Handling perception is Modi’s biggest challenge
Reformist US President Franklin D Roosevelt once said: “The future lies with those political leaders who realize that the great public is interested more in government than in politics”. As India wades into the election battlefield next year, it will be governance that decides the mandate and not mudslinging. Indian voters have usually voted out non-performing leaders to bring in ones who promised better governance or “Achche Din”. Last week, almost the entire Opposition descended on Bengaluru to forge the blueprint of an alliance which will try to dislodge Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019.
They had little in common except a venomous dislike for him. The optics of Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati, Sitaram Yechury and Siddaramaiah, Sonia Gandhi and Sharad Pawar, Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav and others preening on a festive stage erected as a launching pad for HD Kumaraswamy’s ascension to the chief ministership of Karnataka was a political anagram spelling a warning to Modi. “Beware! Our phalanx is ready to demolish your juggernaut.”
Not one of them put forth an alternative agenda for governance, and refrained from attacking each other, as they had done before arriving in Bengaluru and did soon after landing back home. But the message from Bengaluru was loud and clear: Battle 2019 would be fought between the Mighty Dozen and Crafty Modi. Once again, history is repeating itself.
In 1977, it was Indira vs the Rest. In 1989, it was Rajiv vs United Enemies. The choices were between one opportunistic coalition and an unprincipled alliance. In 2018, Modi finds himself in the unenviable position of facing the entire regiment of Opposition leaders who cannot individually defeat him in nearly any major state. Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress was trounced by his own former minister VP Singh, who launched the Janata Dal from Bengaluru in 1988, supported by the BJP and the Communists. For Modi, 2019 is a greater challenge than 2014, when he was pitted against a defamed government and tainted leadership. Since then he has almost fulfilled his promise of achieving a Congress-mukt Bharat. What next?
Though the Congress is just a ghost now, the BJP and its partners rule 22 states while regional satraps control the remaining states where the BJP is weak; some of them were once part of the NDA. The challenge for the Congress and other non-BJP Opposition parties is to snatch Lok Sabha seats away from the saffron sultan. Analysis of data shows that the electorate rejects over 65 per cent of sitting lawmakers in every state in every poll.
This means the probability of sitting BJP MPs losing is higher than that of Opposition legislators, who together hold only 225 seats in the current Parliament. Hence, the Opposition has joined hands to take advantage of the anti-incumbency factor in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana and other states where the BJP has been in power for one or more than two terms. Various opinion polls also indicate its vote share may shrink.
While Modi remains the voters’ top choice, his personal popularity has shown a significant fall. However, it is not impossible for him to win a second mandate by making a course correction in the next nine months. Having created an admirable climate of economic stability and GDP growth, the prime minister will need to convince the voters that he has provided a government which works by adopting the Mantra of Reform, Perform and Transform. For that he must:
*Improve perception. Modi’s promise of delivering Maximum Governance with Minimum Government seduced people’s high expectations. He correctly thought of right-sizing or downsizing the government. But four years later, its mass has bloated further. There are more secretaries and higher level officials now than in 2014. Bureaucracy is like a wildfire that has spread in favourable winds across the corridors of power. Taking advantage of the PM’s trust in honest officers, babus have created innumerable tribunals, commissions and expert groups to accommodate retired colleagues.
*Tame inflation: Modi had promised to reduce prices and provide more employment. Though the job market has shown recovery, it is less than expected. The wholesale price index is either stagnant or stuck, though within tolerable limits. Yet the perception created by the record spurt in petroleum product prices should be a major concern.
The BJP made gas prices one of its major election issues in 2014. In 2018, consumers are paying more to fill fuel tanks, though the average cost of imported crude is down 40 per cent. Public perception that the government is squeezing the middle class is gaining ground. Modi should perhaps note that the BJP lost many elections in the late 1990s due to a rise in onion prices. Any hike in petroleum prices devastates the domestic budgets of the middle and lower classes. It has a spiralling effect on the cost of other goods and services. Providing affordable housing to the middle class is still a dream. Healthcare costs are exorbitant and the quality has plummeted in most of India.
*Increase his Indian footprint. Modi has left his imprint on international diplomacy through inimitable Modihuplomacy. During the past four years he has travelled to a record number of countries and exhibited his popularity and innovative skills to numerous global leaders. But now he needs to reconnect himself with the electorate more. The BJP has wrested all the states from the Congress thanks to his magnetism. Modi is bigger than the BJP; the voters plump for him and not for his party. His domestic travel should be aimed at connecting with his core constituency and not just official events.
Former deputy prime minister LK Advani’s political relevance may have diminished in New India, but Modi should take his cue from a statement he made after the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, that the BJP lost because it had ignored its “core constituency”—the middle class and the committed Sangh Parivaris.
*Forget Rahul and Sonia Gandhi. The prime minister is committing the cardinal mistake of attacking the Gandhi Parivar more frequently than politically required.
Both mother and son had almost hit the political bottom after the Congress won just 44 seats in 2014 and lost in all the states it ruled between 2014 and 2018. Gandhi bashing paid dividends in 2014 since they remote-controlled the Manmohan Singh government and were punished by the electorate. Double jeopardy does not work. Indira Gandhi was defeated in 1977 for imposing the Emergency, but staged a triumphant return in 1980. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA lost in 2004 despite an admirable performance.
During the run-up to the 2019 elections, Modi’s oratorical skills and charisma would face the real test. He will have to convince India that he is not a leader who makes promises which are forgotten soon after the election, and that he has actually delivered more than what was promised in 2014.