Modi will win 2019 race if voters envision a big India

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Apart from that brief moment in 2015 when a combination of the Delhi and Bihar Assembly elections and the award wapsi stir galvanised them into frenzy, the large but disparate contingent of Narendra Modi-haters were in a state of sullen depression. At best they were reduced to disrupting Parliament, complaining about trolls on social media and writing agonised articles. This became particularly pronounced after demonetisation and the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls.

May has been the proverbial turn-around month. First, there was the technical ‘victory’ in Karnataka that prompted a grand conclave at HD Kumaraswamy’s swearing-in ceremony in Bengaluru. Then came the victory of the ‘combined’ Opposition in Kairana and Bhandara-Gondiya —two Lok Sabha seats that were won by the BJP in 2014 —and the mood has suddenly turned celebratory. The belief that Modi can be defeated in 2019 by the constituency-wise aggregation of all the anti-BJP votes is now all pervasive. The blood feud between the Samajwadi Party and the BSP has ended and seat-sharing talks for 2019 have begun in Uttar Pradesh. In Delhi, there are (as yet speculative) whispers of a Congress-AAP tie-up for the seven Lok Sabha seats. Sympathetic columnists who had pinned their hopes on former Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s potent subaltern counter-narrative to Modi are now recommending 543 separate battles to kill Modi politically.

It would be fair to say that the BJP’s response to these developments have not been entire satisfactory. While the Prime Minister appears unfazed and continues to attend to weighty matters of State, the BJP spokesmen — they are important only because they are often the only interface between the party and the people — have preferred to respond with a cryptic ‘let’s see’. The BJP seems to believe that all this talk of total Opposition unity is bravado and that when it comes to the real battle conflicting ambitions and egos will prevail.

I would like to suggest they are wrong. Of course, there will never be a total aggregation of all anti-BJP votes. In States such as Kerala and West Bengal, there will inevitably be triangular contests. It may be the same in Odisha, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. In Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, there fight is, for all practical purposes, a direct one. In Tamil Nadu the political game is in a state of flux. The real gains of the Opposition have been in Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and, possibly, Haryana. In Maharashtra, a triangular contest will actually benefit the Opposition, since the Shiv Sena’s independent presence eats into the BJP support.

The BJP would be well advised to prepare for a general election where, in a majority of seats, there is likely to be a principal Opposition candidate against the NDA nominee. Banking on the vagaries of the first-past-the-post may well prove illusory. To win, the BJP has to plan to secure a clear plurality of votes at both the local and national levels.

This may seem quite daunting, just as it seemed so monstrously challenging in 1991 when the BJP basked in what LK Advani then dubbed “majestic isolation.” Yet, that challenge 27 years ago enabled the party to emerge as the alternative pole to the Congress. First it became the largest Opposition party in 1991 and emerged as the largest party, overtaking the Congress, in 1996. Despite the setbacks in 2004 and 2009, the forward movement of the party has been uninterrupted. Confronted with a formidable challenge, the BJP and its broader ideological family have worked purposefully. The party is unable to handle complacency. It is best suited when faced with a mission. The BJP is at its best when sufficiently motivated.

One of the great advantages for the BJP in 2019 is that it is blessed with a leader who overshadows all others in the Indian political landscape. Of course, this is a double-edged sword since the appeal of Modi also generates a fierce opposition. The Opposition bonhomie is not caused by an alternative vision; it is entirely driven by a visceral hatred of Modi.

At the core of its 2019 appeal will naturally be the track record of the Government since 2014. As of now, the party has no reason to be on the back foot on this count. Yes, it is always possible to argue that much more should have been done. But how much has been done — and in the face of what challenges — is due a superhuman effort by the Prime Minister. True, there have been mistakes and miscalculations too but the Government’s intentions have been honourable. Today, India is on the cusp of a great transformation, one that will take it to new heights. Any regression now will be disastrous for the India and will be a case of another missed opportunity.

Unfortunately, experience shows that a track record of governance alone does not win elections. It has to be supplemented by a dream and a future mission. What will distinguish the Modi campaign from the forces of negativism is more that statistics of welfare schemes and the upgraded infrastructure. It is the fierce belief in India’s future and a determination to get places that will make the crucial difference. It is up to the Prime Minister to find the necessary words to communicate this to voters.

This election will be won by Modi only if he succeeds in motivating voters to think big and think of India. This is his real challenge.

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