Amid unrest, Modi and team working on three areas to see BJP through in 2019

But at a time when the challenge against the BJP has sharpened, Narendra Modi’s focus on consolidating governance initiatives as a step to expanding his political constituency offers a clue into the BJP game plan.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses media at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on April 7.(Sonu Mehta/HT Photo)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses media at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on April 7.(Sonu Mehta/HT Photo)
Updated on Apr 10, 2018 08:00 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | By

Pull together the headlines of the last few weeks — bypoll defeats, Dalit upsurge, banking fraud, no-confidence motions, a non-functional Parliament, allies splitting from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), efforts at Opposition alliances and unity — and it appears that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has not only lost control of the narrative but could be staring at a tough fight in the 2019 elections.

But here is the rub.

The man who is at the centre of the Indian politics and against whom all these efforts are directed has barely got into the everyday political battle.

So what is Prime Minister Narendra Modi doing?

This is what one can glean from conversations with those who have a sense of the PM’s governance priorities — it would be a stretch to assume anyone knows his mind — and his own political statements.

For one, the PM and his team see 2018-19 as the ‘Year of Consolidation’. The idea is to sharply channel all energies of the government into a set of limited areas and ensure implementation.

The Modi government is well aware that it does not have a good story to tell the Indian electorate on the job-creation front. Thus the idea is to shift the narrative from an area of clear weakness to an area the government sees as a strength — welfare. The ‘consolidation’ is happening in three broad areas.

One is health — officials say they have been given strict instructions to get Ayushmann Bharat kick-started as soon as possible. In states where such schemes have already been in place, the Centre sees its role as padding up. The challenge is in states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh where there was no semblance of a health support net. The government is aware it cannot see this implemented fully or even substantially before polls, but it needs to get enough going on the ground for the PM to return to voters with the promise of more.

The second area is ensuring the Minimum Support Price (MSP), promised in the budget, indeed reaches the farmers.

Despite criticism, the government is not worried that the MSP does not meet the Swaminathan Commission formula — and is based on the A2 plus FL model rather than the C2 model. Leaders believe that if they can succeed in delivering what has been promised, and in ensuring that farmers get reasonably above their cost of produce and have a cushion if the market prices crash, it will be enough solace.

The third area is rural housing. The PMO is banking heavily on the ministry of rural development and is happy with the pace of work in rural housing. MPs have given political feedback that this is one scheme which is now showing impact on the ground.

Experts and activists express skepticism at whether the government can indeed deliver in these areas. But a person involved with governance initiatives says, “Remember Ujjwala. No one had taken it seriously till UP — and once elections happened, people realised its impact. We are working quietly. If we can deliver on health, agricultural prices, and rural housing, besides continuing our drive on toilets, gas connections and power, the discourse will be different ...”

It is with this push that the PM also hopes to address the emerging Dalit discontent.

In a recent interview, minister Ram Vilas Paswan said that the caste dimension of universal schemes for the poor — Ujjwala, Jan Dhan, food distribution at subsidised rates — is often missed. “90% of the beneficiaries are SCs and STs in these schemes,” he said

Read | The NDA government’s Ujjwala scheme is not a failure

But the political outreach is key here too, which is why the PM has spoken repeatedly of his government’s efforts to honour Babasaheb Ambedkar. In the final BJP parliamentary party meeting of the budget session last week, the PM gave a set of instructions to the MPs — spend time in villages in their constituency with a substantial Dalit population, and ensure everyone in the village gets enrolled in flagship government welfare schemes. Ministers are expected to do the same, and the party has identified villages where half the inhabitants are Dalits.

But there is a challenge.

There remains a contradiction between BJP’s core leadership at the district and state levels — and the constituency the PM is seeking to reach out to. As a BJP leader said, “If our district chiefs are upper-caste well-to-do leaders travelling in SUVs, and our hope is to get the poorest of the poor voter, there is a disconnect. The change in the social background of our leaders has not happened in tune with the PM’s hopes to change our social base. That is the contradiction we keep seeing on the ground.”

He added that this brings in a key risk for the party — losing the old ‘core vote’, and not winning over the new ‘additional vote’. “If this vote comes to us, it will only be because of faith in Modi again. That is where the governance message may help. The party machine cannot bring it on its own.” It is foolish a year in advance to predict the nature of an election contest. But at a time when the challenge against the BJP has sharpened, Modi’s focus on consolidating governance initiatives as a step to expanding his political constituency offers a clue into the game plan of the ruling party. Whether he can succeed in allaying the apprehensions and anxieties of the poor and the Dalits while leading a party where the representatives of these constituencies are still limited is his big 2019 challenge.


    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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