“We will change the face of India in ten years,” thundered Narendra Modi in a victory speech in Vadodra on May 16, 2014 within hours of his famous general election win. To his critics, this was typical Modi bombast: A leader who had been elected for a five-year term was already talking of a decade in power. Two years later, the euphoria maybe fading, but what is looking increasingly likely is that Modi has every chance of repeating his success in 2019.
This isn’t just about the afterglow of the BJP’s breakthrough win in Assam and the dire obituaries being scripted for the Congress. Politicians and analysts tend to give disproportionate importance to state elections: There is an increasing disjunction between state and general elections. The BJP won all seven Delhi seats in the 2014 general elections but the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) swept to power in the city state barely eight months later. The BJP-led NDA dominated Bihar in the general elections but it was the Nitish-Lalu-Congress combine that won a two- thirds victory just eighteen months later. Chemistry in a state election is shaped by a strong local connect: Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi and a Nitish Kumar in Bihar were the preferred chief ministerial choices here. Arithmetic calculations too change: The Maha-gatbandhan in Bihar in the assembly polls ensured that there was no division in the anti-BJP vote while a meltdown in the Congress vote gave AAP a decisive edge in Delhi.
In a general election race though, Modi remains the front-runner because he is the beneficiary of the TINA (there is no alternative) factor. There is no evidence in the last two years that Rahul Gandhi has the appetite to challenge Modi as a pan-Indian leader. Regional satraps have their limitations too. Nitish Kumar has already bared his ambition, even addressing a rally in Modi’s Varanasi constituency. But attempting to become a national leader without first addressing concerns in your own backyard can cost Nitish as the revival of the ‘jungle raj’ narrative in Bihar has shown. Kejriwal too has ambitions beyond Delhi as he prepares to venture into the Punjab and Goa electoral battlefields. Clearly, he is carefully choosing to strike in states where the Congress is weakening, but scaling up the AAP model will not happen overnight. Mamata Banerjee too, likes to see herself as a ‘national’ leader: Notice how she took questions from the national media in Hindi and English first before turning to the Bengali channels during her post-victory press conference. The fact though is, Didi power works in Bengal but has its geographical limits if attempted beyond the state: Recall her ‘failed’ rally with Anna Hazare in Delhi ahead of the 2014 general elections.
The only hope for a ‘federal’ alternative to Modi is to attempt a United Front-like experiment of the mid-1990s. But this too is easier said than done: The internal contradictions amongst state leaders makes it impossible for them to be seen on a single platform in the near future. Even the Congress, whose social base has been taken over by these regional forces, will find it difficult to completely surrender and accept a B team status across India. Moreover, the country itself will not easily accept a rag tag coalition as a ‘stable’ option to a Modi-led government.
Indeed, it is the changing demographics of India that should comfort the Modi camp. Modi symbolises the urban middle class (largely Hindu) yearning for a ‘strong’ India, an aspirational, meritocratic society that is driven by a desire for speedier growth, less big ticket corruption and yes, a deep suspicion, if not overt hostility, towards the minorities. As the country becomes more urbanised, the Modi model of governance has found a well-defined constituency in the ‘neo-middle class’ who are convinced that India’s time has come. For this large social group, especially amongst younger Indians, Modi remains an iconic figure of hope. The prime minister has also been strategic: He has pushed aspirational ideas like ‘Make in India’ and ‘Start up India’ with pro-poor financial inclusion schemes like Jan Dhan Yojana and Mudra Bank.
So, is Modi unassailable? Yes, with three caveats. First, the self-belief that drives the prime minister’s high decibel politics can get mixed with self-love at times. The ‘dark triad of narcissism, Machivellianism, remorselessness’ that one-time Modi backer Arun Shourie spoke of, reflects a concern that despite all his achievements, Modi still evokes more fear than respect among political peers. Running an effective government in a fragmented polity needs consensus building not perennial confrontation. If 2019 were to throw up a hung parliament, Modi may not be an automatic choice of his coalition partners: You just have to read the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna to realise this.
The second, and bigger concern remains the economy. The ‘achche din’ promise of 2014 was ultimately premised on getting the economy back on track: In more basic terms, it promised more jobs for the young and more money in the wallet. Despite relative macro-economic stability, job-driven growth is still to take off and small and medium enterprises are still struggling. If, as Modi’s advisers claim, the wheel will begin to turn in 2017, then the prime minister’s chances of re-election are virtually guaranteed. Else, hope can rapidly turn to disillusionment.
Finally, there is one factor which even the prime minister cannot micro-manage. Most weather predictions have indicated an above normal monsoon this year. After two consecutive droughts, the Modi government needs bountiful rain to reduce agrarian distress across rural India. Benevolent rain gods will bring much cheer to the people; it will also perhaps further convince Modi that he is truly destiny’s child.
Post-script: A senior BJP MP joked in parliament’s central hall that the BJP and Congress would have the same slogan in 2019: “Rahul Gandhi for prime minister’. In a post-victory interview to me, Mamata echoed this: “Rahul is Modi’s biggest USP”. Even if such comments betray over-confidence bordering on hubris, they do point towards a leadership vacuum in the anti-Modi opposition.