In 2014, when Narendra Modi won the general elections with a historic mandate, his supporters and detractors both agreed on only one point. Modi is assured two terms and combined opposition might as well go take a walk till 2024. Opposition was in stupor, BJP was resurgent and Modi supporters thought Congress Mukt Bharat is just around the corner. After four years much water has flown under the bridge. In 2018 again, we have a situation where Modi supporters and his baiters agree on only one point-this time radically different from 2014. Second term for Narendra Modi government is certainly not a cakewalk and 2019 election will be a long, hard fought battle.
Combined opposition suddenly finds itself back in the game and whispers of ‘Narendra Modi is not invincible’ are being heard across the living rooms of Lutyens Delhi and opeds of newspapers. Few by-poll victories and Congress-JDS swooping in quickly to form a post poll alliance in Karnataka and keep BJP, the single largest party, out of power has only made these whispers louder.
Modi, when explaining Congress Mukt Bharat had himself given hints to those of us who are trying to understand why this situation has arisen in 2018, a year before general elections. In one of his speeches last year, Modi had mentioned that his slogan of 'Congress-free India' was not about ‘eliminating the main opposition party politically but about ridding the country of the "Congress culture" which he termed as casteist, dynastic, corrupt and no respect for democratic institutions’. In its penultimate year, Modi Government is battling Congress ecosystem which is not necessarily only Congress Party but entire ecosystem that benefits from Congress culture prevailing.
Narendra Modi’s personal popularity remains high. The economy is finally showing signs of recovery. Impact of Demonetization and major structural reform like GST has been absorbed. Infrastructure projects are being planned and completed in record time and India has retained its mantle of fastest growing major economy in the world. India has managed to avert any major terror attack on its soil. Left wing Maoist terror that gripped the country not too long ago is waning. Corruption in top echelons of the government has disappeared, scams and kickbacks are a thing of past.
Foreign policy has finally become India centric and India is punching above its weight in global governance institutions. Gone are the days when India merely reacted. Today India is leading on the global stage with ideas like International Solar Alliance. Cementing India’s soft power further, International Yoga day is now celebrated with much gusto across the world. These are facts, but Narendra Modi’s future battles do not lie in the realm of facts. Modi is fighting a battle of perception and electoral arithmetic and that battle must be fought and won in a different arena.
Modi’s tenure has never been without manufactured controversy. From orchestrated Award Wapsi campaigns to fake church attacks, opposition has been trying to sully Modi’s governance record. But none of the accusations stuck or no one really cared because Modi was winning all electoral battles that came his way. Then came Gujarat elections. BJP fighting years of incumbency was up against an uphill task. Gujarat was also facing leadership crisis with Anandiben Patel stepping down before elections. Despite all this, BJP did win the majority but narrowly stopped short of magical 100 mark. Congress did not get wiped out and claimed ‘moral’ victory for stopping BJP at 99.
After this BJP managed to lose few bypolls in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Bypolls are typically fought on local issues and their results can never be extrapolated to the larger national context. But bypolls can be a good indicator of what may follow if necessary measures are not undertaken.
First lesson is clear. Any non-BJP vote is now a Congress ecosystem vote. So, if Karnataka votes out Congress, yet in the fractured mandate Congress will align with other parties to become a legitimate force to challenge BJP.
Second lesson is what no commentator had guessed will happen. Two arch rivals like SP and BSP getting together to face a common enemy. None of us would have believed Mayawati will join hands with SP but faced with existential crisis she has been seen sharing stage with Akhilesh Yadav in many places. I wouldn’t be surprised as BJP climbs slowly to become largest opposition party in West Bengal that Mamata might join forces with her erstwhile enemy CPIM.
Kairana was a brilliant example of how Opposition will swallow their pride and put forth a combined front to defeat Modi. Tabasaaum Hasan who won Kairana is a SP candidate who fought on RLD ticket and Mayawati silently pitched in her support. Congress too wholehearted supported her. We will see many such instances where personal ambitions will take a back seat in the face of common enemy. Of course, there will be seat sharing issues and how much space each party is willing to concede. But at the moment till 2019 elections, many parties will join forces even if alliances are as unnatural as Congress- JDS alliance in Karnataka.
What can Modi do when faced with arithmetic of combined opposition? Exactly what he did in 2014. If he manages to persuade people to vote beyond identity issues, then no amount of Opposition unity can defeat him. In 2014 all incremental vote that BJP received beyond his core vote was of those who were willing to set aside their community and caste identity. When that happens no amount of permutations and combinations by opposition can defeat Modi.
Will Modi be able to inspire people of India to vote again for an idea that they must rise above narrow identity issues? It may not appear so right now, but a year is a long time in politics. Those who now enjoy 24/7 electricity and those who were able to replace chulhas with LPG gas cylinders may not find a voice in opeds of newspapers, but they have a vote and irrespective of what lazy Opedists write and hyper news anchors preach, they will vote for continued prosperity and dignity.