How the political narrative slipped out of Modi’s hands

Narendra Modi takes Delhi Metro ride | PTI
Narendra Modi takes Delhi Metro ride | PTI

It is not unusual for governments to become unpopular in their last year or two. What is unusual is that we never thought this would happen to Narendra Modi, the master communicator.

Shocked by the gory details of the brutalisation of women, people are angry about violence against women. The Prime Minister was silent for weeks, breaking his silence only after public outrage, protests continue even after the government has woken up. April 2018 could well have been December 2012. 

The intensity then was much greater, but the pattern is similar. The government is appearing to be out of control; it has lost its grip over the political narrative. Every week there’s a new crisis that makes the government look worse than it did the previous weekend. Things fall apart, the Centre cannot hold. The negative headlines drown out PM Modi’s photo-ops; he often appears absent from the discourse.

It is not unusual for governments to become unpopular in their last year or two. What is unusual is that we never thought this would happen to Narendra Modi, the master communicator, the king of narrative, the man who sets the agenda others follow, the slayer-of-demons who won UP despite the failure of demonetisation, and who knows how many rabbits he could still pull out of his hat?

A year ago, around April 2017, the Modi government looked so powerful people thought it would rule forever. Invincible, everyone had exclaimed, invincible! 

Having won three-fourths of Uttar Pradesh, showing no signs of attrition over its 2014 sweep in the most important political theatre, Modi and Shah inspired fear and awe alike. 

On 31 July, the peripatetic provincial princeling of Patna, Nitish Kumar, felt compelled to give into the force of gravity, falling face-first into the BJP’s waiting arms. Nobody can defeat Modi in 2019, he had declared triumphantly.

Original sin

Exactly a month later, on 31 August, GDP numbers for the first quarter of 2017-18 were published. India’s GDP had fallen to 5.7 per cent, the impact of demonetisation was writ large. It was clear that things weren’t going to look up anytime soon because the goods and services tax (GST), hurriedly rolled out on 1 July, was an implementation mess, slowing down business activity and hurting job creation.

It all started with demonetisation, the original sin. Delhi pundits presumed demonetisation had won BJP the prize of Uttar Pradesh, but the truth is that by February 2017 voters in UP knew demonetisation had failed to save any black money. They voted for the BJP despite the failure of demonetisation — for other reasons.

Demonetisation and GST hurt everything: Jobs, rural economy, private investment, government revenues, consumer confidence and so on. The government cherry-picked economic data to defend itself. Spin-doctoring can make you believe any lies except the bit about the money in your pocket.

The government managed to carry the political narrative over demonetisation and GST, disasters as both of them have been, only till the GDP numbers were out. Since then, the Modi narrative has fallen week after week. 

Less than a year after the stupendous victory in UP, the Modi juggernaut is not looking beyond the pale of the cycle of anti-incumbency that inevitably follows mandates of hope.

Losing the perception battle, week after week

Week after week, the Modi government’s own tall promises made through lofty slogans have come a cropper.

Beti Bachao: It was in January that an eight-year-old Bakerwal girl was killed, allegedly to drive her community out of a village. Protests by Hindutva groups to defend the accused have continued since the suspects were arrested. Yet it became a big national story only in April, when lawyers prevented the chargesheet from being filed in court.

It was in June last year that Kuldeep Singh Sengar, a BJP legislator in UP, allegedly raped a minor girl. It became a big story only when her father was allegedly bludgeoned to death in judicial custody this month. The government’s ‘Beti Bachao’ war cry seemed like a wilful lie, given how his party was found saving alleged rapists in Unnao and Kathua alike.

Digital India: Apprehensions over the collection of private data by the Narendra Modi app have been made since it was launched. But they became a big story only recently.

Re-exam warriors: To woo first-time voters, the PM made a blitzkrieg of his old concern for exam stress. Soon after he published a book called Exam Warriors, students’ exam stress actually increased with the leak of CBSE question papers.  

Co-operative federalism? A year ago, Modi was the X-factor in Tamil Nadu politics. Now, Chennai made sure he saw “Modi go back” in black and white even as he tried to avoid the city’s roads. The Cauvery issue is the least of his troubles in south India. Andhra’s ruling party said goodbye to him, miffed with the betrayal of special-status promises. Meanwhile, all south Indian states started coming together against the 15th Finance Commission, fearing their financial allocations were going to be cut.

‘Na khaoonga na khaanay doonga’: Until recently, even the Modi government’s worst critics had to concede it was a government free of corruption. Whether the allegations are correct or not, the government has lost the perception battle with questions that have been asked of the business dealings of the party chief’s entrepreneur son Jay Shah and minister Piyush Goyal. The opposition has also tried to paint a cloud over the Rafale fighter jet deal.

‘Chowkidar of public money’: It did little damage to the government’s reputation in 2016 when Vijay Mallya, wilful defaulter of bank loans, escaped to London from under the government’s long nose. A lookout notice for him was quietly amended to let him escape; yet this indiscretion of the CBI was easily forgotten. But the midnight escape of fellow Gujaratis Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi irreparably dented Modi’s image as the watchman who would guard public money.

‘Saffron Ambedkar’: The more Narendra Modi has hailed Ambedkar, the more he, his government and party have alienated Dalits. Ambedkar statues are vandalised in Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh faster than you can say Mayawati. Members of the community who had voted for the BJP in UP in 2014 and 2017 were now found supporting the Samajwadi Party. The government’s obeisance to Ambedkar was reduced to blatant appropriation with the image of an Ambedkar statue painted saffron in UP.

Questions over democracy: I&B minister Smriti Irani’s attempts to muzzle the press with the fake news bogey backfired. An unprecedented press conference by four sitting Supreme Court judges fuelled speculation on whether the government was interfering with the independence of the judiciary. The government’s attempt to shove Aadhaar down people’s throats without a consensus furthered its anti-democratic image.   

How BJP loses

The BJP’s big reply to its critics is that it keeps winning election after election. The party’s good performance in the northeast, however, was overshadowed by the news that the BJP had lost Gorakhpur for the first time in three decades. Dalit alienation from the Yogi government in UP forced the Bahujan Samaj Party to ally with the Samajwadi Party, raising doubts over the BJP’s election machine. The BJP’s own supporters didn’t come out. 

The Gujarat election result was a victory that didn’t feel like one. The BJP should have improved its performance after Gujarat’s own Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, but its tally actually dropped below 100 for the first time since the party’s rise to power. It was routed in rural Gujarat thanks to farm distress. The story was repeated in bypolls in Rajasthan’s Ajmer and Alwar. Farm distress and unemployment both became big stories that overshadowed the government’s tall claims. This, more than anything else, cast doubts over the party’s invincibility, and the inevitability of their 2019 victory. 

It’s still a year to go for the 2019 general elections. Is Narendra Modi on a sliding slope, or can he rise and shine again?