Is India ready to give Modi another chance?

While BJP seems to be refashioning its strategy to gear up to the challenges of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, Congress is gaining momentum and finding a foothold in creating a narrative that can hold some interest, writes Priti Prakash

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The stage is gradually setting as political parties have sounded prefatory bugle. Opposition parties — including leaders of Opposition from 13 states — have formed a grand alliance for a faceoff with their most formidable opponent BJP. Media has self assigned itself bigger role months in advance as channels are howling ‘élections, elections› throughout the day bulletin after bulletin for affecting and reflecting public opinion. The whole focus is on politics. Development, welfare and security issues, it seems, have been sidelined.

Congress, the main opposition, has sharpened its attack strategy. The ‘Jan Akrosh rally’ at Ramlila Ground in May, their first big rally to set the pitch for national elections, had mustered huge crowd of party workers in a show of strength, anger and feeling of deception by the Modi government. The narrative of Congress has been around Modi and only Modi. A ‘Plan 400” has been chalked out as a strategy to ensure a red face for BJP on 543 Lok Sabha seats. Is Rahul Gandhi hitting the right chord! This, as history has proved that in elections, its the positives rather than negatives that do the work.

Although it would not be audacious to say that India has moved forward as much as backward since the saffron party was voted in office astoundingly in 2014 general elections. Back then it was a vote against corruption, inflation, policy paralysis and social insecurity. Trend analysis says voting in every elections is affected more on the basis of contemporary issues as public memory is short. Health of economy, society, nation at large, security, employment etc decide who the voter will vote for. If India has acquired a reinvented reinvigorated status at the international forum we have moved two steps back on the social security matrix. At the end of the fourth year of BJP lead NDA, bank scams have grown larger by the day, agrarian crisis has taken threatening proportions, growth figures don’t seem to be optimistic, jobs are hard to find and the moral police ensures people live, eat, wear and pray as per their dictates.

No more invincibile

The saffron party shed the invincibility factor when it lost elections of Kairana, Gorakhpur, Phulpur in UP, Araria in Bihar and by elections in Rajasthan and MP. In Karnataka, BJP couldn’t form government inspite of having the public mandate. Amit Shah bandwagon is now up for some real contest in Rajasthan, MP and Chattisgarh. Although with a difficult fight in Gujarat in 2018, Himachal, Tripura and Meghalaya were great political gains. So the BJP now boosts of unprecedented presence in 23 states, more than what Indira Gandhi did.

On the other hand the opposition has just accelerated to the third gear with the energized Congress behind Rahul. The 84th Plenary session of the Congress failed to chalk out an effective strategy to counter BJP. Instead it chose to be in the aggressive mode. Congress President Rahul Gandhi would have done good by spelling out Congress’s road ahead to a corruption-free India, how he will help unemployed and boost growth rate. Despite him trying to give a new face to the party by bringing the youth in its forefront, major latent flaws are more than apparent for the phoenix to rise. Also, the party is not drawing upon its capabilities and strengths for providing a better alternative in term of deliverance and bettering peoples’ lives in the runup to 2019 elections.

There’s a serious reason to think why BJP might stay on unless something unexpected happens. The initial media hating Modi and Amit Shah are often seen on television channels exuding confidence of a much larger numerical win to the Lok Sabha. Media has been tamed and government machinery is instructed to only sing peons of the dispensation’s achievements.  

Rewind to 2004 when BJP was in power at the centre with their ‘India Shining’ campaign, the question in the masses that stayed was ‘What did the common man get’. So regardless of what BJP slogan in 2019 will be, Modi’s stand will be that a lot of work has been left, of continuing journey, delivering by 2022 what had been promised in 2014, 2019. Yet Modi will have to answer a lot of questions not just from the media but the voters too. From soaring unemployment and job losses, stifling of MNERGA forcing rural labour to migrate to cities, not raising the minimum support prices for farmers. The voters at the end of the day will ask what did they get. The government and PM Modi keep publicizing projects like LPG scheme and bank accounts to show that people are getting something tangible in their hand. Abstract notions such as black money being curbed or India becoming cleaner are unlikely to get votes.

There were few reasons for BJP’s success in 2014. First was the prime minister’s image consciously reinvented in the past decade from a strong Hindu leader in 2002 to a ‘development man’ from 2007-14, promising jobs and growth. Modi’s new image, which is being created for past two years, is that of a leader of poor and common people. His speeches now emphasize on rural india, poor Indians, agriculture, poor farmers. It’s a conscious image development because in 2014 they lost Delhi and Bihar because of their image as a party focused more on the well-to-do, the upper middle class and corporates. Through demonetization and other bold moves, Modi was able to carve out a multi class appeal and alliance.

The second strand was Amit Shah’s organizational work. BJP today has the most formidable election apparatus that any political party has had in India at any point of time. There are regional variance like Left in West Bengal, DMK in Tamil Nadu with strong organisations. Congress is a mass based party, has never relied on organizational aspects what Rahul Gandhi is now looking at. BJP today is a party at the national level having components like quantitative expansion of the membership base (claims to be the largest political party larger than the Chinese communist party), qualitative change in the relationship between the party high command and the party grassroots, emphasis on booth level management and activating booth level workers, frequent mass contact, propaganda blitzkrieg, resource mobilization in an unprecedented scale. Then the RSS provides the organizational support with a high degree of convergence between the sangh, a source of their world view and their personnel with its network of pracharaks and a lot of sympathisers to build its opinion for the BJP and mobilize voters on the final polling day.

The BJP, which used to be known an upper caste party, is somewhat more inclusive today and has made a conscious effort to attract the subaltern into the Hindu fold and carve out this multi caste coalition by including sub castes and backward castes.

Finally as political pundits say there is a strong element of communal polarization. BJP is a party that allegedly stokes hatred on the ground, uses lies, deception, propaganda to make the Hindu voter angry, bitter, resentful of the Muslims and all other parties and portray them as sympathetic to only Muslim interests which helps them construct a majority vote. The reason they succeed is because secularism is dead on the ground particularly in the hindi heartland ie north, west and central India.

Invincibility factor

The invincibility factor is rising by the day as the realization of slowdown in growth has sunk in the masses. Whether it will have electoral consequence will have to be seen but it has made them vulnerable. Modi’s multiclass alliance rests on growth, on jobs and welfare and as the government has not been able to deliver on any of these 3 they are going to face challenges.

Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman says India’s growth story could be derailed by lack of jobs. The economist says India has made rapid progress but economic inequality in the country remains elusive. He has compared India’s corruption to neighboring China. ‘You cannot become Denmark with Chinese levels of corruption’ he says. 

There has been a drop in the narrative from the government in the past few months. Nirav Modi and related Bank scams have dented the government’s image beyond repair as much as the GDP data, demonetization and its adverse economic effects manifested over unhappiness over GST. Although it is too early to suggest that the moment of dominance is over, the BJP still remains India’s hegemonic party. The economic narrative will hurt the party.    

Again, the Congress has not been able to make an impact in its criticism of the government. Moreover Indian media has largely become the mouth piece of the govt. Also partly unlike Congress, BJP knows how to use media. But it’s also seen that when BJP meets a strong challenger like the earlier Nitish Kumar in Bihar and Arvind Kejriwal in 2015 in Delhi, it does not appear invincible. As Nitish has committed political suicide and AK in Delhi is struggling hard to save his flock, RG and Congress don’t look so bad with their consolidation of all opposition parties to face the BJP giant in 2019. Gujarat and Karnataka elections have turned RG into a politician, although the vacuum of strong qualitative opposition is more than palpable.

Its believed that projecting the inevitability of victory is half the battle won in Indian elections. Indian voter does not want to be seen as voting for the losing side, which is seen as a wasted vote and BJP has successfully projected that. For BJP, winning elections is like an automatic process, depends on managing people, on manipulation, on keeping the opposition weak, more about innovative social engineering and party organization.

Agrarian factor

The biggest impact of the economy has perhaps been on the agriculture policy including not raising the MSP for the farmers leading to farmers distress which is a greater challenge to this government than demonetization or GST. The rural voter is extremely unhappy with the government’s economic policies. In 2004-05 when for issues like farmers suicide, rural distress, lot of farm loan wavers happened and
MNERGA came to alleviate it. The recent violent farmers agitation spoke all about the deep angst in them that is turning the government now into dole mode with the eye on 2019.  

BJP’s action plan

Modi is a deft hand at politics. Man Friday Amit Shah has proved his mettle in 2014 in UP, then in Tripura, Himachal, Nagaland, Meghalaya. Political pandits identify four issues. One nationalism, strong India, for which they will use surgical strike example, India’s strong image internationally. Second Hindu consolidation that encompasses issue of cow protection which has descended into outright crime, then Ayodhya temple issue depending on the SC verdict, all of it in the heartland, third will be a clean government where people are willing to wait for Modi to deliver. The fourth is welfare, where the tangible things delivered will be bank accts, LPG’s, toilets as part of Swatch Bharat. Power is what they will talk about next. Earlier they had promised that they will electrify 18000 villages now we see Modi say that all households will be electrified by 2020.

Integrity platform was a major point with Modi with which he always thrashed UPA 2. In 2011 Kejriwal did him great service by launching a movement making them aware of cleanliness in politics. Even now there is a lot of faith in the integrity and the intent of the PM which he will play with and package all that he has done from demonetization to GST to efforts to formalize the economy as a part of this anti corruption movement. 

Shivam Vij of Washington Post says ‘Inflation and inflation is the only thing that matters in elections. An interesting survey says that inflation is generally seen going up in the last 2 yrs of every govt. Modi’s economic policy has been to control inflation, the reason why GST was implemented in a hurry in the middle of the financial year was to give it time because GST is known to drive away inflation a bit and historic changes were made for controlling inflation. Demonetization brought down inflation because there was no economic activity to raise inflation.’ Although its intuitive to speak of GST and demonetization in the same breath, but rightly put, ‘Demo was bad economics, good politics but GST is good politics bad economics.’

Caste dynamics has been a major factor in recent elections both in Karnataka and UP. Polarization not only of the Muslim votes and the dominant upper caste but lower castes votes too were heavily managed. Perhaps its not a coincidence that the President of India is a koli. 

The whole caste thing boils down to be a jobs issue the other way round. Political analyst Prashant Jha says, ‘Jobs really won’t be a major issue unless Modi does something that provokes people. Jobs do affect voter behavior and lack of creation of private jobs has been a failure of the government which got reflected in the widespread violence for the reservation policy across India, from Haryana to Karnataka. In Gujarat the whole Patel issue was basically a jobs issue, articulating itself as a reservation issue.’

The problem that this government is facing is that there have been job losses. It’s not a failure of generating jobs but the failure of a policy that has triggered job losses across industries which has affected not just the upper middle class and the middle class professionals in the job market but the labor too. But it is more likely that they will try to take away the narrative from jobs and talk more about social engineering and some other issues. Its only if the opposition rakes it up properly in 2019. But nothing can trump how much money does one get at the end of the day in his pocket. If suddenly we have an inflation in 2019, nothing can save BJP.

Consolidation factor 

Electorally, the BJP may sharpen the rhetoric with new narratives that this is a Hindu country with a pretence of victimhood, that Hindus have not got their fair share and others have only pandered to the minority which is seen through Babri masjid, love jihad, through claiming that electricity was distributed during Eid and not Diwali, by alleging that laptops were distributed on the basis of religion, by suggesting that Muslims were thrown out by Hindu villagers, by talking of forced migration from western UP or suggesting the image of a Muslim as a cow slaughterer, the larger objective being constructing that vote for unifying Hindu society through caste lines. 

However, the 2009 elections were very interesting. Six months before the election, 26/11 happened. Advani fought the election on the issue of national security, the face of the election was Afzal guru, the Muslim that the Congress was not hanging because of its Muslim leanings and yet the BJP lost very badly. So even though Hindutva matters to a lot of Hindu voters, with its appeal and charisma, nationalism equally touches the chord.

Modi’s strategy

Modi is expanding his base. BJP is out to appeal the larger demographics of poor voter of India. In demonetization Modi has totally copied the ‘Garibi hatao’ of Congress. The schemes have never resulted in votes. Bajpai’s golden quadrilateral, Akhilesh’s Agra Expressway did not translate in votes and Modi really understands this. As he said in Gujarat elections in 2014, ‘justice should not only be done but should be seen to be done’. So development in politics should essentially be seem to be done and to show that Modi has planned to make 400 railway stations of India look dazzling new making development visible.

As for Ayodhya, Modi is not doing much. There’s just symbolism around it. The court’s verdict by 2019 and bringing Modi in elections will polarize the electorate (like in UP elections 2012). So it will be naive to underestimate the ability of Modi to come up with something new tomorrow morning by 2019.

Also, they have burdened the country with schemes. Every ministry has new schemes or reinvention of old schemes so now they will just be narrowing down to 4-5 big ticket items which will resonate with the electorate like Ujjwala did in UP, which is what power will do. They will focus on them, on social engineering of OBC’s to win all the 3 big elections by the year end in MP, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh.

What BJP will do nobody knows but political pundits say what they will surely do is put lot of opposition leaders in jail on corruption charges which has seen Lalu Yadav behind bars, 2018 should see some big arrests like Robert Vadra, lots of litigations, cases, for the purpose of scaring them down or making them sit down highlighting the contrast with raids, corruption cases and the arrests that will follow. It has started with former Finance minister and Congress stalwart Chidambaram. This for the larger consumption that even though Modi was not able to deliver at least he was not corrupt.

Modi’s plan A was economy which has bombed due to demonetization and GST shocks. The plan B is going to be Hindutva which we already witnessed in Karnataka and are likely to see in other poll bound states