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BJP seems to be on fast track to wrong lane

Narendra Modi must know that there are rumblings of discontentment with his development constituency and that the only reason his popularity still survives is the absence of an alternative

columns Updated: Mar 10, 2016 01:27 IST
Narendra Modi,Hindutva,LK Advani
The Modi government talks of anti-nationals, of Ishrat Jahan and other Pakistan-inspired terror conspiracies and questions the patriotism of those who oppose it(AFP)

When we discuss the remarkable success of Narendra Modi’s election campaign and the manner in which he went from being a controversial chief minister of Gujarat to becoming the first prime minister with an overall majority in Parliament in 30 years, we forget that Modi fought — and won — two separate campaigns.

A year or so before he took on and defeated the tottering UPA, he fought another campaign. Though this seems hard to believe now, back in 2011, Modi was neither the unquestioned leader of the BJP nor the party’s candidate for prime minister.

In those days LK Advani was the leader of the BJP and still entertained hopes of becoming prime minister. Nobody in the BJP disputed Modi’s charisma but the consensus was that he was too divisive a figure to run for prime minister. Instead, even those who believed Advani could not possibly make it to prime minister talked of a scenario where Modi assumed a national position — perhaps as party president — but that the prime ministership went to a more consensual figure like Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley or Sushma Swaraj.

Because he recognised that the BJP leadership would not make him the party’s prime ministerial candidate, Modi fought his own campaign to get the job. He appealed directly to party workers — who tended to be more extreme in their views than the average BJP voter — and presented himself as a champion of Hindu values and an enemy of the secular establishment and media. His campaign used social media to connect with hardcore BJP-supporters who had tired of AB Vajpayee and Advani’s pussyfooting around Hindutva issues and presented Modi as a strong leader who was proud of his Hindu agenda.

This approach was so successful that the BJP had to brush aside Advani’s objections, put a lid on Rajnath’s ambitions and accept Modi as its prime ministerial candidate.

It was only after that campaign was won that Modi launched the election onslaught we remember. This time around, he played down the Hindutva agenda and focussed instead on development and the corruption of UPA-2. What India needed, he declared, was a strong leader, not a silent figure like Manmohan Singh. If India elected a BJP government, the economy would soar, the rupee would strengthen, black money would be brought back from abroad and lakhs of rupees would land in everyone’s bank account. And so on.

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That campaign worked brilliantly and Modi already had the Hindutva vote in his pocket. But now he appealed to a different constituency. These were people with no love for Hindutva or for any polarising agenda, but were tired of the UPA’s scams and were fed up of Manmohan Singh’s silent and indecisive leadership. The stuff about Modi being a divisive figure, they decided, was just propaganda. He had no anti-Muslim, anti-Dalit agenda. He genuinely wanted India to move forward and knew how to do it.

Nearly two years into his prime ministership, Modi has begun to disappoint that second constituency. Some of it is not his fault. A global economic slowdown has not allowed him to deliver: The rupee has weakened further, the Sensex has not soared, manufacturing and exports are both down.

But some of it is clearly his fault. He overpromised on such issues as black money and misled voters — with his attacks on MGNREGA and other welfare schemes — into believing that he was a reformer. In fact there have been no structural reforms to speak of, no real privatisation and the UPA schemes he once derided (MGNREGA, Aadhaar, etc) have been shamelessly hijacked to become part of his agenda.

Modi must know that there are rumblings of discontent within his development constituency. He must also know that too many of his campaign promises remain unfulfilled. And shrewd politician that he is, he must recognise that the only reason his popularity still survives is the absence of an alternative.

So he has shifted course. He has abandoned his reform-hungry, development constituency and returned to the hard Hindutva-wallahs who were his original support base. There is no more talk of peace with Pakistan, of reaching out to the Opposition (without whom he can’t pass his economic legislation). Instead, the government talks of anti-nationals, of Ishrat Jahan and other Pakistan-inspired terror conspiracies and questions the patriotism of those who oppose it.

In the short run, this strategy draws cheers from the faithful. But it is hard to see how it can work for the next three years. The pro-farmer measures in this year’s budget will take time (well, more than three years) to translate into any kind of voting support. The development constituency that Modi has now forsaken may not be overly secular but it does believe in social justice and in not jailing poor students on trumped-up charges. Nor does it want the tensions associated with Hindu-Muslim polarisation.

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At the last general election, the BJP got around 31% of the national vote. As this was a Modi-wave, it is reasonable to assume that at least 10% of that vote came from the development-wallahs. (In 2009, the BJP got 19%). If Modi loses even 7-8% of those votes, then the BJP will crash to defeat.

And yet the strategy that the government is following seems headed in that direction. If the polarisation — accompanied by Manmohan Singh-like silences on the part of the PM over key issues — of the last two months keeps up, that itself (let alone the economic failures) will drive away the development-wallahs.

Modi will then be left with his core constituency — the people who helped him defeat Advani. These are loyal followers. But they also want more Hindu-Muslim polarisation, not less. And while they may cheer the “everyone-else-is-anti-national” agenda loudly enough to offer a beleaguered PM some comfort, they are too small a minority to help Modi win a national election.

So what is the prime minister playing at? Is there some game plan? Or are these just the confused, knee-jerk reactions of a government plagued by unfamiliar adversity?

I imagine we shall soon find out.

First Published: Mar 09, 2016 22:34 IST