BJP: The governance-politics dichotomy | Opinion
Many believe that the scale of the health, economic and national security crises could erode BJP’s prospects. But this view underestimates the faith a large segment of citizens have in ModiUpdated: Jun 27, 2020 18:27 IST
India is facing its most serious, multifaceted crisis in recent decades.
There is, of course, a health emergency, with over half-a-million Covid-19 cases. India’s biggest cities are severely affected. And health infrastructure is falling short to cope with the surge in cases.
There is an economic crisis. Despite some revival in activity and improvement in basic indicators with the easing of the lockdown, the economy is set to contract this fiscal year. The contraction could be as deep as 5%. Demand remains low, supply chains are interrupted, incomes have dipped, and unemployment persists.
Then, there is the national security crisis. China has been aggressive at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), intruding into Indian territory, engaging in a military build-up, attempting to create new facts on the ground, and killing 20 Indian soldiers in a clash.
Any government — irrespective of its political orientation — would struggle to deal with challenges on all fronts, simultaneously. But the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government may have complicated matters further — by not adequately ramping up testing and health infrastructure initially to deal with Covid-19; failing to anticipate the migrant workers crisis; announcing an economic package which had a limited fiscal component and, therefore, is perhaps inadequate to boost growth; and by being less-than-transparent about Chinese aggression.
All three challenges also have a deep public resonance. Down to each village, “corona” is now a well-known disease, with apprehensions about its spread. A majority of citizens — from entrepreneurs and salaried middle-class professionals to workers in the sprawling unorganised sector — have felt the economic pinch. And nationalism is a deeply felt-emotion, with the deaths of 20 personnel of the Indian Army evoking anger across Indian society against Chinese misdemeanours.
This combination of factors — the scale of the crisis, the government’s response, and the very public nature of each of these issues — has prompted many to suggest that this is the beginning of the end of the BJP’s political dominance. It is, indeed, true that this represents a possible political crisis for the ruling party. In 2019, the BJP won on a political agenda based on nationalism and welfare and pro-poor measures. This helped it erect a multi-class alliance. Today, the nationalism plank is under danger, with perceived weakness vis a vis Beijing, and the welfare plank is under threat, with the poor most severely affected by the pandemic.
Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that the governance crises will translate into a political crisis for the BJP. In fact, all tangible signs, so far, suggest that the BJP remains comfortable politically. It has just increased its presence in the Rajya Sabha. In Bihar — the next state headed for elections — the party, and its ally, Janata Dal (United) continue to have the electoral edge. In Bengal, its big challenge next year, the party remains the principal challenger to Mamata Banerjee in what promises to be a tough contest.
But at the macro-level, there are three reasons why, despite its possible governance deficits, the BJP has the political edge.
The first is Narendra Modi himself. The fact is that a large number of voters are willing to give the prime minister (PM) the benefit of doubt on a range of issues. In the first term, when demonetisation began causing economic inconvenience or the Goods and Services Tax regime became a major impediment for businesses, citizens hailed the ideas — since it was associated with Modi — but blamed bureaucrats for flawed implementation. During the campaign run in 2019, it was common to meet young unemployed men willing to blame their own inadequacies but not Modi for the lack of job prospects.
In this case too, there is nothing to indicate that people have stopped trusting Modi. On Covid-19, many argue that it is the nature of the disease itself which has been crippling, the entire world is affected, and, but for the PM having announced the national lockdown, the situation would have been worse. On the economy, many similarly, blame the disease rather than the government. And on China, voters may well blame Beijing and consolidate more strongly behind the government. In all these scenarios, the underlying element is the deep faith many voters have in Modi. It is not obvious yet that this faith is broken.
The second factor is the inability of the Opposition to present a credible case. This has been the bane of the anti-BJP parties for six years at the national level. On the health, economic, or even national security challenge, it is not clear if voters believe that any of the Opposition parties would have necessarily done a better job — or minimised distress.
Instead, some of the criticism may well be counterproductive. While regional parties are broadly unwilling to take on the Centre on China, the Congress has adopted an aggressive posture. It may be asking the right questions about the lack of disclosure on the transgression or holding the government to account on its current strategy. But its deeply personalised attack on the PM has ended up giving the BJP an opportunity to argue that the Congress is actually pleased to see India in a spot. This will hurt its prospects. The absence of clear leadership within the Congress has not helped either, and there is no evidence to suggest that Rahul Gandhi has any more mass base and connect today than he had a year and a half ago during the elections.
And finally, the BJP has an edge because it is the first party which has understood how the pandemic will fundamentally change political campaigning. Like its pioneering embrace of social media almost a decade ago, the BJP has understood that the forms of outreach to voters will fundamentally change. By organising digital rallies, keeping close track of its organisational apparatus on the ground, or mining data of welfare beneficiaries and reaching out to them, it is ahead in adapting to new modes of post-Covid campaigning, even as the Opposition confines itself to organising webinars.
And that is why the story of governance and the story of politics could operate on different tracks in India.