Still the people's leader

The political obituaries of Narendra Modi are quite premature

By Swapan Dasgupta
  • Published 8.02.18

There is nothing more appealing than the possibility of political uncertainty to excite the imagination of the editorial and intellectual classes in today's India. The news on Budget Day that the Bharatiya Janata Party had been quite decisively defeated by the Congress in three by-elections (two for the Lok Sabha and one for the assembly) in Rajasthan didn't quite overshadow Arun Jaitley's final budget of the 16th Lok Sabha, but it did certainly influence the projection of it in the outside world.

The Congress's dismissive reaction - 'only one more year to go' - and the somewhat contrived furore over the middle classes being left high and dry had less to do with any hard-nosed assessment of the efficacy or otherwise of Narendra Modi's political outreach for the 2019 election. It had everything to do with the perception, born of the Rajasthan by-election results, that the BJP was fast running out of steam and that political change could be in the offing after May 2019. This was certainly a big factor in the discernible glee in a section of the media, counting the days before their relegation to the margins of political life would be overturned.

Some of these perceptions and the sense of anticipation may be reversed if the BJP does better than expected in Tripura and translates last Sunday's enthusiasm at the prime minister's mammoth rally in Bangalore into votes in Karnataka's forthcoming summer election. However, there is no doubt that even Amit Shah's sharp put-down of those 'elitists' who ridiculed the humble pakora sellers of India hasn't been able to convince everyone that the BJP's victory in 2019 is inevitable. Consequently, the past week has witnessed many more fence-sitters detecting virtues in the Congress's regional leaders. It may also explain why there is a concerted bid by Mamata Banerjee to project herself as a leader capable of uniting all the Opposition parties in an anti-Modi Grand Alliance. The West Bengal chief minister even made a pretence of remembering the late Bal Thackeray in a bid to fish in the troubled waters of the Shiv Sena-BJP relationship in Maharashtra.

The speculation that a nervous Modi may even bring forward the general election and coincide it with the assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh has also acquired currency, not least because the president, Ram Nath Kovind, sang the virtues of simultaneous elections in his address to Parliament last week.

It is curious that this anxiousness over political developments hasn't rubbed off on the BJP, at least not yet. The social media's reaction to this year's 'Jai Kisan budget' was certainly underwhelming, but this does not seem to have triggered a mood of despondency in the BJP. On the contrary, the BJP appears to have at least convinced itself that its two big ideas in the budget - the decision to pay farmers a minimum support price of 1.5 times the production cost and launch the Ayushman Bharat scheme (National Health Protection Scheme) by October 2 - will reinforce Modi's existing popularity in rural India.

Certainly, the unease in the countryside caused by the unremunerative returns from agriculture has worried the BJP. It was farmer disquiet, which also found partial expression in the Patidar agitation for reservations, that was the principal factor behind the Congress winning a large number of rural seats in the recent Gujarat assembly elections. This, despite the BJP winning nearly 49 per cent of the total popular vote - a decisively winning share under normal circumstances. With both Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh being largely rural states, as opposed to Gujarat, the BJP needs to fix this festering problem.

The Modi government could have attempted to placate farmers with the usual loan write-offs. However, it chose to address the problem in a very different way by accepting the M.S. Swaminathan Committee report, which recommended the minimum support price of both the rabi and kharif crop at 1.5 times the production costs. This has also been the recurring demand of most farmers' organizations. According to the economist, Ashok Gulati, if the farmers' demands are fully met by the committee made up of representatives of the Centre, states and the Niti Aayog, the minimum support price of paddy and soya bean will increase by 44 per cent, maize by 47 per cent, groundnut by 38 per cent and long-staple cotton by 52 per cent. It may be reassuring that this proposed accretion seems a step in the creation of a National Agriculture Market. Predictably, this is not going to happen overnight but the seeds have been sown and pressure from below could result in the gradual erosion of restrictive practices that have marred Indian agriculture.

What the budget has, in effect, proposed is a Farmers' Pay Commission that will certainly add to rural liquidity and could even have inflationary consequences. More important, by trying to remove the issue of agricultural prices from day-to-day politics and create an institutional structure, there is a parallel attempt to derail the emergence of caste-based agitations by powerful rural communities such as Patidars, Jats, Marathas and Kapus. Naturally, to take the fullest political advantage of this proposed financial bonanza, the BJP will have to redefine its rural party structure quite considerably. Despite having strong rural support, the BJP is still not perceived by rural communities as a farmers' party. In many areas, it is yet to shake off the image of being a party that is socially located in the mandis (rural markets).

The Ayushman Bharat scheme is far more ambitious. In trying to create a government-financed health insurance scheme, backed by a network of upgraded public hospitals, that covers nearly 50 crore people, Modi has set the bar very high. On paper, a rupees five lakh health coverage for people who have taken a fatalistic view of medical treatment for serious ailments represents a heady dream. It is expected that by October 2, the basic scheme will be rolled out and the distribution of Ayushman Bharat cards will begin. Thus, it is conceivable that the BJP will be able to draw electoral mileage from the scheme by the early summer of 2019, even if the larger architecture of Modicare remains woefully incomplete. Most important, the image of Modi who has the best interests of India's poor at heart could well be reinforced.

In 2014, the Draft Modi campaign was steered by impulses stemming from traditional BJP supporters and a section of the middle classes and youth. In 2019, Modi is still popular - some say more so. However, the social profile of the Modi voter appears to have undergone a change. The centre of gravity of the BJP has been pushed below the economic ladder much more. The exit polls from Gujarat quite clearly indicated that Modi's popularity is disproportionately high among two groups - the below-35s and women.

Women, in fact, are a new addition and it would be worth exploring whether the distribution of three crore gas connections (the target is eight crore) and the construction of toilets in rural areas have made all the difference. If these segments are complemented by a much larger constituency of poorer Indians that see Modi as their man, the BJP could look forward to another big surge in 2019.

There is no evidence as yet that the BJP is either demoralized or in panic. There is concern over the Rajasthan by-election results and wariness over the manifestation of anti-incumbency in the winter assembly elections. Alongside this is also a belief that the Lok Sabha election will again be fought as a presidential-style race. In that event, Modi will start with a big advantage. As of now, the political obituaries of Modi are very premature.