The only two things Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Nirav Modi — the businessman now at the centre of a huge scam involving a public sector bank — have in common is the surname and, maybe, a common mother tongue. Otherwise, the two individuals occupy different universes. Yet, these two commonalities have sufficed for the Opposition parties, notably the Congress and the Left, to hurl serious allegations against the prime minister. The social media is littered with postings from the usual suspects, not least the Congress president Rahul Gandhi, accusing Narendra Modi of aiding and abetting this elaborate (alleged) fraud.
The charges are unlikely to stick. At best detractors can point to Nirav Modi’s presence in a group photograph of Indian businessmen with Prime Minister Modi at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. Otherwise it is plain conjecture and based on the fact that the dodgy practices of the international jewellery entrepreneur came to the surface while Modi is the prime minister.
However, the contrived attempt to link the prime minister to a man who may well be a fugitive from justice wasn’t the result of lazy and mechanical politics — in the same way as some headline writers preface any account of any wrongdoing with phrase “in Modi’s India”. With about a year left for the formal campaign for the 2019 general election to kick off, all the gloves are off. The Opposition and its friends will miss absolutely no opportunity to throw mud at the prime minister, in the belief that some of it is bound to stick. The Opposition will be abetted by a section of the media whose sense of outrage is politically determined and which hasn’t forgiven Modi for relegating it to the fringes of the opinion-making industry.
Consequently, the Modi government was blamed because certain Supreme Court judges were aggrieved by the court administration of the Chief Justice of India. The President of the BJP is likewise being pointed an accusing finger for the untimely death of a judge hearing a sensitive case that was aimed at implicating him in the death of a criminal. In Uttar Pradesh, the human rights industry is up in arms over Chief Minister Mahant Adityanath’s policy of police encounters with criminal gangs — a policy that seems to have wide public approval. And this is to not mention the charges of misogyny hurled at Modi for his sharp repartee in a Rajya Sabha debate.
On a more serious vein, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has declared that the West Bengal government will not participate in the Ayushman Bharat healthcare scheme that gives beneficiaries medical insurance cover of up to Rs 5 lakhs. The Congress government of Karnataka has followed suit and it is entirely possible that chief ministers of other non-BJP-ruled states may be pressurised by their respective party high commands to follow suit. As I had noted earlier in this column, the Centre should be prepared for more difficulties on this front. The realistic way out in this election year is for the Centre to bear the entire premium costs and make a big song and dance over the distribution of Ayushman Bharat cards to beneficiaries while simultaneously working overtime to both upgrade existing healthcare facilities and encourage greater private sector investment.
The Centre should also be prepared to confront a set of extreme demands in the matter of determining an institutional framework for Minimum Support Price for agricultural produce, as suggested in the Budget. Like the last stages of the One Rank One Pension, when a section of protesting ex-servicemen decided that confronting the government was more important than securing their demands, we may witness a bout of extreme posturing from some farmer’s organisations. The only way this can be countered is by ensuring that the price determining committee award is generous to a sector that needs bolstering.
In the coming months, the attack on the Modi government is certain to be sustained and personalised. The prime minister will be targeted as the fountainhead of all evil. From the BJP perspective, this is not unwelcome. All the indications are that Modi’s personal popularity is broadly intact and that the more the Opposition — blinded by hate — makes the 2019 contest a referendum on the prime minister, the better it will be for the BJP.
Yet, elections are not beauty contests. To supplement his personal standing as a man of integrity and determination, Modi has to go full throttle in implementing the two main pillars of his Budget — the enhanced MSP in agriculture and the Ayushman Bharat scheme. In addition, there has to be emphasis on the rapid but fair distribution of cooking gas connections to underprivileged women and the extension of electricity connections to individual households. Polls have suggested that the BJP enjoys an extra bulge in its support from women voters mainly due to the Ujjwala scheme and the construction of toilets under the Swachch Bharat initiative. It needs to firm up this support.
Finally, the Modi government must be extra vigilant in ensuring that the terms of political discourse are not vitiated by the activities of extremists. These people may be acting on their own initiative and merely intent on securing 15 minutes of fame. But as long as they sport a saffron bandana and claim to be active for a Hindu cause, the discredit is likely to accrue entirely to Modi. As a start, certain loudmouths should be advised to not fall for every clever media bait.
Every election has its own dynamics. Anti-incumbency against the UPA played a big role in 2014, as did the impact of Modi’s whirlwind campaign. In 2019, it will be important to stress that the big change promised five years ago has begun and that India will be significantly worse off under a hotch-potch alternative promised by the Opposition. Winning also involves a calm approach and a consistent strategy.
It is time the government got into election mode. Its opponents have.
The writer is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a Presidential Nominee to the Rajya Sabha.