The hiatus between the Assembly elections in the states is particularly hard to fill if the reputation of invincibility of the nation’s most popular politician has been besmirched by a humbling defeat that has also drawn attention to other losses sustained by Narendra Modi as the BJP’s one-man vote-winning machine. The defeat of the BJP in Karnataka has led to a reassessment: voters are wakeful and stringing together other losses by the party -- starting with West Bengal in 2021, and then Punjab and Himachal Pradesh in 2022.
The ante has been upped for Narendra Modi, personally, and for his party, generally. The months between now and the next round of state elections have to be filled with attention-grabbing content by Mr Modi, as the principal campaigner for the BJP. With elections due in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, where the Congress is the defending champion, and in Telangana, Madhya Pradesh and Mizoram, where it is the challenger and is set on reviving itself, how Mr Modi markets himself as a winner is an unforeseen scenario and somewhat of a problem.
Neither Mr Modi nor his party can crawl into a corner to recover from the grievous wound inflicted in Karnataka. As the dominant leader who is marketing the vision of a unified India crowded with “double engine sarkars”, it is imperative for Mr Modi to repair his tarnished image and convince voters that his popular appeal has not been diminished by his losses. Before reverting to the tested liturgy that has been successful in consolidating voters to the far-right exclusively majoritarian ideology of a Hindu Rashtra in the making as an achievable target agenda, Mr Modi, specifically, and his party operating as an amplification machine have to contain the Congress in order to ensure its extinction as a rival.
The tactics that Mr Modi has crafted to squash an upbeat Congress could boomerang, though he appears heedless of the risk. As the most popular leader, Mr Modi has chosen to attack the Congress on three counts: its “Garibi Hatao” promise, its development goals and its corruption. By targeting “Garibi Hatao”, a 52-year slogan that has such resonance that it continues to electrify the nation, Mr Modi is hoping to convince voters that the real “Garibi Hatao” initiative began when he came to power and unveiled a slew of “development” or “welfare” programmes that were more universal, more inclusive, more everything than the cosmetic changes that followed Indira Gandhi’s original slogan.
The appropriation of the legacy of the Congress’ “Garibi Hatao” by trashing its performance and its outcomes is actually a homage to Indira Gandhi as India’s most outstanding autocrat and populist leader, who perfected the art of galvanising the masses by raising expectations.
It is Mr Modi’s argument that corruption by the Congress when in power shovelled 85 per cent off all welfare and development funds into its own pockets. As evidence of this massive corruption, Mr Modi quotes Rajiv Gandhi’s famous diatribe. The percentage story links the Congress past to its promise to Karnataka voters that as the ruling party it would end the 40 per cent commission raj installed by the BJP.
The evolving spiel to nail the Congress includes a segment on how Mr Modi has saved money by rooting out corruption and waste and used it for welfare and infrastructure development that will propel India into a glorious future.
In doing so, Mr Modi has inadvertently admitted his “welfarism” and his development successes have not resonated with voters as the lie that was “Garibi Hatao”. The slow, incremental trickle-down effects of his flagship policies -- Swachh Bharat, PM Jan Arogya Yojana and Ayushman Bharat, Awas Yojana, Beti Bachao-Beti Padhao, Jal Nal Yojana, Jan Dhan Yojana and others -- have failed to awe and inspire the public.
The timeframe and mode that comes into effect when an election is called is very different from the prolonged countdown stretching over almost six months that Mr Modi has to transition before going full steam ahead into an exhaustive campaign in the three states north of the Vindhayas and Telangana in the south between now and January. The prelude and the campaign have to match.
With more elections coming up where the BJP will fight against the Congress and its promised guarantees, Mr Modi has problems. He has to convince voters that his guarantees, unlike those of Indira Gandhi and the Congress, are credible. That is a situation he has never faced before; not in Gujarat and not in the nine full years of power in New Delhi.
It will probably be impossible for Mr Modi or his party can recalibrate the appeal of the cult that has been created around the leader. Nor can the BJP distance itself from its stock in trade, the Hindutva narrative, with its “Jai Shri Ram” war cry. The need to do so has acquired some urgency because a Congress that has cast off its crown prince by electing Mallikarjun Kharge is now reviving itself, having received a massive shot in the arm with the Karnataka victory. That is a very different kettle of fish from the endangered species of the Congress that served as a perfect foil to Mr Modi and the BJP in 2014 and 2019.
A reviving Congress and a unifying anti-BJP Opposition pose a challenge that is new and different. The middle ground in politics, bookended by the BJP as the religiously intolerant far-right wing, and Communists of all shades on the left, has visibly resurfaced. This resurgence is a bigger threat to the BJP and Mr Modi’s ambitions of winning a third term than any other. South of the Vindhayas, the BJP has been pushed out. Along the coastal states in the east, it is not in power. In the west, the survival of the Eknath Shinde Shiv Sena-Devendra Fadnavis government looks uncertain.
This combination of forces comes when Mr Modi is burdened by the inevitability of anti-incumbency after nine full years in office and in his tenth year. The double engine sarkar model is also at risk because it has been around for 10 years. His interim campaign of selling his leadership as outstandingly successful comes with a classic conditional clause: Modi is the best if the Congress is in self-destruct mode. A politically fitter than before Congress is an altogether different challenge. An assertive middle ground in politics is like an orange flag weather warning of widespread turbulence. The run-up to the Assembly elections and the 2024 Lok Sabha polls will test Mr Modi’s political fitness, as setbacks are not what he has learnt to face.