The Bharatiya Janata Party’s spectacular victory in Uttar Pradesh makes Prime Minister Narendra Modi appear unstoppable in his quest for a second term in 2019. The BJP’s winning streak through the state and local body polls held since Modi stormed to power in the national election of 2014 demonstrates how the party’s well-oiled election machine has gone from strength to strength. It draws its strength from the formidable triad of a popular leader in Modi, the state apparatus and an expansive network of volunteers from the BJP’s ideological fountainhead, the RSS.
In contrast, the opposition is in disarray and continues to disintegrate. The failure of the Congress party to seize the opportunity in Goa and Manipur, where it emerged as the single-largest party but fell just short of a majority, reinforced once more how India’s grand old party is just that – “grand” and old. It no longer has the appetite or the ability to go for power. As one commentator put it, the Congress has been reduced to a flock of headless chickens.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is the imminent danger of a split in Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, the dismal showing by Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab and Goa, the huge setback to Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal in the recently held panchayat elections, the festering power tussle in Tamil Nadu and the growing unease in relations between Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and his ally Lalu Prasad. All of these dim the prospects of a strong realignment of regional parties to take on the BJP in 2019. As Omar Abdullah rightly conceded, “at this rate, we (the opposition) might as well forget 2019 and start planning/hoping for 2024.”
So, what could possibly stop Modi from returning to power in 2019? The answer perhaps lies in the way we look at the mandate. Take the case of Uttar Pradesh. About 40% of the voters chose the BJP over the others. They were overwhelmingly Hindus, mostly upper caste and non-Yadav OBCs. There have been suggestions that the BJP succeeded in consolidating their support, because it excluded the Muslims from its political equations in the state and raised the pitch for communal polarisation. I disagree. The campaign around Hindutva definitely helped, but it was not the most important determinant of the outcome. Most Hindus voted for the BJP because they still see in Modi a leader who can help them realise their aspirations, even though his government’s policies have yet to bring tangible gains. He is still seen as a leader “who is trying to do something, while others are merely protesting.” That narrative is reinforced again and again by Modi himself, via 24x7 news channels, social media and every mass-contact platform available with the government. So far, it seems to have worked, making the Gujarat strongman appear invincible and helping BJP steadily expand its national footprint.
But Modi knows the imponderables that will come in his way, between now and 2019. His party is now in power in 15 states that account for nearly 60% of the nation’s population. By the time national elections are held in 2019, it might have added a couple more states to its kitty. The wins in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand have taken the BJP closer to making its nominee the country’s next president, in the elections scheduled for this July. In about a year’s time, it will be in a position to muster enough support in the Rajya Sabha to push through any legislation. In other words, Modi and the BJP can do pretty much what they want to do. For not being able to do what they ought to do, they will have none to blame.
Modi knows his government’s policies have so far failed to reverse the trend of jobless growth. Education and skill levels fall far short of what the country’s youth need to be gainfully employed. The push for a digital India has improved productivity in some areas and added to transparency in government services, but as a policy it has been labour-displacing and the economic gains are not widely shared. In the aftermath of demonetisation, there is heightened distress in rural areas, where farm incomes were already getting squeezed and indebtedness had been on the rise. In the cities, the middle class is getting restless over the rising costs of living, stagnating wages and increasing layoffs. The global economic environment remains not-so-benign to provide any external growth stimuli. Nor does the government have enough money in its kitty to pump-prime the economy.
Modi knows he has yet to come good on his promise of achhe din. And he knows, to return to power in 2019, he needs a new narrative that shifts the goalpost and is strong enough to overshadow the promise of achhe din. That is why, in his thanksgiving address to party workers on Sunday, a day after the verdict, he made another pledge – building a “new India” by 2022. It remains to be seen if the electorate reposes its faith again in yet another ephemeral promise from the Prime Minister.