People’s prime minister


The real test of political leadership lies in seizing opportunities and exercising right choices among multiple options. Exactly three years ago, Narendra Modi surprised political pundits by not merely re-galvanizing a dispirited Bharatiya Janata Party but running a political campaign that was both innovative and energetic. Under Modi, the BJP swept northern, western and central India and secured enough seats, either singly or in alliance, in both southern and eastern India to coast past the magic 272-seat mark. Despite the taunts of being a Hindi-belt and upper caste party, the Modi-led BJP secured representation in all the major states of India, barring Kerala.

For the party of Hindu nationalism, battling against a combination of intellectual hostility and Establishment wariness, this was a colossal achievement. Conventional wisdom has deemed that presidential-type political campaigns are the most successful when backed by a pithy and over-simplified message – somewhat akin to the Conservative Party’s incessant use of ‘strong and stable’ to sell Theresa May’s leadership in next month’s British general election. In the Modi campaign, there was a catchy one-liner: the promise of achche din (the good times). This was also backed by posters of Modi that hinted at his political resolve. At the same time, there was no attempt to sell Modi in an ideological garb.

This absence of a definite ideological focus went relatively unobserved during the 2014 campaign, not least because both the analysts and the legion of anti-BJP forces preferred to paint Modi as a communal demon and the guilty man of the 2002 Gujarat riots. They chose to posit an abstruse ‘Idea of India’ as their plea to voters to vote for anyone but Modi. Where they miscalculated was in believing that the sole appeal of Modi was that of an icon of Hindutva and, by implication, a hater of religious minorities.

That many of those inclined towards the BJP did indeed see Modi as a reincarnation of Chhatrapati Shivaji, determined to rekindle the old Maratha ‘Hindu padpadshahi‘ is undeniable. Secular demonology, while it may certainly have deterred the minusculity of ultra-liberals who were squeamish about flaunting their Hindu identity, actually made the leader from Gujarat seem more of a political Hindu than he actually was. In any case, this over-emphasis of Modi the Hindu blinded them to other facets of his appeal.

The greatest attribute of Modi is that he was interpreted differently by different sections, according to convenience. The economic Right, which has never been a powerful political force in India, liked to see him as business-friendly and anti-statist. They were ecstatic over his ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ mantra. Then there was the social justice lobby that just couldn’t come to terms with Modi’s backward caste status. The Indian equivalent of the Log Cabin to the White House story disoriented them completely, even as their theorists went on and on calculating caste equations. I recall the intricate dissection of local caste politics that a prominent Aam Aadmi Party member narrated to me in Varanasi shortly before the last phase of voting in May 2014. By his involved logic, Modi would have a hell of a fight before him because the BJP’s caste arithmetic was all wrong.

Modi’s greatest success in 2014 lay in forging a social coalition that defied conventional wisdom. Social forces that were hitherto pitted against one another or were traditionally hostile to the BJP broke with their community leadership to vote for a prime minister. This was Modi’s big triumph but, at the same time, it added a new and complicated dimension to his strategies of governance. The nature of the mandate – being both pan-India and across social groups – meant that Modi had to balance sectional interests with a large measure of universalism. This was the logic of the ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ slogan.

In assessing the three years of the Modi government, the political logic of the mandate he secured in 2014 must always be kept in mind. To this was added the political compulsion of enlarging the BJP’s core constituency from the middle classes and upper and middle castes to including those, further down the economic ladder, who were not traditional BJP voters but had voted in very large numbers for Modi in 2014.

There were initial miscalculations. In its haste to restore business confidence in India and revive capital expenditure by the private sector, the government attempted to change the United Progressive Alliance government’s land acquisition Act. The changes were entirely in keeping with the thrust on improving the ease of doing business. However, the government had to retreat in the face of fears among farmers that the government was paving the way for forcible land acquisition. More than the Opposition which, quite predictably, cried foul, it was the misgivings expressed within the BJP that compelled a retreat. The land acquisition controversy, coupled with the taunt of ‘suit-boot ki sarkar‘, persuaded the Modi government to change course.

The shift was also propelled by a realization that the ability of the private sector to lead the economic revival had been significantly over-estimated. By mid-2015, the government fell back on a classic Keynesian strategy of using public expenditure to fuel growth. However, unlike the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government that focussed on infrastructure and took its eye off the political maidan, Modi has pursued a twin-track strategy. There have been significant investments in road building and railway upgradation. However, these have been complemented by programmes that involve both public participation and yield immediate and visible returns. The two programmes that have yielded the maximum returns are rural electrification and the supply of cooking gas cylinders (along with an upkeep subsidy) to economically disadvantaged women. In addition, the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, aimed at financial inclusion of the poorer sections, gave large numbers of people a sense of social dignity.

In the past three years, Modi’s government has essentially tried to blend a sectional outreach with initiatives that cut across caste and even class. Demonetization was the biggest initiative taken by the State since Independence and its effects were felt by almost every adult Indian. Apart from its economic consequences, which don’t seem to be as debilitating as economists initially suggested, demonetization was packaged as a radical anti-corruption move aimed at breaking the backbone of those whose business model centred on tax evasion. Its political consequences have been very favourable and have bolstered the impression of a strong, no-nonsense leader – an image that benefited the BJP in the Uttar Pradesh election earlier this year.

Likewise, the immediate results from the Swachh Bharat initiative are patchy. But by embracing an issue that belongs to the realm of Mahatma Gandhi’s Constructive Programme, Modi has consciously tried to lift his priorities above the realms of partisan politics. As with his Mann Ki Baat radio talks, the prime minister has tried to put himself a notch above the political class. If the 2019 general election becomes yet another quasi-presidential contest, this image of a political leader who is a little different will come in very handy. In 2014, Modi was establishing his credentials aggressively; in 2019, he can afford to be more lofty in his approach. After three years in office, he has become an autonomous brand – linked inextricably to the BJP but also well above it.

The favourable ratings enjoyed by the government after three years in office may come as a surprise to those who still see Modi as the repository of authoritarian and regressive values. Yet, for less ideologically inclined Indians, the picture is of a towering leader bubbling with energy and with a gaze on issues that go well beyond politics.

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