The 'Superman' of Indian politics appears to be a pale shadow of his former self, writes Ashutosh

The Superman of Indian politics looks ordinary, vulnerable and weak. He no longer exudes the confidence and irreverence for which he is known. He appears to be a pale shadow of his former self. His popularity is on the decline. Yes, I am talking about Mr Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India. Since he was chosen to lead the BJP on September 13, 2013, he has had a dream run. Not only did he win two consecutive parliamentary elections with an absolute majority but also expanded the footprint of the party in areas where the BJP was either non-existent, or a marginal player, like in Haryana, Assam and West Bengal. But after the massive defeat of the BJP in the West Bengal assembly elections, he has suddenly started looking tired and isolated.

Since his days as the chief minister of Gujarat, he has been credited with having an iron grip over the government and also over the party in the state. But now, he appears to be losing control over both. At the government level, the corona crisis has exposed his vulnerabilities and has cracked his very carefully crafted image of a decisive and visionary leader. During the second wave of the pandemic, when people were dying, he was nowhere to be seen. The country and citizens felt leaderless and orphaned. And at the party level, in the last few months, several state units of the BJP have been seen to be squabbling among themselves; state leaders seem to be oblivious of his presence, and are betraying the perception that the BJP is a disciplined party and leaders follow the high command blindly.

No consensus builder

Unlike Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Modi does not believe in collective leadership and is not a consensus builder. Under his leadership, the cabinet system has collapsed. Like Mrs Indira Gandhi, he is the Prime Minister and he is the cabinet. Ministers don’t have any autonomy; they are supposed to follow the instructions of the Prime Minister’s Office blindly. They are not supposed to ask questions but have to just sign on the dotted line.

When the first wave of the corona crisis hit the country, he, after invoking the Epidemic Diseases Act, centralised the entire decision-making process, and state governments were left with no option but to follow the dictates of the Central government. The national lockdown was imposed without any consultation with state governments. India did not face a Covid crisis of the magnitude that the USA and a few European countries were facing and Modi was praised for his leadership.

Ignored warnings

In his make-believe world, he convinced himself that corona would not surface again. So, when he was supposed to prepare the country for the more severe second wave, he was busy lecturing the world on how he managed to rein in the virus. He ignored the forewarnings and suggestions of his own team of experts about the dangers that lurked around the corner. Finally, in April, when the virus attacked once again, the government was nowhere to be seen.

The Prime Minister, who, in the eyes of his sycophants, supposedly possessed divine powers, found himself to be a mere mortal, one who was clueless; the government suffered a policy paralysis and when the pandemic started devouring its victims in bulk, the blame was transferred to state governments.

As the myth was broken and the aura of invincibility gone, courts stepped in and to his embarrassment, his government was taken to task. The Supreme Court lectured him ‘to smell the coffee’. His popularity witnessed a sudden fall. The American survey agency, Morning Consult, captured a 20 per cent dip in his popularity and the C-Voter reported his approval rating to have declined from more than 60 per cent, to 37 per cent in the month of May.

Still the most popular

Though, the party can still take solace in the fact that the Prime Minister is still the most popular leader in the country, way ahead of Rahul Gandhi, his nearest rival. But there is one thing that can definitely be said, and that is: despite massive propaganda and a friendly media, he is on a slippery path and it will be a Herculean task to regain the goodwill that he enjoyed earlier.

Besides his failure as the Prime Minister, he seems to be failing as the supreme commander of the party too. Modi is known to not tolerate any kind of dissent in the party and the outside. Anyone who has dared defy him, has not survived. But Yogi Adityanath, the mercurial chief minister of UP, will continue to hold his position despite the party supremo’s desire to change the leadership in the state.

States of unrest

Yogi was so defiant that he not only initially refused to meet Modi’s protege, A K Sharma, but also did not accommodate him in his cabinet. The second in command in the RSS, Dattatreya Hosabale, had to rush to mollify Yogi, who had switched off his phone for more than 24 hours. It was an extraordinary situation. Yogi has taken the Prime Minister head-on, but he will still be the face of the assembly elections in UP for the BJP which is scheduled in February 2022. This crisis has severely dented Modi’s image and established Yogi as a challenger.

In a more subtle way, the former chief minister of Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje Scindia, is also on the warpath with Modi. Since 2014, she has had an uneasy relationship with him. Modi and Shah had been been trying to marginalise her in state politics without any success. She has not rebelled like Yogi but she has made it very clear the she won’t follow the Centre’s dictates and will not let anyone settle in the state if sent without her consent. The state unit of the BJP has removed her pictures from posters and banners. In between, she has sent enough hints that if she is pushed beyond a point, she might float her own outfit.

Karnataka is another state where the BJP is facing a serious factional fight. The party has been unsuccessfully trying to replace B S Yediyurappa with a younger chief minister. Yediyurappa has, in the past, broken the party and floated his own regional outfit, only to come back to the mother ship later. He is the only BJP leader in the state who enjoys a certain amount of mass base. If he decides to rebel, the party will be in serious trouble.

In Madhya Pradesh, there has been an attempt to destabilise Shivraj Singh Chauhan. Kailash Vijayvargiya and Narottam Mishra harbour ambitions to be the chief minister. For the time being, the crisis has been averted but there is no guarantee that it will not explode in the near future.

West Bengal defeat

The defeat in West Bengal has opened the floodgates for a reverse exodus from the BJP. Mukul Roy has gone back to the TMC and it is reported that more than two dozen MLAs are in touch with Mamata Banerjee’s party. In Tripura, the BJP government is on tenterhooks. Rebels are getting cosy with Mukul Roy and the party’s organisation secretary, B L Santosh, has rushed to the state to manage the situation.

In Uttarakhand, the former and present chief ministers, Trivendra Singh Rawat and Tirath Singh Rawat are engaged in a verbal duel and this will surely damage the party’s chances in the 2022 assembly elections. In Punjab, the party is in turmoil because of the farmers' agitation.

It would be wrong to term these intra-party developments as pangs of an expanding party. These are signs that Modi is losing his iron grip over the party, and since he is not used to sharing the burden of leading the party and since, like in Atal-Advani’s time, the party has not evolved a crisis management mechanism and there is no crisis manager like Pramod Mahajan, Modi will find it difficult to obliterate these fault lines and a possibility can’t be ruled out that with his declining popularity, these fault lines will get more pronounced. One can easily predict hard times ahead for him.

The writer is author and Editor,

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