Prime Minister Narendra Modi is one of the most interesting politicians of our times. He is oratorical, disruptive, melodramatic and rhetorical. He believes in radical actions. Modi is also a leader who is more popular than his party. His support base comes from the upper caste, middle class and urban voters. Modi polls high approval ratings in most polls, though the polls may not be entirely reliable or scientific enough. But the fact remains that in most polls he scores high on popularity charts, which is indeed significant because the highest all-India vote share BJP has ever got is only 31 per cent. This was in 2014 when BJP was at its peak of popularity.
For Modi, 2017 should have been a bumpy year. In early 2017, he had to deal with the massive impact of high value currency culling programme that disrupted normal life and impacted economic growth. The after-effects of demonetisation lingered through most of 2017. Next came the roll out of the GST from July which, though full of long-term potential, had its fair share of flaws and glitches that hurt small businesses in the informal sector. But, despite these two steps inflicting lot of damage on the economy, Modi not only scored a moral high through demonetisation, but GST glitches also did not dent his popularity. There are several reasons for this.
One, the absence of a popular leader of national stature in the opposition ranks to counter the prime minister’s narrative. Two, Modi is a big beneficiary of the perception created about UPA II that it did nothing for the country’s development. Three, Modi came to power on the promise of breaking the logjam to India’s development and majority of his supporters see in him a prime minister who is sincere about bringing economic progress to the country. Since many Indians, particularly the middle class and the educated youth, believe that India was ruled poorly by the previous government, the idea of a strong leader, who is ‘doing something’ for the country, appeals to them.
Four, Modi is a first-rate showman who knows how to touch populists and nationalist nerves. Indians are reared on hero worship. A leader, who impresses the masses with his oratorical and theatrical skills, even if he or she speaks half-truths and lies, is often voted to power. Five, Modi’s combative prowess and uncanny ability to remain popular even in difficult times are something that makes him a formidable adversary to his challengers.
Modi’s success – as also that of the BJP – is not entirely his own. Both owe a lot of it to the ineptitude of the Congress. Not only the Congress drifted towards irrelevance in most assembly elections after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, but the main opposition party which garnered 19.3 per cent votes in the last parliamentary elections didn’t do much to counter Modi in his tracks for almost three years. Thus, the Congress’s competitive deficit has partly helped Modi sustain his popularity so far. However, the possibility of Modi continuing to enjoy his dream run in 2018 and beyond seems difficult.
After the Gujarat election, considered a prelude to 2018 assembly polls and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the perception about the Congress and the party’s approach have undergone a definite change. Gujarat election was not an ordinary election. If it was considered a cake-walk for the BJP initially, it also offered a unique opportunity to the Congress to win the election. That BJP still won is not a big surprise, thanks to Modi and his vicious last-lap campaign. What was surprising is that at one stage, not only Gujarat appeared to be slipping off Modi’s grip, but his combative prowess also came under threat for the first time since 2014.
Therefore, two questions arise. One, will BJP repeat its past performance in state elections this year? Two, will Modi sustain his popularity in 2018? Both questions are inter-connected: one of the major reasons for BJP’s amazing electoral success since 2014 has been Modi’s enduring popularity. Eight states will go to poll this year. Besides the four smaller north-east states (Nagaland, Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram), four states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Chhattisgarh – will witness a fierce battle for power between the BJP and the Congress. These states account for 99 Lok Sabha seats and, therefore, election results in these states are expected to set the tone for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
That the anti-Congress sentiment was so strong in 2014 parliamentary elections can be explained by the fact that in as many as 189 constituencies where the Congress and BJP were primary opponents, the Congress won only 23 seats against a whopping 166 won by the BJP. In contrast, the BJP’s success rate was only 49 per cent against regional parties as its primary opponent. In the recently concluded Gujarat elections, BJP’s success rate against the Congress was a modest 54 per cent. Drawing a conclusion by comparing Lok Sabha and assembly elections may not be fair. However, it may not be entirely unfair to say that it may not be easy for the BJP to repeat its electoral performance of the past 42 months in 2018 and beyond.
Since 2014, the Congress has suffered electoral defeats in heaps. It has lost power in 14 states. On the other hand, the BJP and its allies are in power in 19 states. In 2017, elections to seven state assemblies were held. The Congress won in Punjab quite comfortably and emerged as the single largest party in Goa and Manipur. It faced strong anti-incumbency sentiment in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh and lost to BJP. The BJP comprehensively won in Uttar Pradesh. Gujarat was a close call for both the parties. Thus out of seven, the BJP formed governments in six states. But, the Congress could have come to power in three states had it not missed the chances of forming the government in Goa and Manipur.
The BJP was on a strong footing in the first half of 2017, but the year ended on a positive note for the Congress. While it will face bigger challenges this year and in 2019, political analysts believe that 2017 was a turnaround year for the Congress. It will be interesting to see how 2018 pans out for the two principal opponents.
The writer is an independent senior journalist.