RIGHT Foot Forward

Why things look bad for Narendra Modi ahead of 2019's Lok Sabha polls

Facing anti-incumbency and time lags on key development projects, a unified Opposition is only adding to the leader's troubles. Their strategy is two-pronged: Consolidate all anti-BJP votes. And destroy Modi's own credibility.

 |  RIGHT Foot Forward  |  8-minute read |   22-01-2019
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Let's face it, things are not looking good for Narendra Modi. 

The Deccan Herald published a projection of the BJP's likely numbers if elections were held today. It was not an opinion poll – it was an assessment based on "reporters' instincts, anecdotal evidence and off-the-record conversations with key political figures and analysts across the country”. 

Notwithstanding the disclaimer, no one will easily dismiss it as a figment of the imagination.

At the 'United India Rally' in Kolkata on Saturday, Mamata Banerjee reeled out her calculations – predicting a total rout for the BJP. Though that may have been an extreme view, it was more than just bravado.

Buoyed by this bullish sentiment, Rahul Gandhi's taunts at Modi are getting sharper. And the glee among Modi baiters in the media is now palpable.

rahul-gandhi-copy1_012219013604.jpgModi's tricky situation has emboldened leaders like Rahul Gandhi to fire sharp taunts at the PM. (Photo: PTI)

While some scribes are polishing their drafts of the NDA government's obituary in private, a few have begun to speculate in op-eds how Modi will spend his time in retirement.

Modi fans and cheerleaders are feeling nervous. Even steadfast supporters, like Minhaz Merchant, are now willing to concede that Modi sitting in the opposition looks like a real possibility.

The opposition is working on a two-pronged strategy.

First, the consolidation of anti-BJP votes through local alliances. The second, to destroy Modi’s credibility at all cost.

For the alliance, they are willing to bury ideological differences. To devalue Modi’s image, they are ready to sacrifice the truth.

Thus, sworn enemies like the BSP and the SP are coming together in Uttar Pradesh. Narratives are being built, from Rafale to the CBI, Anil Ambani to Vijay Mallya, with scant regard for any facts.

This has obviously rattled the BJP.

That is apparent in its somewhat defensive reaction. At one level, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have unleashed a tirade against the dynasty. On the other, they are deriding the leaderless Mahagathbandhan, which, they allege, is united only by their “hate for Modi” and a “greed for power”.

How far these arguments are resonating with the public is difficult to gauge. But it is clear by now that ‘dynasty’ is not a bad word for Indians. Similarly, the common person has seen many coalition governments at the centre. In 2014, the BJP came to power with absolute majority. But was it substantially over the coalition governments of the past in terms of performance and delivery?

Perhaps not.

If one were to go by the results of the recent Assembly Elections, there is reason to believe the BJP’s campaign line no longer sounds very compelling. Narendra Modi is still a huge magnet and has a mesmerising effect on his audience – but his “speeches to votes” conversion index is dropping.

modi-mask-copy_012219013632.jpgIt's all a bit forced: Modi-magic seems to be missing from the elections this time. (Photo: PTI)

In contrast, the voters are buying into some of the opposition spin.

This can be attributed partly to anti-incumbency – that would include the backlash against demonetisation and the flawed implentation of GST. But it would also include the fact that the impact of what Modi considers “life-changing” projects have been underwhelming for the population at large.

It is conceivable that due to the slow and uneven pace of roll-out, the schemes have not touched all Indians. For many, they remain either on billboards or heard in speeches of the Prime Minister. But, even where they have been implemented, the perceived benefits have not measured up to the hype. 

It is reported that benefits of Ujjwala have petered out with a falling number of refills and renewals. Many lives have surely been lit up by taking electricity to the last village – but how much electorally fungible goodwill it has created, one does not know. Ayushman Bharat is yet to fully take off – in the absence of basic rural health infrastructure, it will be some time before its impact is visible and felt. In short, mega schemes by definition require long gestation. They may not yield immediate political dividends as Modi may have envisaged.

Infrastructure picked up pace only during the second half of Modi’s term, with Nitin Gadkari stepping on the accelerator. But again, the benefits of roads and bridges come with a time lag. Thus, the BJP failed to encash Atal Bihari Vajapayee’s path-breaking “Golden Quadrilateral” project in the 2004 elections.

Modi and Shah seem to have realised this and are therefore resorting to quick fixes like the debatable 10% EBC quota. There is much speculation on what surprises Arun Jaitley may spring in the interim budget as well. But can it retrieve the sentiments needed with just two months to go for the election?

BJP’s most ardent well-wishers do not look confident.

At present, Modi and Shah seem to be banking heavily on the inner contradictions of the Mahagathbandhan pulling itself down. Shah is probably also punting on the factional feuds within parties. But, smelling success, the opposition leaders and the backroom managers of the Congress seem more committed than ever before to pull off a coup.

shah-modi1-copy_012219013725.jpgHave Modi-Shah lost the development plot? (Photo: PTI)

Besides, in trying to be everything to everyone, the BJP’s own core constituency has developed serious fault lines. The “Mai Ke Lal” controversy of Madhya Pradesh must be hurting still. Other caste fissures are also showing up with minor allies like Apna Dal and Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP throwing tantrums. The social re-engineering that Shah had achieved in 2014 has undergone a reverse metamorphosis of sorts.

It is a pity that in the process, Modi-Shah have lost the development plot. Yet, there is so much to be said on that.

On the economic front, Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, one of our most respected financial journalists, recently wrote, “The Modi government took office at a time when the Indian economy was still recovering from the macroeconomic policy errors of its predecessor.”

But Modi and Arun Jaitley did an excellent job of macro stabilisation through fiscal discipline. In sum, Modi and Jaitley have taken the economy to a far better place than from where they had inherited it, despite demonetisation and flawed implementation of GST, affirmed Rajadhyaksha.

Ravi Srinivasan, Editor, Hindu Business Line, was bang-on when he argued with statistics that the Modi government has a “perception problem”.

This columnist had written a few weeks how Modi has done some excellent work on the foreign policy front. There is absolutely no doubt that Modi has put India back in the game on the global stage.

But the truth as always comes in 50 shades of grey. The story of the Modi government is a classic tale of “Glass half-empty. And half-full”. It is a matter of how it is packaged.

Modi’s problem is that most of his party leaders, including many in the cabinet and official spokespersons, are out of their depth when it comes to discussing issues of substance. Their core competency is limited to debating mandir and quotas. Some other senior leaders, who can actually take on the role of presenting the best face of the party, are either out of action or staying away from the frontline for reasons of their own. The less said of the state-level leaders, the better.

modi_012219013753.jpgModi's problem is not his policies, but in fact, his party leaders. (Photo: PTI)

Talking policy and economics is not Amit Shah’s forte. His place is that of the General and strategist. So, the entire onus is on Modi.

He had done it masterfully in 2014. So much so that he was compared with the “Pied Piper” by Congress leaders.

In the run-up to 2014, Modi was supported by a super social media and communications team. The “Ab Ki Bar” series will go down in the annals of world advertising as one of the best political campaigns ever run.

The sarkari advertisements of various central government social welfare schemes do not have the same emotional connect and tend to fall flat, becoming blind spots after a while.

Ahead of 2019, the BJP’s IT cell has been less than impressive so far. Modi has been trying to supplement his own efforts through the NaMo App and video-conferencing with party “karyakartas” across the country.

Communication via the NaMo App is one-way and relentless. Beyond a point, a saturation campaign through digital medium tends to put off audiences. They automatically tune off.

From the look of the assembled crowd in the video-conferences, it is difficult to judge their level of engagement and enthusiasm. Modi’s physical presence can be electrifying – but it is not the same thing when transmitted electronically.

Overall, Modi magic seems to be missing this time.

Or perhaps, Modi is saving his best for the slog overs. 

Also read: Is an average 8 per cent growth over the next five years possible in India?

Writer

Sandip Ghose Sandip Ghose @sandipghose

Sandip Ghose is a writer and blogger on current affairs. Views expressed are personal and does not reflect those of his employer

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