Why the second wave may not hurt Narendra Modi politically
That the second wave of Covid-19 infections plunged India into one of its worst crises is beyond doubt. Given the scale of devastation, the acute supply side crisis on the vaccine and health infrastructure front, and the economic damage caused by restrictions, any recovery will be long and painful. This has prompted many to ask if this moment marks the beginning of the dip in political fortunes of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi?
India’s left-liberal intelligentsia, which constitutes the intellectual elite, dislikes Narendra Modi the politician. Modi has exploited the ideas of political Hindutva to unleash a revolution (or counter-revolution) against the established constitutional consensus. Whatever anyone may say, this process has had democratic sanction. Significant sections of voters do not see the removal of Modi or the defeat of Hindutva to “save the Republic” as the primary political fault line in the country.
The government’s critics also believe that communalism is not the only problem of the current regime; it is accompanied, they claim, by misgovernance. There is an element of truth of this charge, and the inept handling of the pandemic is a case in point. So why is it that the BJP may not pay a political cost for this?
Large-scale policy-inflicted suffering is only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for unseating a political hegemon. It is on this front that India’s left-liberal ecosystem has been guilty of oversight and ineptitude, for it failed to objectively assess the reasons for Modi’s victory in 2014 and 2019.
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Large mandates are almost always born out of the wombs of powerful narratives. Hindutva was the building block of Narendra Modi’s political success in 2014. But what gave wings to his campaign was the promise of a capitalist revolution, aka the pan-Indian scaling up of the Gujarat Model. It is this promise which was sold in the name of Achhe Din.
Narratives have been crucial for other historical milestones in Indian politics too. The BJP’s first tryst with power under Atal Bihari Vajpayee was based on the narrative of putting an end to political instability. This was captured in the slogan of Sabko Dekha Bari Bari, Abki Bari Atal Bihari.
When the Congress inflicted a shock defeat on Vajpayee in 2004, it found its mojo in the narrative of a pro-poor development model against the India Shining campaign and redistributive economics. The honeymoon lasted as long as the economy was growing.
Modi’s popularity started rising as the economy started sinking. His political genius lay in converting what was a macroeconomic crisis in reality into a mismanagement-led disaster in political perception. The corruption scandals under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) didn’t help either. Since 2014, welfare benefits have continued, ghosts of past corruption are exhumed from time to time, and popular perception continues to be actively being shaped, if not controlled.
That the economy was slowing down even before the pandemic is proof enough that the macroeconomic factors which created the crisis have not been dealt with. But unless it is given a political narrative, macroeconomic ineptitude doesn’t necessarily turn the masses (as opposed to economists) against the government.
The Opposition’s political narrative in 2019 was confused. The coming together of arch-rivals such as Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh, and the Congress selling some sort of a UPA style arrangement, made it look like the Opposition was only interested in capturing power. The criticism on the economy did not resonate deeply, for people appeared to think that if it was broken, only Modi could fix it. Nor did allegations of corruption regarding the Rafael deal. The fact that millions received welfare benefits helped neutralise the discontent too.
The economic pain will be discernibly higher in the run-up to 2024. But it will be a mistake to assume that the Modi government can be defeated with promises of enhanced welfare benefits. There is in fact a lesson from 2014. The Gujarat Model campaign worked because Gujarat was a more industrialised state and voters in places such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were enamoured by it. Unless the Congress, or a bunch of opposition parties, demonstrate success at the state-level, their claims of better governance will not have credibility. Delivering on these promises will require breaking away with the established consensus on fiscal prudence, which in turn will require a completely new macroeconomic imagination.
2024 will also be an election where the state of health care could be made into a key issue. The second wave threw many elites out of their comfortable protected enclave of privatised and expensive health care infrastructure. The scarcity of vaccines will only add to this realisation. This offers a unique opportunity for the Indian State to reinvent its legitimacy. But here again, the Opposition will have to demonstrate that a better model can be built in the states where the BJP is not in power that can then be replicated nationally.
Thus, what will hurt the BJP is a forward-looking narrative which has maximum, if not universal, appeal across caste and class divide. But whether or not such a narrative can be built will depend on two political factors.
One, political ambitions will have to be portrayed as subservient to a larger agenda. And two, there will have to be a process of creative destruction in the opposition ranks, with leadership being invested in a person or set of persons who have delivered tangible gains at a state-level and want to scale these policies. Neither variable is present at the moment, giving Modi a cushion that his detractors are unable to see.
The views expressed are personal