Published on Dec 14 2018
Within hours of the five state election results coming in that confirmed the electoral defeat of the ruling BJP in all the states – what was termed a "total whitewash" – the international media was quick off the mark to raise questions about the future of the ruling party in the 2019 general election and the aura of poll invincibility associated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The BBC home-page asked : “Should Narendra Modi be worried ?”, while the New York Times led with the question: “Is India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, in trouble?” This is a contrast to the manner in which the global audience responded to the emphatic electoral victory scripted by the Modi team in the UP elections of early 2017.
At the time, the Indian PMO handle tweeted : “US President HE Mr. @realDonaldTrump called PM @narendramodi to convey his felicitations on the electoral results.” (tweet of March 28, 2017).
While it is true that India votes very differently in state elections and the general election for the Lok Sabha - political defeat is a lonely perch and the image of the forlorn BJP office in New Delhi on December 11 night symbolized the desolation that the ruling party was experiencing after the string of successes it had obtained after 2014.
Clearly the Modi image of invincibility has been dented and the global community is alert to the sub-text of Indian politics. While it would be misleading to draw any emphatic and binary conclusions about the Rahul Gandhi led Congress, it would be valid to infer that the Indian voter has once again defied all the conventional wisdom and demonstrated the resilience of Indian democracy.
Whereas Modi has projected a robust image of confidence and political primacy on the global stage, the message from the five state election result is that the domestic disappointment with the BJP and the Modi-Amit Shah model of electioneering is equally strong. Thus the electorate denied the BJP victory in the key Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, where the contest was largely between the ruling BJP and the Congress party.
Yes, anti-incumbency is a factor in states where the same party and the chief minister have been in office for 15 years but the triggers for the current disillusionment with the BJP can be located across three strands – the growing agrarian distress that was manifest in the large farmers protest in different parts of the country; the disenchantment among the youth who have no employment avenues in the near future; and the dismay with the Hindutva ideology that has led to mob violence of varying kinds including most recently of the murder of a police inspector in Uttar Pradesh.
The fact that the BJP and candidate Modi came to power in 2014 on the plank of "vikas"( development) and that the promise of "acche din" (better future ) remains a mere slogan has not been forgotten by the voter and their disappointment has been conveyed through the ballot box. The paradox is that while Modi was able to obtain considerable support from large cross-sections of the country even for a radical and hasty step such as demonetization, the zero benefits as far as the common citizen are concerned could not be hidden.
The Modi image has also been dented by the manner in which institutional integrity has been diluted or attempts made to prioritize ideological loyalty over professional competence. Over the last year itself, there have been two unprecedented developments in relation to the higher judiciary and the central bank of India.
In January this year judges of the Supreme Court of India held a press conference to draw attention to many inadequacies in the functioning of the highest court in the land thereby exposing the infirmity of the legal edifice in the largest democracy in the world. Much of this could have been avoided by a more sensitive handling by the political executive as represented by the Modi government but this was not the case.
In recent months the macro economic and fiscal management of India was also the center of undesirable attention – again an issue that the global community is very alert to. This was reflected in the manner in which the Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian decided to resign from his job and this was followed by the growing tension between the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the government.
The resignation of Urjit Patel from the governorship of the RBI was no doubt expected after the public airing of the differences between the bank and the government over major policy issues and the autonomy index . However, it merits reflection that the Patel resignation is a very unprecedented and rare occurrence and has happened only once before over the last 70 years, when Nehru was at the helm of national affairs. As far as restoring institutional credibility is concerned, it is unlikely that the appointment of a retired bureaucrat perceived to be a cheer-leader for the demonetization policy will enthuse the global financial markets.
In a tweet soon after the election results came in, Modi declared: “We accept the people’s mandate with humility.” Post election introspection will no doubt be carried out rigorously by the BJP and the onus will be on Modi and party president Amit Shah to bring about the necessary correctives in the run up to the 2019 general election.
Playing the Hindutva card and stoking emotive issues such as cow vigilantism, beef-lynching and the Ram temple have not enthused the Indian voter in the manner that the BJP expected. It may be useful to recall that when candidate Modi took oath and became Prime Minister Modi in 2014, he pledged loyalty to the Constitution of India. Both India and the world expected a certain fidelity to this commitment which alas, has been uneven. Acknowledging this anomaly with humility would be very desirable and perhaps burnish the Modi image both domestically and internationally.
Source: South Asia Monitor, 14 December 2018, https://southasiamonitor.org/news/modi-must-stay-true-to-constitution-to-burnish-dented-image/sl/28614