Narendra Modi's flailing desperation

Why enthusiasm for ‘brand Modi’ is waning and what it will mean in days to come

PM Narendra Modi campaigns in Bhubaneswar (photo: PTI)
PM Narendra Modi campaigns in Bhubaneswar (photo: PTI)

Uttam Sengupta

With polling still due in 260 Lok Sabha constituencies, it is premature to call the election. However, with elections over the halfway mark and polling completed in 283 constituencies, there are at least three clear indications. First, this election is not a one-horse race; second, the INDIA bloc is putting up a far better fight than was expected; and finally, whatever the final result, PM Modi’s stature has taking a beating. Politically he has been considerably weakened, even isolated, within his own party. If he loses, the knives will be out.

This is evident from his increasingly desperate claims at election rallies. On the day of polling in the third phase, he alleged that a Congress government, if voted to power, would put a ‘Babri lock’ on the Ram Mandir. He exhorted people to choose between ‘vote jihad’ and ‘Ram rajya’. On the same day, he said a Congress government would select cricket teams on the basis of religion with preference given to minorities.

Campaigning in Telangana on 8 May, a day after the third phase of polling, the PM asked why Rahul Gandhi and the Congress had stopped their attacks on M/S Adani and Ambani after the elections got underway. Had they received 'tempo loads' of black money from them? Hilarious, given the prime minister’s proximity to Gautam Adani and the meteoric rise in this Gujarati industrialist’s fortunes over the last decade.

Earlier, Modi resorted to fearmongering by telling dairy farmers in Gujarat that a Congress government would take their buffaloes and give them to Muslims.

In the process, Narendra Modi, ‘master of messaging’, may have scored a few self-goals. With his communal innuendos, the prime minister has not only repeatedly violated provisions of the Representation of People’s Act but also exposed himself to possible disqualification after the election. Why is he risking it? Is it because he can read the writing on the wall?

All three phases so far have recorded lower polling than in 2019, a pointer to the wave-less election and possible fatigue over Modi and his communal rhetoric. Pollsters seem to agree. It is not a one-sided election, said Sanjay Kumar of CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies) on Tuesday. “There is a fierce battle between the BJP and the INDIA bloc as per the trends I have observed,” he added.

Pollster Pradeep Gupta, of Axis My India, did not expect a major upheaval. Declining to comment till the last vote is counted, he believed it will be a decisive mandate. Yashwant Deshmukh from C-Voter, while saying it would be unfair to commit which way the vote is tilting, hinted that the election is turning out to be more ‘regional’ than ‘national’. None of them seemed to believe that the election is done and dusted, or that the BJP’s return to power is a foregone conclusion.

Deshmukh pointed out that in contrast to the BJP, which derives strength from its central leaders, primarily PM Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah, the Opposition draws its strength from regional leaders and chief ministers. The Congress campaigns in Karnataka, Telangana and Himachal Pradesh are indeed being spearheaded by its chief ministers. Campaigns of other regional parties in the INDIA bloc are also led by local leaders, an advantage in the absence of a national narrative and a Modi wave.

Chief ministers in NDA-ruled states, be it Gujarat, Maharashtra or Bihar, are seen as puppets, and far less popular and effective than the chief ministers of states governed by the Opposition. In Karnataka, the Congress campaign is spearheaded by chief minister Siddaramaiah and deputy chief minister D.K. Shivakumar, and in Telangana by chief minister Revanth Reddy, both punching above their weight.

In Rajasthan, where the BJP won the Assembly election comfortably late last year, people are not familiar with the name of the new chief minister, Bhajan Lal Sharma. He is instead known as ‘parchi wala mukhyamantri’, alluding to the slip of paper (parchi) carrying his name that was read out at the BJP’s legislature party meeting announcing the next chief minister (mukhyamantri). They speak fondly of Ashok Gehlot, the Congress chief minister they voted out in December last year. Analysts think it unlikely that the BJP will repeat its 2019 performance when it won 24 of the state's 25 Lok Sabha seats.

The ruling party and the prime minister himself have incessantly harped on ‘Modi ki guarantee’ and ‘gifts from Modi’. No effort was spared to project Modi as a benevolent ruler whose image adorned everything from vaccination certificates to bags of rationed food grain, even selfie points at railway stations. The prime minister’s insatiable urge to hog the mike, take credit for everything, and prompt people to feel grateful for having partaken of ‘Modi ka namak (Modi's munificence, in this case)’ may finally have reached saturation point.

This dissatisfaction has been accelerated by the economy working for the rich and not quite working for the poor. CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury summed up the report card on ‘viksit (developed) Bharat’: “Household savings are at a 47-year record low, household indebtedness at a record high, stagnant real wages, persistent high inflation, growing unemployment, people surviving by borrowing and using their credit cards, ⁠1,100 government projects abandoned…”. ⁠

A ‘shining India’ for some but a ‘suffering India’ for most, he quipped. No wonder the prime minister has been speaking less about his achievements and more about how dreadful the Opposition is.

Political commentators on a host of YouTube channels have been less inhibited than pollsters on national TV. They say the general election could eventually turn out to be the sum of all its parts. They also categorically say that while Narendra Modi still remains the most ‘popular’ or ‘preferred’ national leader — the BJP has done its utmost to turn the election into a referendum on Modi — there is much less enthusiasm for ‘brand Modi’ than before. Many commentators have gone out on a limb to assert that Modi is on his way out.

Veteran commentator Shravan Garg felt foreign countries and investors like Tesla’s Elon Musk had got wind of the shift ahead of Indians when the latter put off his much-anticipated visit to India after the first phase of polling. “BJP ke liye ab kuch bacha nahin… ab Modi hai toh namumkin hai (it is all over for the BJP. Modi makes it impossible, in a reference to the BJP's slogan of Modi hai to mumkin hai or Modi makes it possible),” Garg told from Indore.

“I am telephoned by an Australian publication for an interview on the BJP’s post-Modi succession planning,” tweeted a horrified Swapan Dasgupta, former BJP Rajya Sabha member earlier this week, vindicating Garg’s sentiment. The PM will undoubtedly see an international conspiracy to unseat him even as he has gone on record to suggest that Pakistan wants Rahul Gandhi as India’s PM.


Dr H.V. Vasu, academic and activist, points out a distinct class and gender divide in voter preferences in Karnataka. The rich intend to vote for the BJP, while women and poorer sections prefer to vote for the Congress. Emphasising the class divide across caste and community, he points out that well-off Dalits and Muslims were more likely to vote for the BJP than the Congress. This interesting trend may not be confined to Karnataka alone.

Dr Vasu has been supervising surveys for the Kannada portal, which had accurately forecast the numbers before the Assembly election last year. Eedina’s surveys, he informed Frontline in a podcast, are not conducted only around election time but are a regular exercise.

Unlike other surveys that depend on information collected over the telephone, Eedina conducts surveys face to face, over longer periods of time, covering wider ground and asking many more questions.

The last of the two surveys conducted this year was shared in the middle of April before the first phase of polling. It claimed that the Congress would win nine Lok Sabha seats and the NDA seven. The remaining 12 seats would be closely contested. It also added that the Congress could potentially win 18 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats. (The BJP had won 25 seats and polled a record 51.4 per cent of votes in 2019.)

Traditionally, the BJP has been doing well in Lok Sabha elections even after losing Assembly polls. This time, Vasu explains, the BJP and Congress each has the support of 30-35 per cent of voters. The Congress has the overwhelming support of women, beneficiaries of the Congress government’s five guarantees, which is an additional boost.

A consolidation of Maratha-Muslim votes in Marathwada in favour of the INDIA bloc indicates how tough the going is for the NDA in Maharashtra. The Mahayuti alliance of the BJP, Shiv Sena (Shinde) and NCP (Ajit Pawar) depends almost solely on ‘Modi magic’ and micro-managing polling booths.

Modi’s policy of encouraging business and industry to shift from Mumbai to Gujarat has alienated Maharashtrians and revived Maharashtra–Gujarat fault lines. How many seats the NDA could lose will become clearer once polling in the state closes on 20 May. Electrifying campaigns by Uddhav Thackeray, Sharad Pawar and Rahul Gandhi have both given the Opposition an edge, and kept the BJP on edge.

The party has hyperactively been trying to limit the damage, welcoming turncoats from the Congress and other opposition parties even during the election, despite many of them being relative lightweights. It has also activated the Central agencies to arm-twist its B teams.

Between phase two and phase three of polling on 26 April and 7 May, with its unexplained gap of 11 days, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) changed as many as eight of its candidates in Uttar Pradesh. BSP chief Mayawati also divested her nephew and anointed heir, English-speaking foreign-educated Akash Anand, from electoral responsibilities.

Anand had been speaking out against the BJP and its Talibanesque activities, which the party chief felt was a sign of immaturity. It was ironical that a party that rode to power in UP on the back of slogans like ‘tilak, tarazu aur talwar, inko maaro joote char’ and ‘chadh gundon ki chhaati par, mohar lagao haathi par’ found Anand’s language ‘immature’.

The party’s hand became clear when BJP leader B.L. Santhosh gleefully tweeted that the action had dealt a blow to the Congress. Anand was reportedly building up and motivating the BSP cadre without any regard to which party may win. With Dalit voters thus switching from the BJP to the BSP, and some to the SP (Samajwadi Party), he seemed to be working in favour of the INDIA bloc. That ‘loophole’ has now been plugged.

Amit Shah, too, has kept himself busy, meeting representatives of different castes and communities said to be aggrieved with the BJP. Insiders claim that both threats and blandishments were held out. He reportedly told one such group, “You think we are going to lose? We are not going anywhere and if you do not fall in line, we will fix you after the election.”

While this anecdote could not be verified, the fact remains that even the AIMIM led by Asaduddin Owaisi has, in a belated action, put up several Muslim candidates in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal in a bid to divide Muslim votes. What happened in Surat, where all the candidates were forced to withdraw, and in Indore, where non-BJP candidates were asked to withdraw, also bears the imprint of the all-powerful home minister.

One can expect the election to get uglier in the remaining four phases as the BJP goes all out to arrest the slide. In elections, both slides and upswings tend to gather momentum, and its slide in the first three phases seems to indicate that the BJP may be inching toward the abyss. The share market crash, three independent MLAs in Haryana transferring their support from the BJP to the Congress, and speculation in the satta (bookies) bazaar are all signals pointing in the same direction.

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Published: 11 May 2024, 4:30 PM