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Modi's pre-poll message seems lost in transition

Even supporters of this government will concede that there has been a shift in the public mood. The euphoria that accompanied the stunning electoral victory last year is dissipating. And on several major issues — most notably the land acquisition Bill — the Narendra Modi regime is now on the defensive.

ht view Updated: Apr 24, 2015 11:05 IST

Even supporters of this government will concede that there has been a shift in the public mood. The euphoria that accompanied the stunning electoral victory last year is dissipating. And on several major issues — most notably the land acquisition Bill — the Narendra Modi regime is now on the defensive.

It is tempting to attribute the change in mood to an Opposition resurgence. And indeed, when the BJP was defeated in the Delhi elections, the party’s supporters claimed that AAP’s victory was only a consequence of Arvind Kejriwal’s popularity in the capital and did not reflect any dissatisfaction with the central government.

But even though AAP is now embroiled in an ugly internal dispute and Kejriwal no longer quite so formidable a figure, the Modi government’s popularity has not recovered.

Instead, the attention has shifted to the unlikeliest challenger.

Ever since the Congress slumped to its worst-ever defeat at the last general election, the BJP wrote the party off. Even those with a more neutral bent of mind believed that the Congress had no future as long as Rahul Gandhi was the heir apparent.

But over the last week, the Congress has begun to seem like a player again. Its consistent opposition to the land acquisition Bill has wounded the government and its new-found aggression has confounded predictions of its imminent demise.

Most extraordinary of all, Rahul Gandhi has gone, almost overnight, from being a figure of fun to becoming somebody whose role the newspaper-reading classes are now beginning to re-evaluate.

The government’s problems are not a consequence of an Opposition resurgence. In fact, the converse is true.

The Opposition is reviving because the government faces public dissatisfaction. If AAP is unable to exploit the disillusionment, then any party that is ready to fill the vacuum — even Rahul Gandhi and the Congress — will take its place.

Why, so relatively early in its term, is the government ceding ground to an Opposition it had destroyed in the Lok Sabha polls?

The problem stems from the failure of the government’s messaging. Nobody is very sure what it stands for any longer.

During the election campaign, Modi promised to provide strong, business-friendly leadership that would reinvigorate the economy and take India forward. It is that message which is now being lost in transition.

All prime ministers who win decisive mandates (Indira Gandhi in 1971, Rajiv Gandhi in 1984, etc) are confronted with the problem of expectations. An electorate that votes for change expects it to happen overnight. But because this is rarely possible, the burden of failed expectations soon turns into disillusionment.

This disillusionment usually manifests itself as an objection to the very factors that led voters to elect the prime minister in the first place.

India elected Indira Gandhi because she was a strong leader. When disappointment set in, she was called a dictator. Rajiv Gandhi was elected because he seemed young and modern. In a couple of years, he was dismissed as a babalog-type or even, a Gucci loafer.

Modi faces a similar problem. Elected because he seemed like a larger-than-life figure who would encourage private enterprise, he is now being caricatured as a megalomaniac who puts his own name on his suits and is beholden to big business.

This was the substance of Kejriwal’s attack on him and now Rahul has adopted the same theme with his crack about suit-boot ki sarkar, and his claim that Modi is gifting everything, from farmland to the Internet, to big business.

To shake off this unflattering caricature, Modi needs to end the disillusionment by doing more on the economic front. But this will take time and over-zealous tax inspectors are making his job more difficult.

Alternatively, he needs to remind us what he and his government really stand for.

His recent pro-poor rhetoric (in his Hindustan Times interview and his speech to BJP MPs) suggests that he recognises this. But it isn’t working because the messaging is too confused.

At one level, his core support base has its own agenda (Hindu revivalism, beef bans, and ghar-wapsi). At another, formerly vocal supporters are reinforcing the charge of crony capitalism.

Ram Jethmalani says the government does not want to act against black money, Subramanian Swamy raises doubts about the Rafale deal, and so on.

But at the most crucial level, the messaging is failing because the BJP sends childish spokesmen to TV channels night after night to make the same tired references to UPA scams from five years ago and to sneer at and heckle anybody with a contrary view.

For instance, the middle class may have been more enthusiastic about the land acquisition Bill if the government had made out a reasoned case. Instead, the arrogant smugness of its spokesmen left even BJP supporters confused.

No decent person will choose a leering, sneering government spokesman over a starving or suicidal farmer. There are few sights that are uglier than the arrogance of power displayed, day after day, on our TV sets.

If the prime minister is to regain the initiative, then he must first decide what message works best with an impatient nation, and then find a better way of communicating it.

This is not impossible to do. Only a year ago, Modi was hailed as a master communicator. But in recent months, he seems to have lost his touch.

If he does not regain it quickly, he may discover that he has resurrected the very Opposition that he was once so proud of having destroyed.

The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Apr 23, 2015 22:46 IST