Never before, in the contemporary political history, an election has hinged on whether an individual will win or lose. But now the question, although, it is still 15 months to the general elections, being asked is whether Narendra Modi will become prime minister. No one is bothered about what happens to the BJP.
Pandit Nehru was a much stronger and known leader with almost mystical connect with the people, but elections in those days were between parties and Nehru vs. Lohia, for instance. But the 2019 general elections will be unique, no ideology, no political issues, no party appears to be in contest; it can be said that 2019 poll will be somewhat akin to a presidential election.
The Congress would have us believe it will be a combat between Modi and Rahul. Unfortunately, for the 47-year-old youthful Congress president, he is not acceptable by opposition leaders to lead their anti-Modi united front. So only way Rahul can confront Modi is to go it alone.
If he decides to do that the opposition unity will crack further. Rahul and so all others in the opposition have to concede that the fate of Modi is in focus of not only political leaders but every household, especially those who like Modi. They are not essentially right-wingers but they genuinely believe that if anyone can, in the present crop of leaders do anything positive, it is Modi. No wonder, after an incumbency of four years his approval rating is 70 per cent.
This is the difference between the Nehru era and now. If Nehru was a much-loved leader, others like Syama Prasad, Ram Manohar Lohia, all had their pockets of admirers. But presently, Modi seems to be a colossus and the leaders of other parties have yet to recover from the bashing of 2014. They have already conceded that they cannot take on Modi individually. This is why we have witnessed the scrambling for stitching up a united front of opposition parties to challenge Modi in 2019.
The opposition leaders cannot believe that they were uprooted in 2014 by Modi, then .a state politician. But then he started straddling across the country and winning over people with his oratory, the opposition within his party indicated that he was within the striking distance of the coveted gaddi of prime minister.
The opposition leaders uprooted from their power by the Modi storm are still not able to match his dynamism, his ability to innovate schemes which win votes. Mere criticism, especially, attempts by Rahul to insinuate that Modi is corrupt is proving counter-productive. Even worst of his enemies have not questioned his integrity. Rahul seems desperate, every wrong is immediately attributed to Modi.
He has as yet not realised that people by now have started ignoring his attacks on Modi. Rahul should take a cue from AAP. Its leaders have stopped attacking Modi, because they realised that even some of their hard-core supporters did not like any obsessive criticism of Modi. The desertion by Nitish Kumar from the opposition ranks and joining Modi has been a great boon for Modi and a disaster for the opposition.
The numbers for Modi came mainly from states in the north India. The places where he was particularly dominant were those where the BJP either had sitting governments or had a strong presence. These were Modi’s home state Gujarat (where he won 26 out of 26), Rajasthan (25 out of 25), Madhya Pradesh (27 out of 29), Jharkhand (12 out of 14), Himachal Pradesh (4 out of 4), Haryana (7 out of 10), Delhi (7 out of 7), Chhattisgarh (10 out of 11), Uttarakhand (5 out of 5) and Uttar Pradesh (71 out of 80).
This sweep of the northern states plus a handful in the northeast took Modi to over 200 seats, the first time such numbers had been delivered in 30 years. He then only needed to deliver average performance in the other parts to win. So the simplest path for him would be to do the same thing again.
But it is, especially after the severe setback in Rajasthan, seemingly impossible for him to duplicate the 2014 performance in the north. In some places, like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat and possibly even Yogi’s Uttar Pradesh, Modi will find it rather daunting to repeat the performance of 2014 in 2019.
It is logical also. How can one improve on 100 per cent, in many northern states the BJP had won all the seats. It is not possible after four years of incumbency. In his home state Patidars have been gnawing in the support base. Dalits are quite disillusioned.
In Gujarat, the BJP, as said earlier, faces revolt from its most loyal voter, the Patidar. In Rajasthan, there is a young leader in Sachin Pilot who has the charisma to attract voters. Vasundhra Raje is the tallest leader in her state but she looks jaded compared to the youthful Pilot. But it seems luck has not deserted the BJP completely. The Congress has announced that Ashok Gehlot will be its chief minister in case it wins.
Between him and Raje, there is no comparison as far as charisma and popularity is concerned. But Gehlot has an advantage, he can mix with common people as an equal, but Raje, although she tries hard, cannot rid of her imperious ways.
In Punjab, too, Capt Amarinder Singh is a tough leader and Modi cannot steamroll him. it will be a seat-by-seat fight. So, the political scenario and equations have changed much since 2014.
Fortunately for Modi, there is some space for him to do better in other big states. He will most likely improve his strike rate in Maharashtra (where he won 23 out of 48), Bihar (22 out of 40), Odisha (1 out of 21) and in West Bengal (2 out of 42). In Maharashtra, the BJP has become the state’s dominant party, eclipsing Congress, Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress and Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena.
In West Bengal, local elections showed that the BJP had replaced the Congress as the opposition, and in Odisha it has secured a foothold. This remarkable turn- around is due to a large extent to Modi’s overall popularity and it will benefit his candidates in 2019. The five southern states then become much less crucial for Modi. However, here also he is well placed. He will probably match or improve on his performance in Karnataka (17 out of 28), Andhra Pradesh (2 out of 25), Kerala (0 out of 20), Tamil Nadu (1 out of 39) and Telangana (1 out of 17). In some of these states, the BJP has a good vote share even in defeat (for example 10% in Kerala). It is placed to become a permanent presence there.
The major asset of Modi is his confidence and refusal to accept that he faces defeat. He is still announcing plans, the latest being for improving the economic state of farmers. This will disappoint the opposition which had hoped that frustrated farmers will desert the BJP.
Modi is now using Man ki Baat to remind the voters all that has been done by his government. Recently, he talked about Mudra Bank, which was set up some time ago with a capital of Rs. 25,000 crore. Under this scheme, hawkers, those doing business from kiosks, or one who has a small shop, were to be provided money to improve their outlets. They have also been provided guidance to run their businesses better.
The Information and Broadcasting Ministry has been asked to prepare a documentary to showcase all the achievements of the government. A bit of puffery cannot be ruled out.
For instance, a village near Unnao, which got electricity some time ago, and all the households were fitted with a metre, could enjoy the dazzle of light only for a few weeks. It is back to lightless days. This will certainly be not included in the documentary being made by I&B Ministry.
This lack of monitoring of welfare schemes can be a major hurdle in Modi sprinting to the victory post. The schemes like electrifying the rural areas are poll winning propositions but if no follow-up is done, they can damage re-election odds severely. Reports suggest that the other excellent scheme, Swacch Bharat, too has suffered due to lack of follow-up or faulty execution at the ground level.
Modi has been asking his ministers and MPs to monitor the execution of schemes that touch the lives of the people but most have not been able to get out of their air-conditioned living room. Thus, the schemes, which should have normally assured his return to power, have become a bit of liability.
The plus factor is that on the personal level, Modi’s credibility or even popularity has remained high. No one, for instance, will believe that he is dishonest. Rahul Gandhi’s raking up of Rafale deal and insinuating that Modi is involved in some sort of shady dealing has been like blowing one’s trumpet in the Tammany Hall. Has anyone bothered to support his demand for opening the files of Rafale deal, not even his own party men joined him in his foolish errand. This single-minded obsession to berate and denigrate Modi has, ironically, made him redundant politically. While he thought through Rafale, he will perish Modi, he lost ideal opportunity to take advantage of BJP losing Ajmer and Alwar. Just about the time the results came to be known, Tavleen Singh had written about the pitiable state in which people were living in three villages not far from Jaipur.
Rahul Gandhi would have reaped political dividend and improved the chances of his party winning the Assembly election slated for later this year by demanding an inquiry into the working of the Raje government. But his myopic vision does not go beyond Modi. And that has been his doom. The opposition leaders are trying hard to form a united anti-Modi front to take on Modi in 2019, but they have made it clear they would not accept Rahul’s leadership.
Call has already been made for Mamata Bannerji to lead the united opposition front.
There is, of course, the incumbency factor that the opposition hopes will work against BJP. It has been at the peak of popularity and power, ruling in 19 states. The BJP expects national elections in 2019 to deliver an even bigger mandate than in 2014. As well as winning Uttar Pradesh with the biggest majority for any party since 1977, the BJP is hoping that if it loses Rajasthan, it will counter by snatching Karnataka.
The state victories are being seen as an endorsement of Modi’s high-risk decision to scrap high-value banknotes, an anti-corruption measure that was unpopular and which many economists said would hamper growth and the GST.
The state wins vindicated his decision to turn the campaign into a referendum on his own performance since coming to power. With expectations rising high, his biggest challenge now will be to create millions of jobs for the country’s surging population.
“We may get things wrong, but we won’t do anything with wrong intentions,” Modi said in a speech at the BJP headquarters, broadcast live by several television networks, not too long ago.
One thing is also clear that the record win in Uttar Pradesh infused confidence in Modi and the BJP that they will win 2019. “We have got five years for 1.25 billion of my countrymen to take India forward,” Modi said urging Indians to unite as his supporters chanted “Modi! Modi!” The election results have strengthened the resolve to fulfil the dreams of India of 2022.
Modi does not have any worthwhile opposition to worry about. What he has to fear is erosion in his support by the young who remain unemployed and the millions who first benefited from his schemes but are back to square one. If the voter is outraged, he does not care about the alternative.
But if one is to bet on the winner, one should put on Modi. He has the government, 19 states to back him, and committed voters. In the opposition, one has leaders but no base. Above all, no one can match his clean image. An honest man, who has the courage to say sorry for his mistakes.
By Vijay Dutt