The Indian political narrative has shifted. The recent State legislative elections results have been a clear setback for India’s ruling BJP. But is there now cause for serious alarm for Modi, or will his party bounce back strongly in the 2019 General Election?
After being trounced in Chhattisgarh and narrowly beaten in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the Modi government will be licking its wounds. There is a perception that the opposition Congress party has been rejuvenated, effectively re-establishing itself as a potential contender for power. The narrative is that the once invincible Modi is facing real headwinds, his astonishing popularity facing diminishing returns. All of this may to some extent be true, but there are important caveats which suggest that things are not as clear cut as they seem. In 2 out of these 3 states,Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh the BJP had been in power for 13 and 15 years respectively. Most political parties globally decline in popularity after seven years. It was probably an election cycle too far for the BJP.
Furthermore Indian political commentary has in fact been here before, in the aftermath of the BJP’s heavy defeat in the Bihar legislative election in 2015. There too the BJP had campaigned robustly, deploying Modi heavily against a grand alliance of political parties including the Congress and former ally the JD(U). It lost heavily there as well in spite of it the vigorous campaigning. But, importantly, it bounced back. It went on to win the 2017 election in the vital state of Uttar Pradesh by a landslide, and a string of state elections thereafter. The point is that the BJP has evolved into a formidable election winning machine with appeal that cuts across regions and caste lines.
The big question is why did the voters in the Hindi heartland reject the BJP when Modi has in fact delivered on electricity, sanitation and welfare? The reality is that Indian voters tend to be short term and fickle. Developing the manufacturing infrastructure that can provide jobs for youth in India is something that will take time. Considering that much of India did not even have roads until recently, this is a tall ask. It may be the 2020s before manufacturing and exports in India begin to take-off. Many rural voters are impatient – it appears from the results that they do not want merely efficient, streamlined and corruption free welfare but the safety and security of a good job. In some respects this is a good thing, as it shows the aspirations of India are finally moving on beyond mere poverty alleviation to something more substantial. This is both a threat and opportunity for the BJP. Can Modi convince rural youth that sticking with him is the best way to achieve true prosperity? It may be worth reminding audiences that Congress failed to deliver easy basics such as toilets and roads in 70 years of rule.
There is an argument to be made that Modi has been aloof, almost arrogant in his approach to communications. It is probably true that he stays silent too much. This allows opposition parties such as the Congress to set the narrative, and if there is one thing that the debacle in states like Madhya Pradesh has shown it is that the narrative matters. When the BJP is portrayed as a regressive, even authoritarian, political party by an old media elite with loyalties to the Congress, it offers no effective answer. There is no briefing by spokespeople on the major issues of the day, no attempt to set the tone, which is very important in leadership.
The likelihood is that the Party’s strong Hindu nationalist stance is not the vote puller that it was in the early 1990s. This is a different era, and young Hindus live in a vibrant, fast developing country that strides the world confidently. They may well be turned off by issues such as cow protection, or the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. To be sure, that is an important issue, but not one that should command attention over economic development. The BJP’s support base is varied and more diverse than that of the Congress. The vocal pro-Hindutva crowd that is mostly present online are not the demographic base the BJP needs to win elections. History bears this out – the biggest ever BJP win was in 2014, when Narendra Modi promised ‘Vikas’ or development. A truly deft national election campaign would speak more to the quieter development crowd rather than the more vocal but also smaller Hindu nationalist crowd.
The BJP’s core problem lies in communications. How can it regain the support of urban liberal Hindus and youth who may be on the cusp of abandoning it for Congress? It needs to demonstrate its resolve to address the issues important to this burgeoning neo-middle class. Corruption and dynasty are the core weaknesses of the Congress. By failing to prosecute corrupt UPA era scamsters, many of them with strong ties to Congress and the Gandhi dynasty, the BJP may have allowed itself to be portrayed as being just more of the same. There are signs that Modi has recognised this, with the extradition of Vijay Mallya and Christian Michel, an arms dealer with ties to the Gandhi family itself. Progress in prosecuting the corrupt is also heavily tied to Modi’s signature move, demonetisation. He must show people who suffered during the note ban that the pain was worth it, that people who hoarded black money are being caught and punished. He must above all show the progress in a tangible way, not just in campaign speeches but press conferences and social media.
It is worth considering that the General Election is almost six months away. A lot can change the narrative in that time. The fundamentals are still somewhat stacked in Modi’s favour for a national election, including low inflation and high GDP growth. He remains far more popular nationally than the gaffe prone and dynastic Rahul Gandhi. Closing the gap between the two in credibility will still be a daunting challenge for Congress, and focusing on local issues will not work in a national election. A serious government effort to prosecute corrupt crony capitalists like Vijay Mallya would put the media spotlight firmly back on the Gandhis and their dodgy dealings. The real challenge now is to communicate Modi’s many achievements in infrastructure, anti-corruption and economic growth to an impatient audience. The clock is ticking for the BJP, but history shows that underestimating Narendra Modi is most unwise.