Free Press Journal

Time to create a sense of security and nationalism

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Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi

The difference between 2014 and now is that the UPA lacks a charismatic leader. It is widely accepted that Rahul Gandhi as a leader does not compare with Narendra Modi. But let’s bear in mind that in 2004, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a much taller leader than Sonia Gandhi but still did not manage to sell India shining to the voter.

Former prime minister Manmohan Singh may have a reason to smile. The political atmosphere in the run-up to the general elections bears an eerie resemblance to the sunset year of UPA II. Then, as now, scams are spilling out of the closet, middle-income taxpayers are deeply unhappy, farmers are reeling from the crisis in agriculture and bye-elections results are raising alarm signals in the ruling dispensation.

The NDA came to power on the ‘hope factor’, which is one of the critical determinants of voting behaviour in India. When disenchanted with their rulers, voters look for alternatives. They opt for the leader who appears most capable of tackling corruption, boosting the economy, ensuring delivery of services and generally improving their quality of life.


If such a leader also carries an emotional appeal and feeds their self-esteem and sense of cultural assertion, so much the better. Like Modi, Arvind Kejriwal and Nitish Kumar are leaders who have successfully tapped into the ‘hope factor’.

The fading of the hope factor, for a variety of reasons, has led to a sharp decline in the NDA’s popularity ratings. First and foremost, the anti-corruption plank is looking increasingly hollow, both because of the failure to bring scamsters of yore to book and the revelation of new scams.

The defrauding of Punjab National Bank by diamond merchant Nirav Modi and his associates, dubbed as the ‘chhota Modi’ or the Modi II scam, has come at a time when the public is already disenchanted. The Modi I scam, involving alleged fraudster Lalit Modi’s intimate association with senior BJP leaders, had much less impact. Thanks to Prime Minister Modi’s credibility and ‘clean’ image, the controversy died down. At that time, he was still in his ‘honeymoon’ phase and his purity of purpose was unquestioned. Scams emerged thereafter at the state level, but the centre remained unscathed.

Then came the defection of Vijay Mallya to the UK in 2016. The following year, the results of demonetisation came to light and the public learned that the black money recovered was marginal and no big fish had been caught. Meanwhile, nothing further was heard about the Robert Vadra land scam and the main accused in the telecom scam accused were acquitted.

All through this, bank NPAs showed geometrical growth, with no accountability being fixed. So, when the Modi II scam came to light, so soon after re-capitalisation of public sector banks, it had double the impact. To make matters worse, it was followed by the ‘pen’ scam, involving Rotomac promoter Vikram Kothari.

While by and large the public is still unwilling to believe the aspersions cast against the PM in the GSPC (Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation) scam and against BJP president Amit Shah’s businessman son, there’s little doubt that sections of the media, the political establishment and even corporate lobbies are now digging assiduously for dirt.

Among voters, the least forgiving are the middle-income taxpayers, who carry the resentment of being the first target for revenue generation and the last priority for delivery of services. The ‘swachh’ and education cesses, the optics of GST and the imposition of long term capital gains tax has annoyed this section of voters, especially because the ‘swachh abhiyan’, smart cities, etc have not made any tangible difference to their lives.

The long-suffering farmers, who were promised that their incomes would double, have instead seen prices of agricultural commodities drop sharply. Schemes for their welfare, like crop insurance, soil health cards, national agricultural market (eNAM), etc have not yielded substantive benefits.

Voters are not impressed by GDP figures. As far as they are concerned, employment is still down, consumption has not grown, real estate has suffered severely, GST has been a liability instead of a game-changer and the ‘green shoots’ of economic recovery seem too far off to contemplate.

Voter unhappiness is referred to as anti-incumbency. When it reaches an angry pitch, it can result in what is known as the ‘negative vote’ — not in the sense of NOTA (none of the above) but a consensus among people that the ruling party must be thrown out, regardless of available alternatives. When the hope and anger factors synchronise, as they did in 2014, there is a ‘wave’ situation and all other factors, such as caste and class, are no longer important.

That said, emotional factors can sometimes override all else. A war or an assassination, for instance, create a sense of insecurity and renew nationalism. People set aside their grievances and their identities and come together. But such force majeure events are rare and generally do not coincide with elections.

The difference between 2014 and now is that the UPA lacks a charismatic leader. It is widely accepted that Rahul Gandhi as a leader does not compare with Narendra Modi. But let’s bear in mind that in 2004, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a much taller leader than Sonia Gandhi but still did not manage to sell India shining to the voter.

The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.