How many people, especially the aam aadmi whom every political leader swears by, understand cash to GDP ratio? Or for that matter, what is current account deficit or how rising forex reserves benefit people?
Data on such fiscal measures were presented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last Wednesday. In a lecture mainly targeting the middle class supporters, Modi cited rising sale of passenger cars since June along with figures of commercial vehicles, two-wheelers and FMCGs to put forth his defence against criticism that the economy under Modi was beginning to flounder.
The attempt here is not to engage with the debate's economic dimension and pass a judgement on whose presentation is more credible, instead, this is an exercise to examine the political dimension of Modi's lecture and ponder over reasons behind his defensive posture.
For a leader who played on the front foot, especially since 2012 when he began his prime ministerial bid, why is Modi on the back foot now? After having declared that he required no formal advisors, why the resurrection of the Economic Advisory Council?
For someone who is not known to bow to pressure, why were fuel prices reduced within days of Yashwant Sinha's criticism? Also, why were alterations in GST regulations made in a week of Mohan Bhagwat speaking for traders and small businesses?
For someone who rarely accepted erring, why did Modi say that he neither claims to have answers for every problem, nor does he consider that critics are always wrong?
Modi won the elections in 2014 on the back of support from diverse social and economic groups, most significantly the professional middle class which was never a traditional backer of BJP. Among them were countless economic Right-wingers who previously supported Congress despite the party's economic populism because the BJP's, especially Modi's, hard Hindutva stance was off-putting.
Modi's posturing as a development man, the 'policy paralysis' during UPA's last years backed by an unprecedented publicity campaign, brought supporters in hordes including the paragons of economic and social liberalism. His assertions generated hope as he brought a whiff of fresh air.
His statement to students at Delhi's Shri Ram College of Commerce in February 2013 and the reaction was symptomatic of the discourse that Modi triggered. Standing on the podium, Modi picked up a half-filled glass and said he neither saw it as half-filled or half-empty, but he saw it half filled with water and half with air. Modi's ingenuity impressed the attendees.
Support from such diverse quarters made Modi the alternative. Nothing he said was questioned and his credibility was at an all-time high. He could have asked anything and voters were willing to hand it over to him. This included enabling him to realise the objective of Mission 272+.
But barely seven months after a stunning victory in Uttar Pradesh which led supporters to claim that 2019 was a "settled affair" and for Omar Abdullah to declare that instead of the next hustings, the opposition must prepare for 2024, the scenario has altered dramatically.
In Gujarat, where a BJP victory should have been a routine affair, the party is exhibiting anxiety. Not that the opposition in Gujarat is sensing victory, but a bare majority for BJP in Modi's home state will be no triumph. The BJP must get close to Shah's target of 150 seats out of 182 to regain political dignity in the state after a series of setbacks.
At the national level, the loudest murmurs are heard from the section that campaigned most passionately in 2014, the middle class, and this includes traditional supporters of BJP.
On the social media, once Modi's bastion, not a single day goes by that a message ridiculing him is not widely circulated. In Gujarat, during Navratri, messages making fun of Vikas — projected as a personification of Modi — became so unbridled that Amit Shah responded alleging that it was the handiwork of Congress.
Even if the accusation is correct, there is no denying that opposition parties cannot mount successful campaigns on social media without public support. The mood has altered though whether or not it is irrevocable is difficult to state at this stage.
Shah's charge notwithstanding, the truth is that Congress is far from revival and its vice-president, Rahul Gandhi continues to suffer from a severe crisis of credibility. He remains a butt of jokes in the social media and among conversations in the middle class. The absence of a serious challenge, ironically, is more bad news for Modi.
From being considered the rightful claimant to the prime ministerial seat in 2014 and being assessed as the only alternative to being seen as the best bet because there is no alternative is a major decline in Modi's following. This is bad news.
After having wooed the masses consistently since 2014 and especially since last year's demonetisation, Modi made a concerted bid to woo the middle class back. As per the party's calculation, if the drumbeaters return, a significant part of the perception battle would be won.
But in the process, the masses are being ignored and in his ICSI speech, Modi provided little evidence that his government has improved their condition. Part of the problem is that the interests of masses and the middle class are often at a crosspath and a political leader or party must choose the core constituency. Modi's vacillation stems from insecurity and the realisation that he is close to missing a chance to consolidate an impressive mandate.
There's still almost two years to go for the script to change and for the government to deliver enabling Modi to get his mojo back. But the inverse is also possible. Moreover, two years is also sufficient time for the opposition to get its act together.
The next few months are critical for Modi. But, after having already gone on the defensive, can he turn aggressive and reclaim lost political territory? The Opposition, especially the Congress, has its task cut out: All it has to do to channelise people's dissatisfaction is to focus on government's delivery record with promises made.
Modi's task is more arduous. This is a vital change since 2014 and all in the past two months. As farmers in the heartland say, "fasal kharab hone mein der naheen lagti (it does not take time for the crop to go bad)!
Published Date: Oct 09, 2017 06:53 am | Updated Date: Oct 09, 2017 06:55 am