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Assembly elections 2018: Can 'Modi magic' be saved?

It has been said that magicians like politicians draw the attention of the audience away from what they are really doing. The election campaign of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the ongoing state assembly election can be best understood as a theatrical magic performance. 

The BJP, especially twin campaigners -- Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah -- are actually directing attention away from their own dismal performance by focussing on the achievements of the chief ministers of the election-going states. 

The 2 lakh strong “Dharma Sabha” or religious congregation for a Ram Temple at Ayodhya is another distraction orchestrated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). It is conveniently timed just two days before polling begins in Madhya Pradesh. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: PTI
Lofty arguments are being trotted out that the chief ministers in these poll-bound states are powerful personalities of a stature equal to the national leadership and that they do not depend on the Modi-Shah machine to win elections. But what except the uncertainty of victory can explain the dimunitive portraits of Modi on campaign hoardings in these states?

The Prime Minister’s campaign presence is also less intense than it has been earlier. The number of rallies held by Prime Minister Modi in earlier assembly elections was 31 in Gujarat, 21 in Karnataka, 24 in Uttar Pradesh and 31 in Bihar. By contrast this time round he held just 5 rallies in Chhattisgarh and will appear only in 10 in Rajasthan and 11 in Madhya Pradesh. 

The BJP is well aware that local anti-incumbency in the state elections has got intertwined with anti-incumbency against the Modi government at the centre. 

These chief ministers were not responsible for the unthinking demonetisation which ruined families and entire sectors of the economy -- now even the agricultural ministry has admitted that it crippled farmers and agriculture. They cannot be blamed for the hasty implementation of Goods and Services Tax which along with demonetisation killed off many micro, small and medium enterprises. Nor are they responsible for the inability of the Centre to address agrarian distress or its inability to generate employment. 

This is why it would be wrong to project the Chief Ministers as autonomous decision makers who can defend their record of governance alone. 

Yet, should the BJP lose in all or some of these state elections, Prime Minister Modi cannot afford for it to be seen as a public mandate against him. The general elections are barely four months away. 

Another concern for the party is that even if it wins some or all of the state elections it may see a significant erosion in its voter base. Even in Gujarat, where the BJP managed to retain power last year, the party’s vote share in the assembly elections fell by 10 per cent over its share in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. 

In Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the party’s vote share was 51.8 percent, 55.6 per cent and 50 per cent, respectively in the 2014 general election. In these three states the BJP had won 62 of the 65 Lok Sabha seats. Losing these states or winning them with smaller margins will reflect in a fall in the BJP’s vote share. Should the BJP’s vote share goes down by even 10 per cent like in Gujarat the proportionate projected fall in the Lok Sabha seats in these states could be considerable. Therefore, the BJP must either get a decisive victory in these states or Modi will have to be disassociated with the results.

On its home turf of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi and Uttarakhand,  the BJP is already staring at erosion of strength in 2019. These seven states account for 106 Lok Sabha seats and the BJP had won 103 of them in 2014.  If this number goes down by half, how can the party hope to get an easy majority in 2019? And this is without accounting for possible fall in the party’s Lok Sabha tally in UP and Bihar. 

The Modi-Shah duo’s major worry about the state assembly elections, therefore, is that should the anti-incumbency vote in these elections lead to the BJP’s defeat, that sentiment could persist till the Lok Sabha elections. 

The fall back strategy to maintain the illusion of Modi’s magic is to divert the voter’s attention with another sideshow - the agitation for constructing the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. The RSS and the VHP are helping to take the issue to a crescendo just before polling in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. They must hope that this will sway voters towards the BJP. 

It was quite clever to use a religious leader as a mouthpiece to announce that the government was just waiting for the election model code of conduct to lapse before it announced its intention to build the Ram Temple at Ayodhya. Reports, however, suggest that the Mandir issue is not working on the ground. People seem to have realised that if the Modi government wanted to bring a law to build a Ram temple at the disputed site it could have done so long before now – those in power do not have to organise protest against themselves.

The opposition has been wise not to react to the provocative statements on the Ram temple issue. It has assiduously concentrated on winning the state assembly elections and kept its campaign to issues that affect the daily lives of the electorate. Its refusal to get trapped into the temple discourse seems to have blunted the use of religious sentiments to harness votes. 

Prime Minister Modi must be more than aware of the dimming of his magic. Having insulted several national icons and used foul language against his political adversaries, he has now resorted to playing victim by turning a comment about the falling rupee into a personal attack against him by political adversaries (“Look, they are abusing my mother”). Unfortunately for the BJP, little of these diversions seem to be working.

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