Decoding Narendra Modi interviews: PM betting on Indian voters' maturity, Opposition’s ‘Modi vs Rest’ strategy

Two recent, simultaneous interviews by Narendra Modi could be useful for a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis of the BJP’s chances of retaining power at the Centre. Both interviews (one by news agency ANI and the other by The Times of India) have elicited detailed responses from the prime minister on several issues such as the state of the economy, banking sector woes, employment, reservations, lynchings, NRC, politics, foreign policy, etc.

Modi appears confident of retaining power with an even 'bigger' mandate in 2019. Time will tell whether his confidence is misplaced. Political leaders tend to use rhetoric as a versatile tool. It is hard to shake off the impression though that Modi’s conviction is less of a fake swagger and more of a genuine belief that people will appreciate the hard work that he has done and back him despite being force-fed some bitter pills. In other words, Modi is betting on the maturity of Indian voters. The interviews also revealed Modi’s willingness to give a detailed account of the work that he has done in the last four years.

The more interesting bit that inadvertently emerges from the interviews, however, is Modi’s understated glee at the way his rivals are trying to frame the 2019 battle. If the Opposition wants to make it a ‘Modi vs Rest’ affair, he would welcome it. Such a framework suits Modi’s presidential style of campaigning and makes it easier for him to reinforce the message that the Opposition has nothing to offer except a bilious ‘anti-Modi’ hatred. Negative campaigns are good for columnists and TV anchors but not so much for elections.

Let us assume that voters are disappointed with Modi (electoral evidence points to the contrary, but still) and evaluate his tenure as ‘high on promise and low on performance’. Before making up their mind on whom to vote for and casting the ballot, the electorate would be interested in knowing how Modi’s rivals would fix the economy, simplify tax collection, ramp up employment generation, increase their well-being, so on and so forth. In short, they would seek a roadmap on all the areas where Modi has come in for criticism from rivals. This is the key, because India has a young demography, an aspirational electorate and a transitional economy.

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. AP

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. AP

This is also where the rivals have fallen woefully short. Not a single leader in the amorphous ‘grand alliance’ front has, so far, come forward with an intelligible policy on any of the issues that concern the electorate. Rahul Gandhi’s entire campaign rhetoric can be summed up in a single sentence: “Modi has been a failure.” Fair enough. But what is your recipe for success? On that, the Congress president has precious little to offer, except poverty fetishism and failed socialist rhetoric. His words are woolly, and ideas woollier.

Such policies had once taken India to the brink of bankruptcy, where our gold had to be mortgaged to save the economy.

And on occasions that he has bothered to offer a semblance of a policy, Rahul’s solutions are scarier than the problems, raising legitimate questions about his seriousness or his ability to grasp the complexities of the job that he aspires for.

The GST Council, for instance, is the constitutional body chaired by the Union finance minister and has as its members the Union state minister of revenue or finance and ministers in-charge of finance or taxation of all the states. Ergo, all parties in power in different states (including the Congress) have their representatives in the Council that regulates and implements GST in India. It reflects the federal structure of India’s polity.

It is unclear, therefore, what Rahul Gandhi means when he declares that 'Congress will bring one GST slab if voted to power'. He ends up criticising a body which has at least one representative from his own party and promulgates a formula that shows little concern for India’s federal structure.

Not only is Rahul’s idea preposterous and illogical (see here and here) but also impossible in the current framework.

Or take the instance of Mamata Banerjee who is competing with Rahul Gandhi for the leadership role of the ‘mahagathbandhan’. The West Bengal chief minister threatened a ‘civil war-like situation’ in country over NRC in Assam. The entire controversy rests on illegal immigration of economic migrants from Bangladesh, an issue on which she took a radically different position in 2005.

What emerges from such exchanges is that Modi’s opposite numbers are short on ideas, short on alternatives, short on policies and consumed by their hatred of Modi which is also the glue that binds them together. This disparate and desperate group of leaders are joining hands in the hope that their captive vote banks would be enough to stop the Modi juggernaut. What they really wish for is that caste and community equations will be enough to trump aspiration at the booth. It may have arisen out of desperation, but this is a legitimate, if cynical, strategy in a democracy.
The trouble with this approach is that it underestimates ‘aspiration’, a strong motivation for a young electorate. Modi tapped into it quite effectively in 2014 — and though he faces anti-incumbency headwinds this time — he plans to build his campaign around this theme once again.

“My platform will be development, fast development and development for all. People who have nothing to show for their work look for slogans to mislead the people. We have worked very hard in the last four years and we will go to the people with our track record of development,” he told The Times of India in an emailed interview.

His comments are not without basis. The IMF has recently said that India will be the engine of global growth for the next 30 years, and described the country’s economy as “an elephant that is starting to run.” It pegged India’s growth forecast at 7.3 per cent in the fiscal year through March 2019 and 7.5 per cent in the year after that.”

In what may be construed as a vote of confidence in the way the current government is functioning, the IMF also said that “India is benefiting from good macroeconomic policies; stability-oriented policies as well as some important reforms that have been done in recent years.”

Modi understands that part of the reason why he received such a massive mandate in 2014 was the desire of the populace to see a stable government at the Centre that won’t shy away from taking unpleasant decisions, if needed. If this was true in 2014, it is truer in 2019.

“Nobody can deny India’s status has improved in the eyes of the world since this government came to power. After 30 years, a performing, strong and stable government is in power at the Centre. People have bitter experience of coalition governments burdened by politics of compulsions. A mahagathbandhan or whatever you may call it cannot create a gathbandhan of the electorate,” he said in the interview to The Times of India.

Aligned with the politics of desperation is the politics of ambition. For many leaders of the amorphous ‘grand alliance’, 2019 presents a good chance (perhaps the last chance) to have a go at the prime minister’s chair, given the pitiable state of the Congress. The Mamata Banerjees, Sharad Pawars and the Mayawatis — along their respective vote banks — also bring to the table the baggage of ambition that may make it impossible for a coalition to take off.

A mismatch of clashing egos, clashing ambitions and cross-currents of conflicting interests (consider JD(U) or TRS’ stance during the Rajya Sabha deputy chairman’s election) present a stiff challenge to the concept of ‘grand alliance’ as a coherent unit.

Modi knows this. In his interview to ANI, he said: “Let us understand the true character of the mahagathbandhan. The mahagathbandhan is for personal survival, not for ideological support. The mahagathbandhan is for personal ambitions, not for people’s aspirations. The mahagathbandhan is purely about power politics, not about people’s mandate. The mahagathbandhan is about dynasties, not about development. The mahagathbandhan is not about any union of minds or ideas, but about rank opportunism. The only question is whether they will break up before the election or after!”

It seems plausible to surmise that other conditions remaining constant, Modi has fewer reasons to worry about 2019 than his rivals.


Updated Date: Aug 14, 2018 07:28 AM

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