Modi, The Vanquished
When on the eve of the elections to the Delhi Assembly, Union Urban Development Minister M Vekaiah Naidu said that the elections did not amount to a referendum on the report-card of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he let the cat out of the bag of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that the Modi juggernaut (since May 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has won almost all the elections, first for the Parliament and then for state Assemblies) would be halted in Delhi by Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). I think that stupid comment of otherwise an intelligent politician must have cost few lakh votes to the BJP, as the non-committed Indian voters tend to vote for the party that is perceived to be the potential winner. Of course, these votes, even if not “lost” for the BJP, would not have made much difference to the eventual outcome of the polls. Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s new chief minister and his AAP have achieved something that has few parallels in India’s electoral history—he has bagged 67 out of 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly polls and obtained 54.3 per cent of popular votes.
Whether Kejriwal, with a massive mandate behind, will be able to deliver the tall promises, which require hell of a lot of money, resources and massive subsidies from the central government led by Modi, remains to be seen. But history will remember him for having defeated Modi in what turned out to be a one-sided battle. True, compared to its vote share in the 2013 Assembly elections, the BJP has retained its electoral base more or less, with about 32 per cent of the votes. And if the elections in Delhi this time would have followed the usual patterns of a multi-cornered contest under the first-past-post system, this vote-base could well have been sufficient to register another victory for Modi. But it so happened that there was no perceptible third-force in Delhi this time. With the Congress, which ruled Delhi for 15 long years, losing about 15 per cent of its vote share to and other smaller parties deprived of another 10 percent by the AAP, a historic record by Kejriwal (who had got around only 30 per cent votes in 2013) was inevitable.
In that sense, it was not as much a BJP’s defeat as AAP’s victory. I am not impressed with the arguments that the people of Delhi voted for the poll promises that the AAP made in its manifesto. In essence, the promises by the AAP were not very different from those made by the BJP or for that matter by the Congress. All the three indulged in with massive doses of populism. Essentially, Delhi elections turned out to be a personality battle between Modi and Kejriwal. Seemingly the battle was unequal; after all one of the contestants was none other than the Indian Prime Minister, something very unusual in a state or provincial election. But the mighty Modi has been grounded. Indian political analysts see usually the election results either as a vote for somebody or vote against somebody. Many, therefore, may view the Delhi-result as a vote for Kejriwal. However, in my considered opinion, it was somewhat mixed—the mandate is partly for Kejriwal but substantially against Modi. That explains why nearly 45 per cent of the votes that Modi had got in Delhi in last Parliamentary elections did come down to 32 percent in the Assembly elections over a period of nine months. In other words, the question is not why almost all those who had voted for the Congress and other smaller parties in the past migrated towards the AAP. On the other hand, the question that should be asked as to why these “migrating voters” did not consider coming to the side of Modi at all.
One hears some BJP—followers saying that certain migrating voters did come to the BJP, but that was more than out -factored by the dissidents within the BJP, who, in protest against the projection of former cop Kiran Bedi, a rank outsider, as the party’s chief ministerial candidate, made it a point to ensure the defeat of their own party. The BJP dissidents, it is said, also included those extreme elements within the party and the overall “Sangh Parivar” who wanted to teach Modi a lesson for his perceived pro-capitalist and pro-globalisation economic policies. It has been also argued by some that the realisation on the part of the Congress that it did not stand any chance led to deliberate and tactical shift its core support to the AAP camp so as to defeat its principal enemy, the BJP. Well, all these theories may have been true to certain extent, but that cannot explain the massive shift in people’s choice for Kejriwal, something that is unprecedented in Delhi’s electoral history that the winner has got more than 50 per cent of the votes polled.
Then what are the real factors that went against Modi? All told, Modi remains the tallest politician of the country, having a support base everywhere. His nine months in office have not seen any scams. India under him has a better global profile now than what it had under the previous Congress regime. There has not been any serious crisis in true sense of the term under the Modi-rule. Modi has undertaken some anti-poverty measures. However, notwithstanding all this, there are three issues that ail Modi and his BJP. I have written about them in the past in some form or the other.
Let me elaborate them further.
First, there is the growing distance between Modi (and his ministers) and the party-workers/supporters. After assuming office, the ministers are living not only inside “secluded forts”, having shut doors to the activists and well-wishers who had relentlessly worked for him and party’s victory over the years in some way or the other. And what is worse, their lifestyles have changed. The supporters and sympathisers certainly have not taken kindly to Modi wearing costly cloths (though it is a huge myth that his suits cost ten lakh rupees) or his ministers furthering the VIP culture. The one standard argument that one hears is that the ministers are not accessible because they do not want to meet these activists and supporters who are only obsessed with seeking favours from the government. Though that is not exactly the case always and that sometimes well-wishers want to convey meaningful suggestions to the ministers, the fact nonetheless remains that in every established democracy (and this includes the US and Britain), political patronage is a legitimate affair. No leader should think that it is the will of the God that it is he or she who will enjoy the fruits of electoral victory by being a minister and that his or her party workers and supporters should tirelessly strive for the party cause without expecting anything in return. In fact, a successful politician is he or she who maintains the loyalty of his or her supporters and yet is not parochial or sectarian in furthering or doing the bigger national task.
Secondly, Modi is perceived to be talking too much but doing too little at the ground level. For instance, he is talking of “Make in India” programme, but that does not mean much in the absence of first a suitable education policy that will make Indian graduates employable, and secondly concrete administrative reforms. And what is worse, despite all its bravado, the Modi government has not brought under the control the rising food inflation that hits every middle class or poor household very hard. As reported by a national daily, “Prices of most food items have been inching up relentlessly through the past year despite several so-called reforms in management of food supply chains. While staples like wheat flour and rice have become marginally costlier, prices of pulses like masoor and arhar have soared by up to 30%. Barring a few exceptions, prices of vegetables and fruits have shot up by 20 to 50%, and for popular winter fare like peas and leafy vegetables, by nearly 100%”. In Delhi, the paper wrote, “Between January 31, 2014 and Jan 30, 2015, the wholesale price of peas rose 106%, spinach by 94%, carrots by 89%, beans by 68%, cabbage by 61%, brinjal by 57%, methi by 56%, bhindi and green chillies by 47%, onion by 40% and tomato by 33%.” In my opinion, this slow burning food inflation has played havoc with Modi’s electoral fortunes in Delhi. The farmer does not benefit a single pie extra because of this inflation. If the rates of the food items at the retails are 400 to 700 per cent higher than what the farmer gets in reality, then the distribution system has certainly gone beyond Modi’s control.
The third is the fact that Modi continues to face a very hostile national media that is based in Delhi. As I have argued always , the national media is overwhelmingly dominated by journalists who are moulded in what is said to be the Nehruvian framework—“Left and Liberal” and this media literally hates Modi, BJP or for that matter anybody who has an alternate worldview. I laughed the other day at the anguish of a BJP-dissident that Arun Jaitely, the country’s information and broadcasting minister, is totally incapable of controlling this hostile national media, despite heading simultaneously the all-powerful finance and corporate affairs ministries, His point was that Jaitely, if he wants, can always make the lives of these media tycoons so miserable that they will fall in line. I think doing that will be sheer fascism. All told, these media persons working for these tycoons are so ideologically moulded that they cannot be bought or coerced all that easily—in itself a great virtue for the media freedom. But what Modi and Jaitely can do is to convince these media tycoons to hire people having different points of views to enliven the Indian media and democracy. But then, it is going to be protracted process. Modi has to learn to live with a hostile media, a media that will have different yardsticks to judge him, for the rest of his term.
In sum, Modi has no alternative other than living simply, working hard and implementing his promises.
That will be the best way of recovering his lost aura.
By Prakash Nanda