A cheery optimism is a politician’s constant companion. Which is why as survey after survey shows the Narendra Modi-led NDA poised to return to power, opposition politicians have been reminding one and all of what happened in 2004 when all poll predictions went horribly wrong and the Congress-led UPA bested the Vajpayee government. Is ‘Modi Shining’ 2019 going to be a sequel to the ‘India Shining’ of 2004, an illusory bubble that is about to burst, is the big question? My answer: yes and no.
Yes, much like in 2004 when there was an attempt to build a personality cult around Atalji, there is an even more glitzy effort on to cast Mr Modi as a larger than life strongman. From biopics to web series, from NaMo Tv to the NaMo app, from prime time tv to live speeches, Brand Modi is literally everywhere. The danger of an over-kill is real and the weight of public expectations is potentially overwhelming. To that extent, the relentless Modi-centric campaign is a double edged-sword: it converts a parliamentary battle into a presidential-like contest but also can put off the voter who is suspicious of the endless publicity.
And yet, to liken the 2019 ‘Modi Shining’ marketing blitz to the fallibilities of the 2004 ‘India Shining’ campaign is misleading. At the outset, the notion that Mr Vajpayee lost power because the hype around his government didn’t match the reality is a misreading of the 2004 mandate. Mr Vajpayee primarily lost power because his allies in the south – the TDP and the AIADMK – suffered a near wipe-out. He lost ground in the populous states of UP and Bihar too,
partly because after the 2002 Gujarat riots, there was a strong caste-community consolidation against his government, but also because the BJP organization in these states was atrophying. Mr Vajpayee’s personal popularity was intact even as his party was in retreat.
That is not the case in 2019. While Mr Modi remains India’s neta number one by some distance, the BJP too is now the principle pole of Indian politics. Where 15 years ago, the BJP was in power in barely half a dozen states, today it controls more than 16 state governments. The party apparatus, especially across key states of north and west India, is far superior to its rivals. In 2004, the BJP’s geographical limitations were apparent: today, the party is venturing into greenfield areas in the east and north-east. Moreover, while the BJP under Vajpayee was a party that worked within its constitutional limits, the ‘new’ BJP under the Modi-Amit Shah duo is a seemingly inexhaustible machine that will stop at nothing to demolish its rivals, from tax raids to brazen institutional subversion.
By contrast, the Congress of today is much weaker than the party was then. The two states of Andhra and Maharashtra, which were key to the revival of the Congress, are a pointer to the crisis of the grand old party. In a divided Andhra, the Congress is now a marginal player to regional potentates. In Maharashtra, the steady stream of Congress leaders defecting to the BJP, only reflect the ground reality of the saffron party having emerged as the premier player in the Congress’s original fortress.
But there is another major difference between 2004 and 2019 in the social demographics of the country. Then, the Indian middle class was less dominant than it is today, and the rural-urban divide remained stark. In the decade after 2004, the Indian middle class exploded, and doubled in size to more than 600 million. The vaulting aspirations of this class were fuelled by a consumer boom, best exemplified by the dramatic mobile revolution. With more than 400 million smartphones, over 250 million whatsapp users, nearly 300 million Facebook accounts, India is literally a nation on the move. This communication revolution – don’t forget the number of 24 x 7 news channels have more than quadrupled in this period to more than 400 – has slowly bridged the traditional ‘India-Bharat’ divide and created a more inter-connected universe where a sharp political message is no longer confined to a limited geographical area but is actually carried in real time to millions of voters.
It is this resurgent neo-middle class which is now driving the BJP’s Moditva juggernaut, powered by a heady mix of post-Balakote muscular nationalism, an ugly religious majoritarianism and rising economic ambitions. For this class, the Rahul Gandhi narrative of ‘Nyay’ through a minimum income guarantee (MIG) scheme has less resonance: a majority of them earn more than the Rs 12,000 a month limit. And while the MIG atleast gives the Congress a talking point among Below Poverty Line families, its competitive edge is partly neutralized by the BJP’s steady penetration into poorer neighbourhoods through its own cash transfer measures.
The impact of the changing demographics on voting patterns was most visible in the 2014 elections when the BJP and allies actually had an eight per cent edge amongst the poor compared to the Congress and its allies, a 16 per cent edge among the middle income groups and a 13 per cent lead in rural India according to the Lokniti-CSDS National election survey. In effect, a ‘new’ India political model was evident which fuelled a remarkable ‘wave’ election. Repeating the 2014 ‘tsu-namo’ wont be easy, but it would require a major swing away from the BJP to prevent it from emerging as the single largest party by some distance. Interestingly, in 2004, the BJP actually got roughly the same number of votes as it had got five years earlier, yet ended up with less seats than the Congress; that is unlikely to happen in 2019.
So does the opposition have a chance? Well, one hesitates to write off any possibility in an Indian election but the only real hope for the fragmented opposition lies, even at this late stage, in its ability to strike strategic alliances in key battleground states like Uttar Pradesh. The chemistry remains with Brand Modi; only a genuinely united opposition can reclaim the arithmetic advantage.
Post-script: On a recent trip to Vidarbha, I struck a conversation with orange farmers of Nagpur district. They had only vaguely heard of Balakote, were unaware of the Nyay slogan but were instead angry with dwindling prices for their produce. “All governments are the same, they do nothing for the farmer,” was their lament.So, who will you vote for, I asked. “Modiji hee too hai, aur kisko den?” was their lukewarm response. The opposition now has six weeks to convince the disillusioned farmer that there maybe real options to the BJP’s mascot.