The national executive meeting of the BJP in the capital at the weekend underlined the gung-ho mood of the party. It seems that the leadership has decided that the coming parliamentary poll is as good as sewn up already. If the party president Amit Shah talked of not only winning the 2019 contest but ruling for the next fifty straight years, other leaders echoed him, sounding as if the BJP was invincible. The absence of humility was particularly striking in the address of Shah. He probably was not aware that arrogance very often tends to turn off voters.
Anyway, the prime minister was far more reasoned and clever in his intervention. He noted how the Opposition was obsessed with him, making his ouster the single-point agenda without offering an alternative agenda. This line of argument is likely to find more takers than Shah’s frontal assault on the Opposition. As the near-flop Bharat Bandh against the relentless rise in the price of petrol and diesel revealed, the Opposition lacks even the minimal organisational coordination to ensure success of such a protest. To begin with, the call for bandh was given separately by the Congress-led groups on the one side and the left groups on the other. Notably, key parties in the Opposition such as the TMC and the BJD virtually remained aloof, refusing to openly support the bandh. Small wonder then it failed to evoke popular support in spite of the fact that ordinary people are feeling the pinch of high fuel prices. Another strand from Modi’s address was clear.
The next election will be virtually presidential in its focus and character, with the Opposition making Modi Hatao its main plank. This suits Modi the best. Because not only is he by far the most popular leader, with none in the Opposition ranks coming close to his public standing, the failure of the Opposition to project an alternative agenda limits the options of the voters who are likely to go by their inclinations and plump for the most popular leader. Instead of delinking the parliamentary poll from Modi and making it state-specific, a nation-wide anti-and pro-Modi campaign will tilt the scales in favour of the incumbent. Modi himself did not sound a wee-bit defensive, carrying the fight to the Opposition camp, accusing them of being wholly negative and uncooperative in the task of nation-building he had undertaken most energetically since becoming prime minister. Of course, there was no sign of regret even on the controversial demonetisation, with the BJP leaders asserting that it had helped vastly boost the number of tax-payers and also eliminated a substantial number of shell companies.
More importantly, Modi has transformed the focus of the BJP from a middle-class, urban-centric party of Brahmins, Banias and upper castes to a party of the poor and the OBCs and even Dalits, helped no doubt by various welfare schemes launched by the government. In particular, the provision of cooking gas cylinders to crores of rural households along with the accent on the electrification of villages and the construction of tens of thousands of toilets in rural parts has ensured rich electoral dividends. This version of ‘garibi hatao’ is far superior to the showy nationalisation of fourteen private banks by Indira Gandhi only in order to paint her rivals in the then united Congress Party as pro-rich. The point is that ordinary people, especially the rural poor, do not easily buy into the Opposition propaganda and instead feel the change for the better in their everyday lives. It is this vast constituency that seems to give Modi and Shah confidence, though there are open chinks in the hitherto loyal BJP vote-bank of the middle-class Indians who feel angry at the doings of the fringe such as lynching over cows, love jihad, etc. Still, an election in which the entire Opposition unites to battle Modi, ensuring a direct one-to-one contest in much of the country, could find the BJP in a tough spot. The bottom-line is that unless the entire Opposition, including the regional biggies, come under a single umbrella to ensure a direct fight with the ruling alliance, it will be hard to deny Modi a second five-year term. Modi’s best bet is a divided and disunited Opposition.