The emotional story of his humble origins — a tea-seller’s son who rose through sheer determination and hard work to become a contender for the top job in India, appealed to voters. Aspiring youth across the villages and towns of India saw in him a hope for their own futures.
Once in power, however, Prime Minister Modi seemed to forget the campaign narrative. His promises and policies have not moved in the same direction and voters are unlikely to believe the same story a second time.
This divergence has made it difficult for him to sell his leadership with the same authenticity as in 2014. He cannot hope to enter into the hearts of the masses as the chaiwala’s son had done then.
People trusted his ability to deliver but his government has failed to address their needs. If anything, farm distress has become more acute. Jobs have not been created, and if the National Sample Survey Organsiation’s periodic labour survey report for 2017-18 is to be believed (the government has given no credible reasons for not doing so), the unemployment rate is the highest in last 45 years. A study by Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) has estimated that demonetisation alone led to 1.5 million job losses as small businesses were ruined.
No matter how much the government’s minions in the NITI Aayog massage the data to show that demonetisation spurred economic growth to its highest level of 8.2 per cent since 2010-11, people simply will not believe the government’s claims.
Can such a loss of faith be recovered through the token measures offered in the Interim Budget? The farm crisis is so acute that throwing Rs 500 per month at farmers seems more like adding insult to injury. The Rs 3,000 per month pension to unorgnaised sector workers is already being ridiculed. If an 18-year-old worker starts contributing Rs 55 per month and does this for 42 years, the government has promised him a pension of Rs 3,000 per month when he retires. However, market gurus have calculated that he would earn more than double this amount if he invested in mutual funds and lived to the average Indian age of 69 years. The tax relief to people earning less than Rs 5 lakh per annum is a good measure but people might wonder why this was not done five years ago.
An air of insincerity and doubt has come to surround the Modi government’s last-minute policy announcements to woo voters.
The cardinal mistake of Prime Minister Modi in the last five years has been to project himself as the central hero of his political narrative — most blatantly witnessed in the orchestrated chants of “Modi, Modi, Modi” at his election rallies and international events and, most recently, even in Parliament on Budget day. As he is made to appear as the only one with credible agency, a Modi-centred narrative cannot move beyond the necessity of re-electing just one particular individual.
Meanwhile, other compelling narratives are vying for the voter’s attention. The Congress party is suddenly resurgent. After electoral wins in three Hindi heartland states, it seems eager to recover lost political ground. The Congress state governments in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan waived off farm loans within 10 days of assuming office, as promised. Rajasthan has gone a step further and announced Rs 3,000 per month as unemployment benefit for the eligible. These measures on the ground, together with Rahul Gandhi’s assurance of a targeted Minimum Basic Income for the poor, offer a credible alternative narrative to the farmer and unemployed youth.
The Congress has also introduced a new charismatic communicator in the poll fray by bringing in Priyanka Gandhi.
It will also be able to deploy a negative campaign against the incumbent Modi government to tap voter discontent, just as the BJP did in 2014. The implications of corruption in the Rafale jet fighter deal, crony capitalism and insensitivity to the condition of farmers, the unemployed, and to the minorities add up so far to a credible campaign by the Congress party.
The emergence of smaller narratives of communities, castes and regions might also overwhelm the dreams that Prime Minister wants to sell. Muslims and Dalits are very unlikely to be wooed by tax exemptions given to those earning up to Rs 5 lakh per annum, and decide to vote for Prime Minister Modi. How many Muslim women would vote for him because his government has introduced a Bill to ban instant triple talaq?
The larger narrative of community suffering woven around Muslim stigmatisation as antinational elements, terrorists, beef-eaters and becoming victims of mob-lynching would militate against such an expectation. Similarly, the Dalit narrative about BJP being essentially a party of upper castes and their memory of incidents of caste violence in the last five years is likely to erode the larger Modi narrative of inclusiveness.
In India’s Northeast, regional narratives about the Modi government’s onslaught on tribal and ethnic identities and culture through its Citizenship Amendment Bill have set the entire region on fire. From Uttar Pradesh to West Bengal, and from Jammu & Kashmir to Kerala, these alternative perspectives are chipping away at the pan-Indian credibility that Prime Minister Modi has sought to create for himself.
The upshot of these developments is that while he remains a powerful orator, he may no longer have a story that can sway the nation as he did in 2014.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.