Aditya Sinha: Surfing the Modi wave one last time
If the BJP declares early elections with the hope of riding the Modi wave one more time, it will likely backfire
Citizens in Siliguri protest against the budget on February 2, 2018. Pic/AFP
Delhi is abuzz with talk of an early Parliamentary election. Even Congress veteran Ghulam Nabi Azad is telling his colleagues to prepare for a November 2018 election, instead of in May 2019, when the current Lok Sabha lapses. The buzz is that Assembly polls in Mizoram, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh would be held along with the parliamentary poll. The Union Budget presented last week supports this speculation. The blowout suffered by the BJP in the Rajasthan by-polls is being extrapolated to predict a two-thirds majority win for the Congress in the next Assembly poll, and the best way to minimise the damage is to link it to the Parliamentary election and hope that local issues get subsumed by a campaign centered around Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Haven't Modi and his party chief Amit Shah learned the lesson of 2004, when AB Vajpayee was against his will hustled by the late Pramod Mahajan into an early election that he lost? Modi and Shah's immunity to "once bitten, twice shy" stems from the rural distress that has gripped large swathes of India. Modi had promised to double agrarian income by 2022 but, instead, has taken things backwards. No wonder the BJP lost the recent by-elections and barely scraped home in Modi's home state, Gujarat. He and Shah are under no illusion that they will repeat the parliamentary bumper crop of 2014.
In Modi's and Shah's calculations, they must strike while the Opposition is disunited. Congress chief Rahul Gandhi experienced a political resurgence during the Gujarat Assembly campaign, and he has learned valuable lessons about delegation in Rajasthan, but to defeat the BJP he and the rest of the Opposition need to figure out the tricky business of making common cause. Things stirred recently with a dinner hosted by Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar, and then a meeting hosted by Sonia Gandhi in her capacity as UPA chairperson. From these events, it's clear that the senior leadership in the non-Congress parties need time to get used to dealing with Rahul. These unity moves will gather momentum only in April, post Holi, etc.
And with a new leader as the pivot, unity moves will naturally encounter speedbumps: several regional parties like the Trinamool Congress and the DMK have stayed aloof from such gatherings. Modi and Shah calculate that their best chance lays in going into battle before the Opposition gets its act together; their job was half done when Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar returned to the NDA fold. However, they have to act fast, lest NDA constituents like the Shiv Sena or the Telugu Desam jump ship, as they have threatened.
A sinister factor in Modi's and Shah's thinking is the threat within the BJP itself. In 2014, BJP senior citizen LK Advani had hoped to become prime minister despite Modi having led the campaign from the front. His calculation was that if the BJP did not get a majority then the allies would not agree to the 2002-sullied Modi as the NDA candidate and he himself would slip through. Advani is no longer politically relevant but there are several leaders younger than him who are Modi's contemporaries and are ambitious. They hold important posts in the government. Relevantly, they will be more acceptable to the BJP's allies (and may even win the support of regional parties that have stayed aloof). Modi knows that if the BJP wins only 200 seats or so, he would be the allies' last choice. It is imperative that to stave off an alternative power centre within, Modi and Shah maximise the party's number of seats, and thus the logic of early Parliamentary polls.
This does not take into account the possibility that the new voters may overwhelmingly prefer the Opposition's younger leadership to the tired old faces of Modi and Shah; and that middle-of-the-road voters that chose Modi in 2014 may now experience buyer's regret. The argument that the wave that swept Modi into power might sweep him out is not an outlandish one. Rajasthan proved that no matter how much you let the fringe hijack public consciousness with their anti-Padmaavat threats and violence, it may not sway a voting population that has already decided to teach the powers that be a lesson. Perhaps demonetisation endeared Modi to many poor UP voters last year in the belief that he had stuck it to the rich; but now even Modi does not bank on it, given that he begs voters not to judge him on that alone. Indians are shrewd and see that the more things change, the more they remain the same. For them, Modi no longer represents a break from the establishment (even if Rahul is less of a break, he's at least fresh). Modi is now the establishment, and anti-incumbency will dictate the timing of the next Parliamentary election.
Aditya Sinha's crime novel, The CEO Who Lost His Head, is available now. He tweets @autumnshade. Send your feedback to email@example.com
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