A Poor PM or A PM for Poor
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in March this year turned his party’s stupendous success in the Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand elections into a victory march, looking beyond the 2019 general elections at 2022, the 75th year of the country’s Independence, with a fresh theme: ‘New India’.
The PM’s framing of the BJP’s “New India” slogan was replete with references to the poor and their upward social mobility, reflecting a change in political idiom from Achche Din to Antyodaya and Garib Kalyan (welfare of the poor).
The PM articulated the political message and transformed the celebrations of the UP poll results practically into the launch of the BJP’s campaign for the 2019 elections.
At the same time, the PM and BJP President Amit Shah were already busy framing the popular discourse for the BJP as “empowerment, rather than appeasement, of the poor”.
The policy objectives were simultaneously summed up by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in his post-poll comments. “We see no contradiction between reforms and redistribution of resources. They can be complementary,” said the Finance Minister, asserting that the results imply that the government will be “emboldened” in pushing crucial reform measures without being constantly wary of their political implications. The party’s extraordinary victory, especially in Uttar Pradesh, clearly means critics have to eat crow and the government has the people’s support in implementing any difficult policy measure.
However, as the Prime Minister’s speech at the BJP headquarters indicated, the articulation of the ruling dispensation’s policy perspective would remain strictly clothed in a “pro-poor” idiom. As the BJP expands its social base to Dalits and OBCs besides upper castes who voted for it overwhelmingly in UP and Uttarakhand, the political messaging too will be tailored for the new constituency.
The PM thus described the latest poll results as a “golden moment” in the BJP’s history and an opportunity to work for the downtrodden.
“This is a golden moment in the BJP’s history… We have seen many dreams being promised to win elections. But my dream is to take this ‘New India’ forward in the 75th year of our Independence. I am not someone who thinks in terms of elections… What these results have done is to empower my ambition for 2022, to fulfil the aspirations of every Indian, to take India to newer heights,” said the PM.
While framing the contours of the BJP’s campaign for the next general elections, the PM described the poor and their upward social mobility as the new policy paradigm.
“We are informed by Deen Dayal Upadhyay’s mission of Antyodaya and Garib Kalyan. I see the potential in India’s poor in contributing to nation-building. The poor are our biggest asset. The middle class has thus far borne the burden of more taxes, following all laws, rules, traditions. If the poor are empowered, the burden on the middle class will decrease. I see this as the guiding economic principle for the New India,” Modi said.
‘Hope for the future’
Amit Shah made no secret of the party treating the poll verdict in the five States as an endorsement of the Prime Minister’s leadership and his policy initiatives, especially demonetisation.
“In demonetisation, the poor found themselves united with the Prime Minister and the government… Today, for the first time after Independence, we have a Prime Minister who had ignited a hope for the future among the poor…”
More recently, a perception is gaining traction that the prime minister has made a mess of the economy, and under his tutelage the country is going berserk. Perceptions win elections. Does this mean it is curtains for BJP in 2019? Or does Narendra Modi have another game up his sleeve? It is difficult to gauge the exact time when it started building up but it can be said that it started with the publishing of figures that India grew at a measly 5.7 per cent in the quarter ending June 2017. The perception was also boosted up by incessant withering criticism of government’s policies from some of its own senior leaders.
With the prime minister launching a passionate defence of the government’s economic track record and policies the perception got certified. Be that as it may, the narrative has infused hope into previously hopeless Opposition ranks. Modi’s detractors have suddenly rediscovered their voice. They are suggesting that this economic disaster is caused by the prime minister’s hubris since he is too insular to listen to anyone. They are also saying that it is just a matter of time before the palpable anger among voters is reflected into the ballot box.
All this could be true. If indeed the economic slowdown is chronic, and not transitory, then it is bad news for India and good news for the Opposition. All they need to do is to carry the message home that Modi has botched up and let the government stew in its juices.
Cries of eternal economic damnation, however, are unsupported by facts. There is no doubt that there is a slowdown. Not just the indicators or institutions who are suggesting it, even the prime minister’s own council of economists are in agreement. The key contention, therefore, isn’t whether there is a slowdown, but whether it is transitory in nature with the short-term shock in both demand and supply giving way to a stable correction in indices.
Both the IMF and World Bank, which have lowered India’s GDP growth forecast, appear optimistic. They suggest that Modi has initiated deep structural changes in the economy, and the reform process may soon begin to show results.
“The reform process has been significant. We think that certainly in the medium and long term, the growth will reflect the seriousness of Prime Minister Modi’s government in making those reforms,” World Bank chief Jim Yong Kim recently told reporters in Washington. He added that GST “would be very good for Indian growth, but for now the sense is that companies are waiting until that passes before really making investment and taking action. So, our sense is that this (slowdown in growth) is temporary,” according to news agency PTI.
Though an uptick in the economy may be underway, but that doesn’t sufficiently dispel the notion that the economy is under siege. It is undeniable that the trader community is seething. A forced formalisation of the economy and implementation woes of currency ban and GST have turned BJP’s core support base into unrelenting sceptics. Social media, where once it was difficult to find a voice a critical of Modi, is now awash with such criticisms.
The salaried middle-class feels overtaxed, unattended and restive. The SME sector is gasping for breath. Private investment is down and jobs are nonexistent. Little wonder that Opposition sees a chink in Modi’s armour, and Rahul Gandhi has spent the better part of his Gujarat campaign ripping apart the prime minister’s policies and bad-mouthing big businesses. The section of media which could never reconcile with Modi’s ascension now detects a palpable “change in mood” .This is where Modi’s detractors underestimate his political acumen. If the Opposition has a narrative, so does Modi. And it is an equally powerful one, albeit almost totally under the media radar.
It is a fact that Modi has done next to nothing for the middle class except a token reduction in fuel cess or an assurance to traders that government will turn a blind eye to past avoidance of taxes. Their anger at being left high and dry has added to the perception that Modi is “doing nothing”.
It is difficult to believe that the prime minister is insular to this frustration. However, he is unlikely to go beyond a point in addressing that frustration. This is because Modi believes that the narrative for 2019 won’t be the same as 2014. If the earlier one was about ‘hope’ and achhe din flowing from UPA’s corruption and policy paralysis, the 2019 story will be about the ‘poor’.
There could be many reasons behind this shift in Modi’s strategy. The Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls gave us a fair indication of how the media is practically clueless about the sectors that it doesn’t represent. There is substantive goodwill for Modi among rural women due to the significant success of Ujjwala scheme. If the various media reports are to believed, then the scheme has surpassed its target “by a third this year” and the government is well on its way to allot five crore free connections to rural women by 2019.
The salutary effect of successful implementation of such a scheme, targeted at a voiceless section of the populace, is not easily quantifiable by numbers. We find some indications of the goodwill in BJP’s electoral fortune in Uttar Pradesh, and Modi recently took it to the next level by targeting last-mile implementation of free electricity connection to over 40 million “willing” households by December 2018 at a cost of Rs 16,320 crore. The ‘saubhagya’ scheme may result in electoral saubhagya for BJP because like fuel, electricity is a basic need that has a cascading effect in uplifting the fortunes of the poor.
According to a report in The Indian Express the scheme, will also make for “solar power packs of 200 to 300 watt-peak (Wp), along with battery bank, for un-electrified households located in remote and inaccessible areas. This solar pack will include five LED lights, one DC fan and one DC power plug.”
It is also easy to overlook the government’s stunning success in financial inclusion of the poor through opening of bank accounts. The Jan Dhan account forms the backbone of JAM (Jan Dhan, Mobile, Aadhaar) trinity and, as The Hindu Business Line noted in a recent report, includes total balance of “Rs 65,697 crore as on August 9, 2017. The rural tilt of the scheme comes across in the fact that 17.61 crore beneficiaries, out of a total of 29.48 crore account-holders, hail from rural and semi-urban branches.” A total of 22.70 crore RuPay cards have so far been issued to account-holders, according to the newspaper.
Add to these the e-auction of mandis, the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana for increasing the acreage of irrigation, crop insurance program, soil and testing services and the government’s plan slowly comes into focus. Modi isn’t shying away from sending across the message either.
“From Jan Dhan Yojana to Swachh Bharat Abhiyan to Ujjawala to Mudra to Start-UP India to Standup India to Ujala, you will only see the welfare of poor in them. Who had thought that a government will come which will give free bank accounts to 30 crore poor people? Who had thought that a government will come which will provide insurance to the poor at Rs 1 per month and Rs 90 paise premium and give loans without bank guarantee to the poor,” Modi said recently during the launch of rural electrification scheme.
In sum, though the economy is passing through a difficult phase, Modi won’t be an unduly worried man. He believes he has done enough to hedge against middle-class anger. As for the Opposition narrative, it will be interesting to see how it holds up.
By Nilabh Krishna