We are just seven or eight months away from the start of the next parliamentary elections, the results of which will have the most profound impact on national values and political culture. The verdict will determine if India continues hurtling in the direction where long-cherished principles are replaced with new ones, conspicuous since 2014, or if this process will either be checked or reversed. Several political developments since the results of the Gujarat Assembly elections underscore that neither is the BJP as certain of a thumping victory as in 2014, nor is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationwide popularity as high as it was once, especially during the mid-months of 2017 when his graph was soaring.
The recent electoral setbacks to the BJP, however small they may be in the emerging big picture, are backed by significant empirical pointers in the form of two opinion polls. The first in the month of May by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, India’s respected premier autonomous social science research institution which has tracked people’s opinion for more than two decades, and the the second, partnered by India Today and Karvy Insights recently, show the declining fortunes of the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance. The two surveys looked at the political scenario from the perspective of “if the polls were held today” and assume credibility which is greater than other surveys for two reasons. First, these were conducted by two organisations from diverse backgrounds but arrive at a common conclusion, and second, the indications provided by the CSDS poll, that anti-incumbency had set in and the BJP was slipping considerably, was a consistent trend and between April, when the CSDS surveyed opinion, and now, the ruling party has failed to initiate steps to either stem its fall or reverse the decline.
Significantly, the polls mention “economic anxieties” as the principal cause for people’s sentiments turning against the government and the BJP. People in both surveys declared unemployment as their biggest worry and the government’s biggest failure. Three major concerns of people are the age-old issues which have been cause of the downfall of several incumbents in the past — lack of jobs, price rise and corruption. Beneath the economic dream that Mr Modi sold in 2014, the people expected relief on these three issues immediately. Mr Modi’s worries are accentuated by the fact that on the issue of corruption, almost two-thirds of the people surveyed were of the view that the government is corrupt, and that demonetisation has boomeranged. People also think that instead of curbing corruption, DeMo was a reckless move and dealt a telling blow to small businesses, especially in the informal sector.
Mr Modi’s worries gets accentuated by the paradox that while he is complimented for a host of issues, including ushering in new programmes like the Goods and Services Tax, Swachchh Bharat and other infrastructure programmes, the people are not greatly enthused by showcase items like Jan Dhan, Direct Benefit Transfer and Digital India, and instead remain focused on the question of jobs, or the lack of them, and on rising prices. The conclusions of the two polls are, however, drawn before the Prime Minister has begun his electoral campaign, and cannot be considered as final. However, the evidence so far suggests that he is yet to identify a national narrative on which he can seek another term in office. His speech on Independence Day pointed towards the government’s dependence on its “achievements”, which might prove inadequate, raising worries that eventually the BJP will have to settle for polarising political issues in a bid to win elections.
Peculiarly, despite all the indications of anti-incumbency setting in, the Opposition parties have yet to provide people with a dream of what they wish to do if the BJP is defeated and non-BJP parties form the government. True, the people are not expecting a national-level anti-BJP front to be announced so early, like it was in the late 1980s when opposition to the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government had crystallised well before the general election. In the era of coalition politics, the people have got used to alliances being struck at the last minute, but they do expect an alternative vision.
The Opposition parties are still focusing their energies on raising “fear” at the prospect of the BJP returning to power and not emphasising on the party’s failures on the three big issues over which people are mostly concerned. While it may be necessary to talk about how the BJP has undermined the fundamentals of the republic over the past four years, the issue has capacity to motivate only a small section of people, chiefly the intelligentsia. Mr Modi came into office on the promise of hope and can only retain power by either convincing the people that he has “delivered” and that the nation has been put on the right track after years of paralysis, or he has to create a fear of the “other”. The response to the BJP’s efforts to maximise support from the majority community cannot be by emphasising India’s secular values. Instead, the Opposition parties need to harp on the basic issues which concern the people and highlight the government’s dismal record in the areas where the people had expected the most.
Unless Mr Modi’s popularity crashes further, the Opposition stands little chance by expecting the present disenchantment with the BJP-NDA government to turn into the kind of loathing that people had towards the Congress and the UPA in the last year that it was in power. The Opposition parties must realise that while in 2013, the UPA’s defeat was a certainty, this time only a setback for the NDA is visible. To be able to convert this sentiment into a wave against the government, the Opposition has to be proactive not just in terms of cobbling up credible state-by-state alliances but also by presenting an alternative idea to what Mr Modi presented in 2014. It will not be enough to expect the people to vote out the BJP. People must be able to visualise what is coming next, and only then can the Opposition parties expect to sit in the treasury benches next year.