Will early general elections save Narendra Modi?

Narendra Modi is one of India’s most successful politicians. But his wave has receded and he failed to grab the chance to change the narrative through his last full budget. His time could well be up

Photo by Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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Lesley Esteves

On January 29, nearly 3 lakh voters in Rajasthan sent shivers down the spine of the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership. Despite incumbent BJP governments in the state and at the centre, they emphatically returned two Congress MPs to the Lok Sabha and a Congress MLA to the Rajasthan assembly. Their choice of the Opposition instead of ruling party candidates cut through all the hype and exposed before the nation, the scale of anti-incumbency facing the BJP.

After the bypoll results, and on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cue, there was a surge in ongoing talk about simultaneous Lok Sabha and assembly elections. However, this will remain at the level of debate for now, as the government cannot muster the two-thirds majority in Parliament for the requisite Constitution amendment. This, though still leaves open the possibility that the government could call early general elections, timed to coincide with the state assembly elections in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Mizoram later this year. It has even been speculated that the general elections could be called as early as this summer. The advantage for the government, it has been widely suggested, is that these coinciding elections will benefit Modi’s presidential style of election campaigning and can help beat anti-incumbency, particularly double anti-incumbency in the three big BJP-ruled states. What has been left unsaid is what Rajasthan has just shown—that exactly the reverse could happen. The Congress not only won all the three seats in Rajasthan, it won all 17 of the 17 assembly segments that went to polls. Shortly before the Rajasthan shock were the Gujarat assembly elections, where the BJP was reduced to only a seven seat majority in the Assembly. Worse, the BJP lost an equivalent of eight Lok Sabha seats in Gujarat, according to the data journalism website IndiaSpend. After applying results for all assembly elections since May 2014, and making projections for state elections happening in 2018, the portal projected that the BJP’s seats would fall to just 217.

If he opts for early polls, PM Modi is taking a massive risk that the proverbial horse hasn’t already bolted from the stable. The anti-incumbency witnessed in Gujarat and Rajasthan could already be deep seated enough to benefit the Opposition beyond all expectations, surveys and calculations. If the BJP falls anywhere near what IndiaSpend projects, it’s hard to see how Narendra Modi will remain the Prime Minister. Congress President Rahul Gandhi alluded to this when he said, on February 7, that no matter whether it’s a Congress-led or BJP-led government the next time, Narendra Modi would not return as Prime Minister of India. “Early elections will not save Modi, but the country from Modi. All the recent results are indicative of this, whether it is Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal or Rajasthan byelections; it shows that people are fed up with the government’s jumlas,” said CPI(M) MP MB Rajesh, indicating the fast changing mood of the nation.

Photo by Prabhakar Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Prabhakar Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Congress supporters celebrate bypoll victories along with Rajasthan Congress president Sachin Pilot, in Jaipur on February 1 (file photo)

Riding on a Narendra Modi wave, the BJP won a Lok Sabha majority of 282 seats in 2014. Modi and his most trusted lieutenant Amit Shah, who became BJP President, mixed hardcore Hindutva with the promise of development and shrewd caste calculations to come up with a formidable winning formula. BJP had swept all seats in Rajasthan and Gujarat. So, how has it come to this?

Chunavi jumlas—the spectre of broken promises

Jumla’ is a word that’s now firmly a part of the popular lexicon. Shah himself injected the word into political discourse, when he had said that Modi’s Lok Sabha poll promise that BJP would bring back black money stashed by corrupt Indians in foreign bank accounts—enough to give each Indian ₹15 lakh—was just a chunavi ‘jumla’. The word has stuck, thanks to the Opposition, which ever since has effectively used the term to attack the BJP’s poll promises and policies.

The most egregious of Narendra Modi’s broken promises was the one of creating 10 million jobs. Around 13 million youth join the workforce every year. Of these, under the Modi government, only 3.4 lakh have been getting jobs, as a survey by the Ministry of Labour pointed out in 2016. “At the time of 2014 elections, they had promised 2 crore jobs every year and now they [Modi and Shah] are mocking youngsters by asking them to sell pakoras,” points out CPI(M) MP Rajesh. The youth can’t be faulted for flooding social media with memes that the promise of jobs was also just an election jumla.

Now the government’s recent budget promise to give farmers at least 50% higher support price than their cost of production for the kharif crops has been termed another jumla by Swaraj Abhiyan leader Yogendra Yadav. Many economists have stated that 94% farmers in this country are not covered by MSP. “What the farmers are going to get is not a 50% increase in MSP, but instead what they have stated is that farmers will be given a 50% increase in cost of production. How will the cost of production be computed, who will determine?” asks VM Singh of Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan.

As Gujarat has shown, the rural constituency which supported Modi in 2014, has turned their back on him. Modi admitted as much with his “pro poor”, “pro farmer” budget, which however is too little, too late. Alarmingly for Modi, the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, which represents 191 farmer organisations in the country, announced a ‘Kisan Sangharsh Mukti Saptah’ from February 12-19 across the country to express its displeasure over the “anti-farmer” budget. A farmer leader in MP promised to burn the budget in 1,000 locations across the country.


Squandered political capital

Brand Modi has also been damaged by poorly implemented economic reforms, resulting in disillusionment among two core BJP constituencies— traders and the urban middle class. Modi was the darling of these two constituencies. But the shock of sudden demonetisation with no major visible gains as yet, the hastily-implemented Goods and Services Tax and the spectre of Foreign Direct Investment in retail—a platform that the BJP had mightily opposed while in Opposition for the benefit of its traders’ constituency—have eroded the political capital earned by Modi in 2014. Ghanshyam Mittal, who runs a grocery shop in Ghaziabad near Delhi, said “The Modi government has forced small traders like us to spend a considerable part of our hard-earned money on filing online papers and paying chartered accountants.”

As for the urban middle class voters, expectations were high that they would get some relief from Modi’s last full budget of his term. After all, it was Finance Minister Arun Jaitley who had, when in Opposition, said that the income tax ceiling should be raised to ₹5 lakh. But their expectations were belied. For salaried individuals, standard deduction is back, but reintroduction of Long Term Capital Gains Tax on equity income over ₹1 lakh has come as a shock, especially to individual mutual fund investors. As former finance minister P Chidambaram noted, one cancels out the other. Then there is the increase of 1% cess in income tax. Modi’s urban base is starting to crack.

Photo by Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Telugu Desam Party MP Chittoor N Sivaprasad (foreground) along with other TDP MPs stages a protest demanding a special package for Andhra Pradesh, outside Parliament on February 9

Where all else fails, there has always been one last trick up Modi’s sleeve—communal polarisation—which he has employed so effectively in the past. However, this also seems to be giving diminishing returns. If polarisation did not give expected returns in Gujarat and Rajasthan, will it work in Karnataka? Retired JNU Professor Arun Kumar says, “Modi spent 10 days in Gujarat during the assembly election and tried his best to polarise the election. Despite that BJP could win by only a small margin. It shows that the myth of Modi being undefeatable is breaking from within.” Yet the BJP is again attempting communal polarisation in the southern state in the run-up to the assembly elections. Modi and Shah’s Achilles heel, is that they have run out of tricks.

Fallout of fewer seats

Even those who predict a victory for BJP if general elections are held immediately, such as a recent survey conducted by ABP News-Lokniti-CSDS, have conceded that the popularity of the Modi government is in sharp decline. It stated that NDA will lose around 30 seats, benefitting the Congress party the most. According to this survey, the UPA can get 127 seats and others 115. The IndiaSpend projection, based on actual assembly votes, puts the BJP’s imputed tally at 217. In a scenario of reduced majority, BJP would need even more allies. Which brings us to the sorry state of NDA allies under the prime ministership of Narendra Modi and party presidency of Amit Shah. Frankly, the NDA is tottering. Narendra Modi has never had to run a coalition before 2014, and it shows; he does not have the skills or large-heartedness to take allies along in decision-making. NDA allies have begun making their dissatisfaction obvious. Immediately after the budget, the BJP’s biggest ally in the south, Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP), felt Andhra Pradesh had got a raw deal and called an emergency meeting to decide whether to remain in the NDA. Though the TDP decided to stay, they continued to protest inside and outside Parliament. The Shiromani Akali Dal, another trusted ally of the BJP, is also furious. Talking to NDTV, senior SAD leader Naresh Gujral attacked BJP in scathing terms, saying “There is no way BJP can win 272 in the next elections, the writing is on the wall”. He also said that both the PM and Amit Shah are responsible for mishandling the coalition. The Shiv Sena has already announced that it won’t ally with BJP in the next elections. Another Maharashtra ally, Raju Shetti’s Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana exited the NDA in September 2017. The only ally of the BJP sounding supportive notes is Nitish Kumar in Bihar. But even his assertion that his Janata Dal (United) is ready for early elections sounds like a panic reaction to Gujarat, Rajasthan and NDA allies in Bihar making overtures to Congress and RJD, and not a vote of confidence in Modi.

One could argue that if BJP, as is likely, emerges as the single largest party in a post-election scenario, it would automatically attract allies. It could, but it’s highly unlikely that this will happen if Narendra Modi remains Prime Minister. Not only are his existing allies unhappy with their treatment, the pool of parties who would be willing to join the NDA has shrunk, thanks to the aggressive politics of vendetta he has pursued against the Opposition. Having faced the brunt of Modi’s use of investigative agencies as weapons of coercion against them, those among Opposition parties who would consider joining an NDA government, would likely do so only on the condition that it’s headed by another BJP Prime Minister. At that point, it could well cease to matter whether Narendra Modi led the election campaign. He alone will bear responsibility for a fall in BJP seats. After all, he has virtually replaced the BJP. The country sees his face on billboards, airports, petrol pumps, newspapers and TV everywhere, associating him with every action of the NDA government.

Between calling early elections hoping to stave off anti-incumbency, and serving out the full term in the hope that he can change the narrative once again, Narendra Modi is stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. In either scenario, it’s hard to see the path by which he will once again occupy the Prime Minister’s chair.


With inputs by Rohit Kumar, Ashlin Mathew and Vishwadeepak

This story first appeared in National Herald on Sunday

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