One of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s great skills is the ability to change the media narrative with the power of political messaging and astute event management. So, earlier this week, when he announced a grand Saubhagya ‘power for all’ initiative, the fears of a declining growth rate and job losses were temporarily pushed to the background. That former power minister Piyush Goyal had earlier set an ambitious target of electrifying all homes by May 2017 was conveniently forgotten: in Modinomics, artful packaging of government schemes means the past is dispensable and every announcement is ‘marketed’ as a new beginning, one where dreams matter more than details.
And yet, the truth is the economy is facing a serious challenge, if not a crisis. In 2014, Mr Modi rode to power on a wave of ‘achche din’: the overwhelming sentiment was one of optimism, of fatigue with ten years of UPA rule as much as with the burning desire for a strong leadership that would get the economy back on a high growth track. Nowhere was this sentiment more visible than amongst the middle classes and business communities in urban India: Kolkata was the only major metropolis to resist the Modi surge as the BJP won 37 of the 57 ‘urban’ seats, polling nearly 40% of the popular vote. Three years later, it is the BJP’s urban fortress which is in danger of being breached because of growing concerns over a flagging economy. Businessmen who once lined up to cheerlead the prime minister’s Make in India initiative are less willing to identify with the project even if their public pronouncements may indicate otherwise. Urban youth are getting restless too (witness the ABVP’s recent defeat in Delhi University elections).
Much of this has to do with the feel-bad mood that has set in the post-demonetisation phase. In the initial period after demonetisation, the BJP rode high on the anti-corruption plank : as the supreme political communicator, Modi had the charisma to convert the electoral pitch into a ‘rich’ versus ‘poor’ ‘war’ against black money and project himself as the risk-taking champion of ‘hope’. But now, as the economy falters and businesses downsize, the elation of early 2017 has been replaced by a state of negativism as Diwali approaches. What appeared as an audacious move to clean up the ‘black’ economy is now seen as a self-inflicted wound.
If the BJP still remains in pole position to sweep the final election battles of the year in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, it reflects the nature of the political contestation at the moment and the disjunction between economic realities and electoral fortunes. Firstly, Modi still is, by some distance, the most credible leader who can bank on personal goodwill generated by his image of a non-corrupt ‘karmayogi’ leader. Secondly, the RSS-BJP electoral machine is vastly superior to what the Congress, still struggling to recover from its 2014 drubbing, has to offer. Thirdly, while Rahul Gandhi might have discovered his voice on the west coast of America, western India and the Himalayan mountains pose an entirely different challenge. Fourthly, the narrative of muscular religious ‘nationalism’ is still firmly in the BJP’s corner, even if it may at times be a distraction from the ‘real’ issues. Finally, while the disappointed business and middle classes are slowly drifting away from Modi ‘bhakti’, the prime minister has cleverly recast himself as a ‘messiah of the poor’, with schemes like the universal cooking gas Ujwala programme, and now the Saubhagya power initiative designed to target low income groups. The ‘suit boot ki sarkar’ jibe has pushed the Modi government into consciously re-inventing itself as the ‘gareebon ki sarkar’.
So, are the BJP and Modi invincible? Well, yes and no. Yes, there is no sign yet of a sustained challenge to the prime minister’s narrative of being a ‘new’ India agent of change. But there are also enough historical precedents which show that it doesn’t take long in India for anxiety to turn into anger. Which is why the Modi government would do well to get out of denial mode and accept that demonetisation wasn’t quite the magic bullet it was hyped up to be. But that would require the prime minister to do something he has studiously refused to do so far: admit to any error in judgement.
Post-script: At a recent gathering of business leaders in Mumbai, one heard a familiar refrain of annoyance: “First, demonetisation, then GST, we have been hit with a double whammy!”. So, who would you vote for if elections were held today, I asked. “Narendra Modi and the BJP I guess, do we have any choice?” was the feeble response. The paradox is stark: a rising disillusionment with the Modi government’s policies but limited evidence yet of the disenchantment turning to voter fury.