On February 19, in about 10 days from now, the Narendra Modi government completes 1,000 days in office. The milestone may be only statistically symbolic but comes in a period of intense and defining political significance. On March 11, the verdict in five state elections, particularly the large state of Uttar Pradesh, will be known. Immediately after that negotiations for the next vice-president and president will begin.
By the end of the year, with the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections, India will begin a relentless 18-month steeplechase to the 2019 Lok Sabha contest. The budget of 2018 will be an election-year budget. While Modi and finance minister Arun Jaitley have been careful and principled in avoiding populist and profligate spending and in adhering to a strict fiscal consolidation programme since 2014, to what degree and in what manner the fiscal discipline of four years will be deployed in an election year remains an intriguing question.
It is important to see Modi’s speech in Parliament on Tuesday, February 7, in this context, rather than just limit it to immediate concerns about addressing the voter in UP or Uttarakhand for that matter. In a sense, he was setting the agenda, or testing the waters, for a phase beyond March 11.
This explained why, for instance, he referred to largely the Congress, rather than other Opposition parties. The PM mentioned the Congress’ Lok Sabha leader, Mallikarjun Kharge, by name – as is appropriate in a parliamentary debate, where the leader of the government responds to criticism by the (de facto) leader of the Opposition. He also had a dig at Rahul Gandhi and the dynastic politics that is both the Congress’ principal vulnerability and ultimate calling card.
Why did Modi do this? Does it suggest a new tack or, as Congress enthusiasts fantasise, a recognition that Rahul Gandhi and his party pose a massive political threat? The answer may be a trifle more commonsensical. If one moves on from the current quintet of state elections, then every set of major assembly polls coming up – Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh at the end of 2017, Karnataka in the early summer of 2018, and Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh in winter 2018 – posits the BJP against the Congress.
Second, Modi has long believed voters make rational choices that are rooted in real-life experiences, rather than abstraction. They tend to compare – or subliminally factor in – the record of an incumbent government against that of its immediate predecessor. This is not always the case, of course, and occasionally other motivations and emotions can sway a mandate. Yet, the prime minister’s political logic cannot be altogether dismissed.
As such, in the run up to the 2019 general election, Modi will need to emphasise his personal popularity and credentials – and there is no doubt these remain high, as a variety of opinion polls and anecdotal evidence would suggest – but also how his government has done in comparison to the UPA administration, particularly UPA II (2009-14).
In this regard, the speech on Tuesday was telling. If one sifted through the rhetorical flourishes, the jokes, the references to the Chapekar brothers – whose assassination of plague commissioner Walter Rand in Poona on June 22, 1897, and subsequent martyrdom was a pioneering moment in the Hindu right’s participation in the freedom struggle – then one could detect a purposeful and determined appraisal by the prime minister of how his government has done vis-à-vis the Manmohan Singh ministry.
Some of the comparison was straightforward and numerical: The incremental growth in highway capacity, railway track upgrade, the power sector, and building houses for the poorer sections of society. Some of it was also a response to those, among them BJP’s supporters, who contend his government has not done enough to take on the culture of corruption that marked the UPA’s decline, and not made any big-ticket arrests, achieved convictions and so on.
Modi sought to place the battle against corruption in a broader and deeper context. He referred to demonetisation as one of a series of steps against tax avoidance, and promised harsher steps in the days ahead. He stressed the attempts at cleaning up the subsidy circus and mess that welfare spending has been reduced to, with benefits not reaching those who need them and intermediaries enriching themselves.
As one of many examples, he pointed to the saving of Rs 14,000 crore – or to use media jargon, “the unearthing of a scam worth Rs 14,000 crore” – by identifying and removing 39.5 million bogus ration cards that led to pilferage from the public distribution system and diverted food-grains meant for the poor.
These achievements may mean little to the Khan Market Consensus. They may be irrelevant to a self-appointed intelligentsia’s insistence on what it has decided must mandatorily constitute the “idea of India”. From his vantage position, however, Modi believes such steps have made a difference to lives of ordinary people, have affected millions of households positively – and will stand him in good stead in 2019. The rest is ambient noise.
Ashok Malik is distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation
The views expressed are personal