Dents In The Modi-Phenomenon
With consecutive losses in the two rounds of by-elections across the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have reasons to worry. True, by-elections do not reflect the national mood. And there are enough political statistics to suggest that by-elections do not indicate even the fate of the state-level elections, let alone national polls. Then, there is that indisputable Modi-factor that was absent in the campaigns, with the Prime Minister rightly deciding not to campaign in the localised elections. In fact, with the Bahujan Samaj Party of Mayawati, a huge force in Uttar Pradesh, deciding not to participate in the polls, it became a straight fight between the BJP and the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) in India’s most politically significant state that sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha. And here the very fact that the BJP got 40.4 per cent votes (along with its ally Apna Dal; BJP’s lone vote share was 38.4 per cent) against the SP’s 43.4 per cent is not exactly a disappointing show, given the other established electoral lesson that by-elections often favour the ruling party.
And yet the fact remains that the BJP lost in 8 out of the 11 by-elections in the seats that it and Apna Dal had in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly; the by-elections were necessitated as all the sitting members got elected to the Parliament in May. Statistics may provide some solace, but the public perception about the BJP is certainly going to discomfort the Prime Minister and other senior party leaders. And this is all the more so because of the party’s atrocious performance in Rajasthan where it won only one seat by ceding three to the Congress. It was not a spectacular show either in Modi’s own Gujarat where the Congress was able to wrest from the BJP three out of the nine seats for which elections were held. The conventional wisdom that the by-polls favour the ruling party did not work in these two states, considered otherwise strong bastions of the BJP.
Why is it then that a party which had performed magnificently just about four months ago has started losing sheen so soon? My friend Prof. N R Mohanty has come out with an interesting observation. He says that Indian politics has witnessed many a time that a party doing very well in parliamentary elections to gain a comfortable majority goes downhill after forming the government and that within three years it gets emaciated. This “three-year itch’’ affected the late Indira Gandhi, who after winning a handsome victory in 1971, was forced to impose Emergency in 1975 for her sheer survival. “Janata Party won a landslide victory north of Vindhyas in 1977, but by 1980, it had passed into oblivion. Indira Gandhi returned in 1980 with a huge mandate, but by 1983, she got so deeply enmeshed with the Sikh militants that she fell to an assassin next year. Her son, Rajeev, won a two-third majority in 1984, but he lost all his political and moral standing in 1987 when the Bofors scandal broke. He led the Congress to an ignominious defeat in the next election. Since then, it has been an era of low politics dictated by a coalition”, Mohanty says.
Going by the “three-year itch” theory, the downfall of the BJP began the day Modi became Prime Minister and it is but natural that it will lose more than wining future polls—whether by-elections or state Assembly elections. However, I have a serious reservation with this theory. For, it does not take into account the factor of the performance by the ruling party. As Modi in Gujarat, Naveen Patnaik in Odisha and Nitish Kumar in Bihar have shown as chief ministers, a government can also receive repeated popular mandates if it is perceived to be honest and performing and if the opposition suffers from hopeless credibility factor. In my considered opinion, more often than not, in successful politics it is perception and the exploitation of this perception that overcomes the factor of actual performance. And in this game of building or creating a perception and then exploiting it (I am not using the word ‘exploitation’ in a negative sense), there are few equals to Modi in Indian politics today. Therefore, it is highly premature to write the demise of the Modi-wave.
However, what can be said with certitude in the wake of the outcomes of the latest round of the by-polls is that there are now some dents in the popular perceptions of Modi and the BJP. One is told that Modi has a highly efficient team of perception or image makers, drawn from the best in the corporate, public relations and information and technology (IT) worlds. This team helps him in coming out with the famous one-liners in his speeches and highlighting his “achievements” as an administrator. Since he is “perceived” to believe in corporate-style of governance, let me try to explain the recent dents in perceptions about him in a corporate style to the best of my ability.
Modi wooed the electorate in a competitive political-market to be the most effective service provider (“Pradhan Sevak”, in his words). The electorate reposed their faith in him on the basis of his “Gujarat model”—which Modi sold as the “proactive” model of good governance. Modi’s model seemed more attractive to the consumers, that is, the voters, than the Congress-model, which was marked by inflation, corruption and Nehurivian framework of governance that spent more than what it earned and promoted divisive identity-politics under the garb of so-called secularism.
Modi’s problems now seem to be over sustaining the perceptions about his capacity to set right the shortcomings of the Congress-model that dominated the Indian polity between 2004 and 2014. Of course, these are early days; but the inflation continues to be a problem. One saw the recent report of the downfall in inflation rate compared to what it was last year. This may be true from the point of view of the economists, but not at the popular level. I think that for a political service-provider, the inflation should be judged by what the house-wives say rather than what the economists conclude. On this count, the Modi government has failed, because the house-wives are worried that their monthly budget for food and other household activities is going up, not coming down.
Similarly, there is now a growing perception that the Modi government has not done enough to combat corruption. People are asking what happened to the black money deposited in foreign banks. They are wondering what steps the Modi government has taken to bring under the existing anti-corruption laws all those officials and relatives of the Congress bigwigs who prospered with rocket-speed. They have also noticed how some of the wellknown corrupt elements in the previous NDA regime under Atal Behari Vajpayee are doing very well under Modi, too. In fact, the controversial sacking of an AIIMS official who was fighting corruption in the country’s premier medical institute has dented the Modi government’s image (a matter of perception) to fight corruption in a considerable measure.
In my humble opinion, the most serious perceptual problem that Modi has is in his way of keeping the balance between the party and the government. Unlike other service providers such as a doctor or a lawyer, a politician has a dual role—a campaigner to get votes and an administrator to deliver goods. As an administrator, he has the officials to help. But as a campaigner, he needs to be in constant communications with the party activists and well-wishers at the ground level. After all, it is these party activists and other supporters who will be highlighting what good work he is doing to the common people. In Modi’s case, it is all the more important as Delhi-based national media, dominated by the so-called Leftists and Secularists, continues to be hostile to him; and the national media here includes the government-funded Doordarshan, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha television channels, which are manned and programmed by the same old faces and favorites who dominated during the Congress rule.
But then communication is a two-way affair. You have to listen to or be accessible to the party activists and well wishers. Politicians need to have more face-to-face contacts than we find in most other service industries. But that is not happening. Not to speak of Modi, most of his ministers seem to be highly inaccessible. Modi talks of transparency, but the official website of the Prime Minister is arguably among the most non-transparent ones. The website is only about Modi, Modi and Modi; it gives the impression that the office of the Indian Prime Minister is only a one-man show. Even the BJP central office in Delhi, as The Economic Times reported the other day, has closed its doors to the common people. Nobody without a formal appointment can enter the place and the appointments are becoming rarer and rarer. In fact, according to The Economic Times, the BJP office at Delhi’s Ashok Road is only marked by the SUVs and Sports cars these days.
All these do affect perceptions, which, by nature, are highly mercurial. The results of the by-elections should be seen in this overall context. It is time for Modi to introspect.
By Prakash Nanda