There is no mistaking the fact that after an unusually long honeymoon with the electorate, the sheen and charisma that characterised Narendra Modi after he was catapulted to power in 2014 are wearing off, albeit slowly.
Modi is still a formidable leader to contend with, especially as an election campaigner where he comes into his own as a fiery orator, but a sizeable section now does not consider him infallible. As for Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, who was derisively referred to as ‘Pappu’ until a few weeks ago, he has gained enough traction to be identified as a mildly credible contender for power.
The middle class that carried the BJP on its shoulders, swept off its feet by Modi’s powerful rhetoric in the run-up to the general elections in 2014, is today in dilemma-- -confronted by the TINA (there is no alternative) factor with Rahul Gandhi viewed as a poor substitute and by failed Modi policies, especially demonetisation of high value currency and an indifferently-handled GST (goods and services tax) which inflicted suffering on the common man. The rural voter too is disillusioned with Modi with a wide gap between promises and fulfillment.
With elections round the corner in Karnataka and subsequently in BJP bastions Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and the general elections scheduled in 2019 slated to be the real decisive battle, the Modi magic would be put to test as never before. There is acute realisation, however, that Modi can turn the tables on the opponent with his mastery over words and his chemistry with the masses as he did in Gujarat in the last stages of the Assembly elections.
The Prime Minister is indeed angling for simultaneous elections to Parliament and State assemblies. If he has his way, he evidently reckons that the BJP which currently is in the saddle in 22 states would be at an advantage. Yet, there are imponderables along the way and the Indian electorate is far too smart for it to be predicted how the polls would go.
Considering that the BJP had swept Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh in 2014, any loss of seats there would affect its overall tally. As things stand, anti-incumbency runs strong in both states and it would be an uphill task for Modi and the BJP to minimise its losses in these crucial northern states.
In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP had peaked, bagging 71 of the 80 seats beside two more won by its ally. Such a performance would be virtually beyond achievement with the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party intending to fight the polls in an alliance. The index of opposition unity has marred the prospects of many a frontline party in the past, Bihar being a living example.
This time around, with 40 seats, Bihar may not pose such a major challenge for the BJP since Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) is back in the NDA camp after several years.
With the BJP having made inroads in the Northeast, there may be some succour for the party from that region in 2019 but nationally it is quite on the cards that the party, despite Modi’s undoubted skills at winning elections will fall short of the half-way mark in the Lok Sabha.
The BJP’s record in winning new friends and retaining old ones has also not been particularly strong. The Shiv Sena is likely to go it alone in theLok Sabha polls.
The Telugu Desam seems to have burnt its boats with the BJP, having walked out of the alliance over the demand for special status following the bifurcation of Andhra state. The Akali Dal will willy nilly go with the NDA but it is not a force to reckon with in the only state in which it was strong—Punjab.
Speculation is rife that Modi now enjoys a cosy relationship with Jaganmohan Reddy whose YSR Congress is riding high in Andhra Pradesh with a sizeable vote share. The BJP may have the last laugh if a tie-up with Jagan becomes a reality.
Kerala and West Bengal are BJP’s Achilles heel where, though the BJP is growing in terms of vote share, it is still way behind the principal parties.All in all, Modi is indeed poised to pass through an ordeal of fire.
He can draw satisfaction from the fact that the opposition would find it very tough to agree on a single leader for their conglomerate. Bigwigs like Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee and Naveen Patnaik have already tacitly indicated that Rahul Gandhi is unacceptable as a common leader.
The strangest things happen in politics and there is no saying how the public views its leaders and changes its mind, but it is still worth asking how this reversal came about. That the sheen has worn off Modi after three and a half years is understandable; people go by their experience and at the moment many Indians are hurting and more worryingly, have little faith that their lives will get better any time soon. But why is Rahul getting so much traction? Is it just that he is a port in the storm and Indians are ready to try him, or is it something more? No one is yet saying that he will defeat Modi in 2019.
There are no easy answers, because public opinion is always a mercurial impossible to predict and difficult to fully understand. One cannot even assume that Rahul’s rising popularity and Modi’s dipping ratings are connected. Modi still has significant support. But there is no denying that Rahul is now being taken very seriously.
Rahul did on occasion have the ability to strike, but the narrative of him being indolent and largely ineffectual was so deeply rooted that nobody was willing to give him a chance.
His own party men were not inclined to fully back him up – in the absence of any clear signalling by his mother and senior party bosses, he was handicapped.
In addition, he was a poor public speaker who looked even weaker when compared to the bombastic Modi. Congressmen deserted the party in droves and some even blamed him directly for their decision.
It would be foolhardy to deny that things have begun to go awry and that the sheen has worn off the Modi government. If the opposition to the government’s performance is still somewhat muted it is because the very thought of Rahul Gandhi as an alternative prime minister sends shivers down the spine of thinking individuals.
The challenge for Modi is to make sure that this remains only a passing phase and there is retrieval before it is too late.