Last August, when a Mood of the Nation poll showed prime minister Narendra Modi’s popularity still rock-solid, a senior Congress leader angrily rang up: “Why are you running these farzi (false) polls! Lockdown, economic recession, migrants walking home, lives and livelihoods both destroyed and you Godi (pliant) media people are still trapped in Modi mania!” Over the years, I have learnt to never argue with politicians on opinion poll numbers: a subjective prelim test is, after all, never quite an objective final exam. A few months later, when the NDA won the Bihar elections, albeit with a reduced margin, the neta called back, this time in a more sheepish voice: “Guess the lockdown didn’t make that much of a difference to voter behavior!”
In the run up to the 2019 general elections, the BJP social media team ran a campaign with the catchy slogan, “Aayega toh Modi hi!” (Modi only will come). The campaign was designed to create an aura of invincibility around the prime minister, a sense of inevitability over the election outcome. After all, in the last seven years, Mr Modi has been a colossal figure in Indian politics, a Supreme Leader whose personality cult dwarfs all around him. I once called it the ‘TIMO’ factor in India politics: There is Modi Only. He was like the Pied Piper to whose tune millions would happily ‘taali-thali bajao’, ‘light diyas’, why even willingly lighten their pocket of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes. He was not just another political figure, but almost a religious cult leader, a quasi-Godman attracting a frenzied devotion among his supporters bordering on fanaticism.
The past tense has been advisedly used here. Because as Mr Modi is set to complete seven years in office next week, there are visible signs that the halo is losing its glow and the following its intensity. Call it the seven year itch, or rather the one year virus, the fact is that Mr Modi is not quite the indomitable presence of even nine months ago. He is still neta number one but also a leader who appears increasingly fallible and human. Where a year ago, his televised addresses to the nation were akin to an all-powerful commander in chief leading the citizenry into a self-proclaimed ‘maha-bharat’-like war against Covid 19, his less visible public presence now betrays unease and uncertainty in the face of unimaginable grief and tragedy across the country. A year ago, the prime minister could demand obedience by asking the nation to ‘sacrifice’ and go into lockdown mode, today his words of caution seem to lack sincerity: why should the citizen comply meekly when the leadership has displayed a brazen disregard for Covid protocols while seeking votes or shown gross incompetence in vaccine policy?
The seven year itch is an interesting prime ministerial syndrome to explore. Mr Modi will be the fourth Indian prime minister to complete seven years in office. The first, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a much adored leader whose political graph took its first significant dip in 1959, seven years after he had won the first general elections. The dismissal of an elected Kerala government and the bloody boundary dispute with China tarred the Nehruvian age. By 1962, the Sino-Indian war had left Nehru badly wounded. His daughter Indira followed a similar path: by 1973-74, seven years into her prime ministership, she was confronted with rising prices, a faltering economy and growing political unrest. The resultant 1975 Emergency would scar her rule forever. Dr Manmohan Singh too was besieged by the anti-corruption Anna movement in 2011, seven years after becoming the ‘accidental’ prime minister. He would be left permanently hobbled, eventually bowing out ahead of the 2014 elections.
Mr Modi too now faces his moment of truth seven years after riding to power on the promise of ‘achche din’ (good days). His initial appeal was drawn from his claim to be an anti-establishment folk hero, a man from humble origins who combined religio-nationalist zeal with the image of an anti-corruption crusader and a development icon. For seven years, this image has been artfully managed, a teflon-like coating ensuring that no blame ever stuck to it. The Covid 19 surge is the first time that the glossy protective veil around the prime minister’s persona is being lifted.
The government propaganda machine can blame the Covid crisis on the all-pervasive, unaccountable ‘system’; the RSS can attempt to spread a positive spirit; the BJP’s social media cell can manufacture toolkit controversies. In normal times, these moves might even gain traction. But in extraordinary times, the blackened pyres and rising flames in crematoriums across the country make public relations exercises look terribly jarring and insensitive distractions. And unconstitutional shenanigans like in West Bengal appear even more like a sore loser’s attempt to destabilize political rivals at a time when unity and consensus building is the need of the hour.
The prime minister still enjoys a considerable reservoir of goodwill. To believe that the Modi era is coming to an abrupt end would be foolhardy and akin to making the same mistake that the Congress leader made last August when questioning our poll numbers. After all, the durability of Mr Modi’s appeal is also dependent to a great extent on the disjointed state of the opposition.
But like in the Covid fight, complacency is a dangerous attitude in public life. The next year, in a sense, is decisive because in every state that goes to the polls within a year from now, the Covid shadow will loom large. Nowhere is that shadow going to loom larger than in Uttar Pradesh, the pivot to Mr Modi and the BJP’s dominance of Indian politics in recent times. In 2014, Mr Modi first carved a national stature for himself when he decided to contest from Varanasi and famously claimed that ‘Mujhe toh Ma ganga ne bulaya hai’ (I have been called by Ma Ganga). Today, as dead bodies float and wash up on the Ganga river bank and pile up along the ghats of Varanasi and other UP towns, the stench of unclaimed bodies is a reminder of a putrefying political system where the citizenry was promised so much more than what was actually delivered. Which is why Mr Modi needs to snap out of denial mode and course correct before the seven year itch becomes a raging political epidemic that leaves the government on ventilator.
Post-script: In 2019, just ahead of the general elections, I met an astrologer on the campaign trail. “Mr Modi will be PM for sure, the BJP will get more than 300 seats and the NDA will score more than 350,” he predicted. But there was a sting to his tale: “But Mr Modi will have rough time mid way through his term, cant say how and why.” As an avowed rationalist, I walked away with a dismissive grin. Now, the words are proving uncannily prophetic!