The key strands for voting will be the degree of success in rolling back VVIP corruption, the improvement in the economy and leashing the state machinery.
May 31 could not have been a pleasant day for the BJP leadership, given the slippage in performance demonstrated during the bypolls. While BJP president Amit Shah was his usual efficient, bustling self during both the bypolls as well as in the run up to the Karnataka Assembly polls, the many weapons and tactics deployed by his team failed to ensure victory. The 2014 Lok Sabha victory was attributed to a single factor, the “Modi Wave”, rather than to voter distaste for UPA II. The BJP exulted at its “superior use of social media”, while in the process, several associated with the internet backend of the election campaign made lucrative careers for themselves “advising” and “assisting” political parties and candidates to victory, to predictably mixed results. In India as in many other countries, the surest guarantee to victory of a candidate rests in the unpopularity of his or her principal opponent, and so it proved in 2014. A small group of commentators and activists, including Subramanian Swamy, S. Gurumurthy and Surya Prakash worked without pause over several years to transform the positive image UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi had at the start of 2004 into a negative one, with great success. The more negative voter perceptions of Sonia were, the greater the backing for the individual seen as the “Anti-Sonia”, Narendra Modi. Interestingly, the Opposition even collectively has thus far failed to dent the image of Narendra Modi within the public as an honest and well-meaning leader, or create an image of the NDA led by him as being as or more corrupt than the UPA. This lack of success may be compared to the meltdown of the public image of the UPA, which took place by the close of 2012, great gusts of negativity that became worse rather than better in the period before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and for about two years thereafter. More than anything attempted by the large and hard-working BJP organisational machinery created by Amit Shah, it is the lack of success of Modi’s opponents to push him and his government into the same dismal groove of public perception that the UPA fell into during 2012-14 which offers the Prime Minister his best hope for continuing to be the legal occupant of 7 Lok Kalyan Marg, New Delhi even after the 2019 LS polls.
BJP office-bearers and spokespersons uniformly assert that the party’s results of the 2019 polls will be the same or better than was the case in 2014. Such confidence may be misplaced. While there is no doubt that Narendra Modi remains the most popular politician in India, votes will not get cast solely on that account. Not simply Modi, but the top 99 individuals (all presumably personally chosen by him for their tasks) forming Team Modi will be on one end of the weighing scale as voters decide on their choices, much the same way as it is not merely the captain but the entire team that decides the outcome of a cricket match. Once he took over as PM, the scale of the BJP victory ensured a free hand for the incoming Prime Minister in 2014, unencumbered by any consideration other than choosing what in his view was the most suitable candidate for each post, whether these be in his “official” (i.e. bureaucratic) family or his “political” family (i.e. key Chief Ministers, Union Ministers and party functionaries). Modi was free to make whatever choices he wanted, and this is what he did. Team Modi has been comparatively stable in its composition, with practically no dismissal in the top tier. This has given voters the chance to judge for themselves the success of the team in fulfilling the expectations that they had about the Modi government. Although television anchors speak with awe about the “Modi blitzkrieg” just before polling in various elections, more than speeches, what counts during that period are events, including changes in petrol prices. The core of the electoral appeal of Prime Minister Modi is his performance in the job. Speeches can only reinforce such perceptions and not replace them.
Rajiv Gandhi suffered a point of inflexion in his mass appeal with the decision to overturn the Shah Bano judgement of the Supreme Court. Should Modi find the 2019 results a disappointment, his own point of inflexion may be the 8 November 2016 decision to render illegal 86% of the country’s currency at four hours’ notice, added to the clumsy way in which the RBI and other wings of the state implemented the Prime Minister’s exceptionally bold decision. BJP spokespersons continued till recently to see the demonetisation as a popularity-boosting initiative, and have ascribed to it numerous benefits, such as an end to black money, terror funding, tax evasion, counterfeiting and the use of cash rather than plastic in transactions. However, they do not seem to any more ask the electorate to make contests a referendum on DeMo. It speaks for the generosity of spirit of Narendra Modi that long after the drawbacks in the measure have become patent, the civil servants who recommended it and who executed its rollout have been given higher positions, an example being former Revenue Secretary Shaktikanta Das. The new government’s broad mindedness concerning the past record of civil servants is exemplified in the promotions given to Das as well as others such as K.P. Krishnan and Ramesh Abhishek, despite it being common knowledge that they were exceptionally close to former Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram. In 2019, voters will give their verdict on the On the Job performance of these and other officials in Team Modi, including their success in taking action against those misdeeds of the government in which they were such an active part from 2004 to 2014. Among the key strands will be the degree of success in rolling back VVIP corruption (the only kind that matters to voters jaded by the moneymaking habits of those they elect), the improvement in the economy (especially on jobs and income) and leashing the state machinery so as to make it less a band of mercenaries than a collection of sevaks led by “Pradhan Sevak” Modi. For an Opposition leader, it is speeches that count at the hustings. For a party in power for five years, it is performance.