Time for Congress to make Modi a one-term Prime Minister, writes Sudheendra Kulkarni

File photo of Congress President Rahul Gandhi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi with union ministers Ravi Shankar Prasad and Sushma Swaraj

The possibility that Modi might lose in 2019 itself has begun to be articulated not just by his critics, but also by his admirers

Elections to the 17th Lok Sabha in 2019 are just about a year away. And change is in the air. India is ready to elect a new, non-BJP government. India is ready to make Narendra Modi a one-term prime minister.

To be sure, the air is still not as thick with the smell of change as it was in the run-up to the elections to the 16th Lok Sabha. By the time India had entered 2013, the pro-change mood of the people was quite evident. They wanted UPA II out. And as elections came closer, the mood in favour of Narendra Modi as the next prime minister was so strong and widespread that only the purblind could fail to see it. Actually, the pro-Modi wave became a typhoon, one capable of delivering a clear majority to a single party after 30 long years, and also one powerful enough to knock the mighty Congress down to a level that made it look like a regional party.

But that was then. Now is turning out to be a different story. Nearly four years into the BJP government, people’s disillusionment over its per-formance is spreading rapidly, even though Modi’s own popularity still remains high. Many in the Sangh Parivar willing to delude themselves will deny this change in the nation’s mood. But reality is beginning to pinch Modi supporters, as is clear from what one prominent pro-government commentator wrote in The Times of India a week ago: “… if Modi loses, Indian politics will revert to its old and unsettled ways.”

“If Modi loses…”? Did we ever hear these ominous words in the last four years from those who believed their leader was unconquerable? Indeed, some of them had even predicted in the aftermath of the 2014 mandate that the combination of India’s presumed need for Modi and people’s faith in him would continue to be so strong as to vote him back to power for a third term in 2024. No such claim can be heard now. On the contrary, the possibility that Modi might lose in 2019 itself has begun to be articulated not just by his critics, but also by his admirers.

Change, especially big change, always comes with its own standard operating procedures. One of its first SOPs is that it creates a debilitating self-doubt in the minds of those who wish the status-quo to continue. Its second SOP: it makes the status-quoists over-confident. Self-doubt creates a crack. Over-confidence weakens the wall. But the most important procedure of change becomes operational when people begin to feel a new structure is needed. Right now all three SOPs are in action.

This, however, is no guarantee that change will surely come in 2019. People are the most important agents of change in a democracy. But they are not fools to be swayed by any and every promise of change. They decide to pull down the existing structure only when their feeling for a new structure turns into a strong and resolute urge for the new structure. For this to happen, they have to begin to see what the new government might look like and whether the alternative would be better than the one they are dissatisfied with.

This is how things stand right now. People’s dissatisfaction with the Modi government is palpable. Price rise, rapidly growing unemployment, economic slowdown, plight of kisans, Kashmir, unending killings of soldiers on LoC, polarisation of society on communal lines, misuse and manipulation of institutions, also a certain degree of tiredness over the PM’s increasingly shrill speeches…all these and more are widening the gap between the government’s tall promises and its actual performance. As a result, the people are in no mood to see it continue beyond 2019.

However, if you go around and listen to common citizens’ voices, this is what you will hear — “We are not happy with the Modi government. But where is the alternative?”

In other words, the verdict of 2019 is likely to be decided by the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor.

Nevertheless, the Congress party has an opportunity — also a responsibility — to turn the TINA factor into a TIBA (There Is A Better Alternative) factor. One year is a long time in politics, enough for the Congress to convince the people that it indeed has a loftier vision, a superior plan to fulfill people’s aspirations and a credible leadership to deserve their decisive support in 2019.

A few things are already working well for the Congress. In Rahul Gandhi, it now has a leader who is increasingly attracting people’s interest and, at a slower pace, their admiration. Barring die-hard BJP supporters, others are beginning to see him as a humble, honest, compassionate and willing-to-learn person. If these qual-ities prompt them to see the contrast between Modi and him, India’s predominantly young voters have also begun to see him as one of their own. His focus on India’s future, as against Modi’s divisive obsession with the past, will further appeal to them. Moreover, after the fighting spirit he displayed in Gujarat, he has enthused and galvanised Congress workers, both young and old. The party’s likely victories in the assembly elections in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan could significantly transform the pre- 2019 political scenario in the country.

These alone will not be enough to usher in the change India needs. Congress is yet to remove many of its chronic shortcomings that have caused its steep downfall from the pole position it long occupied in Indian politics. Also, since 2019 will surely push India back into the coalition era, the Congress is yet to build a strong and trustworthy pre-election alliance, both nationally and in many states. Above all, it must not underestimate — indeed, it must prepare itself comprehensively to overcome — the absolute determination of Modi, BJP and the Sangh Parivar to retain power by all means necessary.

The article title was updated at 8.55 am on February 18, 2018

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