexperience and non-descript persona of most of Modi's ministers additionally ensure that they would not dare to differ with him. Without the collegiality, which is the defining characteristic of the Cabinet system, Modi's ministers are no better than time-serving bureaucrats. The signal that has gone to the ministers is that they, too, should not directly interact with the media unless absolutely necessary, but at the same time they must all open Twitter accounts. Hapless bureaucrats are being assigned the job of tweeting on behalf of their ministers.
Instead of being an information provider, the Modi government then has become an information captor. Information about government policy and programmes is the lifeblood of a democracy. The process of evaluating government actions helps citizens as well as parliamentarians make informed decisions. Choking processes of information sharing can choke democracy itself.
Impetus to political debate is even less likely to be given by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Modi is tightening his grip over the party just as he has done with the government. To achieve this, Rajnath Singh, who was reluctant to give up the party president's post, was frogmarched to handle the home ministry, enticed with the potential tag of Modi's "number two". Then the one-man-one-post principle was enforced to make him give up the party presidency. Now, with Modi's trusted apparatchik Amit Shah as the president of the BJP, the possibility of the party providing critical feedback for correcting the government's policies and programmes has been ruled out. Shah is likely to mould the party in a way that no policy or personal challenge can be mounted by anyone against Modi.
The squeezing of all oppositional spaces in the country has also choked channels of communication to raise public complaints, discuss public policy and make demands on the government.
As for parliamentary opposition, the shock and awe of electoral defeat has rendered the Congress leadership grasping at straws to remain relevant. The party's limited political energy is being wasted in demanding the status of Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. All this huffing and puffing is for nothing more than the perks of a Cabinet minister and a token role in the appointments to some statutory bodies. The Congress should be aware from its own conduct in the last 10 years that notwithstanding the mandatory consultation required with the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, the government of the day can use the majority principle to force the appointment of its candidates to any statutory body.
The income tax notices to Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi for misuse of party funds in the National Herald newspaper issue have also put the Congress on the back foot. The income tax action against the Gandhis may come to nothing but the new establishment could continue to keep the party off balance by unleashing one scandal after another involving the party or the Gandhi family members over the next five years.
Of the remaining parties in the Opposition, the two large ones - the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Trinamool Congress - head state governments and would be under compulsion to maintain working relations with the Modi government, even if they oppose the BJP locally. Parliamentary opposition, therefore, is unlikely to be effective.
There is also no point in hoping that the increasingly corporate controlled media, with the possible exception of the old media houses, will play an oppositional role. Its structural limitations make it unrealistic to expect that it would be bothered with citizens having a meaningful influence on public policy. Indian corporations have not been great votaries of freedom of speech or rights of the marginalised - most of them, in fact, want India to be more like China. Under the circumstances, the media is unlikely to play a strong watchdog role even as the disconnect between propaganda and political reality grows.
That leaves only civil society to occupy the space of the political opposition. However, that possibility too is being pre-empted by the government cracking down on non-government organisations or NGOs. They are being branded anti-national, anti-development and part of a foreign conspiracy to weaken India. Nationalism is a potent weapon to beat those who question the government.
Yet there are indications that India may be shedding its Stockholm Syndrome vis-a-vis the Modi government. After the Union Budget, some people exclaimed, "But this government is exactly like the Congress one!" As the safety valves for venting political differences shut down, it becomes harder to predict how public dissent will manifest itself.