Get things done or lose mandate: Why Modi's power strategy is wrong
Modi cannot win by projecting weakness on issues right at the start of his prime ministership. The Indian reality is that if you do not project power and decisiveness, your opponents will bring you down.
The NDA's quandary over the Insurance Bill, which has the Congress and other parties ganging up against it to delay it in the Rajya Sabha, is one more indication that the Modi government has got its power strategy wrong.
The partial retreat over the UPSC aptitude test is another. In his 70 days in office, despite some interesting moves on the foreign policy front with neighbours, Modi has projected political weakness rather than strength - the exact opposite of why this country elected him in the first place.
One can try and rationalise the government's actions and bumbling on several fronts (new to the job, assembly elections ahead, etc), but what is inexplicable is Narendra Modi's seeming inability to understand why he is facing all-round opposition. Everything that is happening now could have been predicted on 16 May itself. If Modi does not take stock and deal with issues head on, he is going to face the same fate that UPA-2 did - of squandering a positive mandate with little to show for it at the end of five years.
The two big truths about being Indian are an acute consciousness about power and who wields it, and the prioritisation of power over principle. Principles are brought into play only when they are convenient. This means concurrence or consensus on any issue is almost never about ideology. It has to be bargained, bought, bartered – or bludgeoned.
If we accept these as intrinsically Indian traits, it means two things: those who have power must project it and use it for gaining ground and getting things done. And two, whoever has power will see unprincipled opposition to it. People from extreme ends of the ideological spectrum will gang up to oppose those who have power. If you do not use your power, others will neutralise it sooner than later.
This is what we are seeing now on the insurance bill; this is what we are seeing in Bihar politics, where two bitter enemies (Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad) have joined forces to defeat the BJP. This is what led the Congress to support the Aam Aadmi Party after 8 December last year (to keep BJP out), and this is what led Congress and BJP to join hands against Arvind Kejriwal's rising popularity and scuttle the introduction of the Jan Lokpal Bill. It is another matter Kejriwal shot himself in the foot over this bill, but that was pure luck for BJP, not strategy.
I predict that in Bengal the Trinamool and Congress will work together at some point of time, thanks to the BJP’s rise in this state. And, despite her alleged closeness to Modi, J Jayalalithaa is going to demand her pound of flesh every time Modi seeks her support. Nothing will come for free. In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress will ally with either BSP or SP the next time to defeat the party.
In the coming months, Modi will not be able to take even the Shiv Sena, the TDP and the LJP's support for granted, despite their being part of the pre-poll NDA alliance. It is worth recalling that the Sena dumped the BJP in the last two presidential polls. One does not see the Sena and the Akalis drifting away from the BJP, but their concurrence on issues cannot be taken for granted.
The message for Modi is simple: get things done fast, or lose the momentum and the mandate. Project power, and don’t be afraid of showing where you stand on issues. Any show of weakness allows the opposition to scuttle your plans.
I have always argued that a government that does not act fast when the sentiment is with it will soon lose the initiative and be pushed around by everybody. Even before the election results were out, I had written that Modi should use his first 90-100 days to get the difficult laws and legislation passed. He should also have called the Delhi assembly election immediately after 16 May. It would have been easiest to pull off when the Lok Sabha mandate was fresh in everybody's mind and Kejriwal was down in the dumps. Now, it has given him time to recover.
Ideally, the first budget should have been a cracker on reform – not more of the same. If the next budget does not deliver big, Modi and Arun Jaitley would have lost the initiative forever.
Even now, nothing is lost. If Modi chooses to do so, he should get all his legislation – on labour, land acquisition, food security, insurance, etc – passed quickly by the Lok Sabha, and when the Rajya Sabha fails to pass them, call a single joint session of parliament and get them all passed in one go. Trying to do it piecemeal will not work. With every passing day, the opposition to the BJP will only grow.
It is tempting to believe – as even I tried to rationalise some time ago – that Modi is working on a long-term plan which involves action after the assembly polls to five states are over in November. But unless the BJP scores in all five states, it will not be substantially stronger after that.
Consider the possibilities: can it win Delhi clean? Probably not. Can a win in Maharashtra make it stronger? The Shiv Sena will actually acquire more clout if Uddhav Thackeray becomes Chief Minister. Will it win Haryana on its own? We can’t be sure of that. It may need either the INLD or the Lok Janhit Congress to rule. Will it fare as well in J&K as in the Lok Sabha polls? Now that the Congress and National Conference are fighting separately, we should expect state-level issues to dominate – and both may fare better, even if the BJP is a bit ahead.
The next government in J&K will probably be a combo that excludes the BJP – unless there is some freak verdict in the works. The chances are that the BJP will not be any stronger after the assembly polls – even if it wins three of the five elections clean.
This means time is running out for Modi even as we speak. Trying to put too much faith in all-party meetings (planned on Wednesday on the insurance bill) is a waste of time. Parties say the right things at these meetings and then do what they have to do to safeguard their power. I am willing to bet that even if the BJP presents the same insurance bill that the Congress did, the Congress will still oppose it.
The moral is amoral: in India, parties in power need to project power to have power. If they shrink away from it, they will lose it.
Modi should not forget what got him where he is: his ability to project power and decisiveness. He should look back at his own rise as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate. It was won by projecting grassroots power, not by being nice to the top leadership who were out to pull him down a notch - from LK Advani down to Sushma Swaraj to some others too.
Indians admire and accept decisive power as a reality. They take advantage of weakness and make things impossible when it is the other way round.
At the end of 30 days in power, Modi blogged that he did not get the luxury of an extended honeymoon period; He, of all people, should have known that. He has to get his power act right. Now.
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