The interim Budget was friendly to the middle class too.
For the parliamentary elections of 2014, the then Gujarat chief minister, the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee, criss-crossed India and addressed more election rallies than all his rivals and left no one in doubt that he was seeking votes in his own name. That was crystal clear from the screaming tagline: Abki Bar Modi Sarkar! Only once, by accident or some design, a tagline appeared on the BJP website: “Abki Bar, BJP Sarkar”; and it was removed within a couple of hours! While lakhs of disciplined and dedicated swayamsevaks of the RSS did extensive spadework across the country and the BJP ran an aggressive, efficient, imaginative, tech-savvy, well-oiled presidential-style election campaign, Narendra Damodar Modi was its mascot; the clear and comfortable majority which the BJP romped home in Parliament proved that its strategy worked superbly.
One of the refrains of the Congress, which suffered its worst election defeat since 1952, was that its government didn’t publicise well its good work nor forcefully claimed credit for the numerous people-friendly and game-changing initiatives it had undertaken. Though there is some grain of truth in this assessment, the Congress would have still lost as, on the eve of the 2014 parliamentary election, thanks to the BJP’s relentless campaign, the CAG’s much-publicised negative reports and a series of Supreme Court verdicts, the UPA-2 government led by Dr Manmohan Singh was seen by the general public to be deeply steeped in corruption. Besides, it looked totally at sea; rudderless and clueless about handling complex issues; it was too busy in surviving from one crisis to another; its PM was a captain without control over his team!
For the forthcoming parliamentary election next month, the BJP faces no such phenomenon — Mr Modi remains its match-wining mascot; the unquestioned badshah who sets the tone of the election campaign with his unmatched oratory and never shies away from taking credit for all what has been done by his government. Until the election schedule was announced by the Election Commission on Sunday, newspapers were carrying daily full-page advertisements of key ministries listing a whole series of important decisions taken and projects completed with impressive statistics with a big picture of the Prime Minister at the top. Some months back, in such advertisements, a small picture of the concerned minister was also shown along with PM’s big picture; now it has totally disappeared irrespective of how senior the concerned minister might be. It was most noticeable recently when a full-page advertisement of the MEA claimed that the number of the Passport Issuing Centres had jumped from 200 in 2014 to 2,000 by 2019 but the picture of external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj was conspicuous by its absence; instead, it carried a big picture of the PM at the top!
In the BJP’s electoral calculations, for the forthcoming parliamentary elections, ministers don’t matter; it hopes to win the election on the strength of the charisma and performance of Prime Minister Modi alone. And Mr Modi’s winning formula is the blitzkrieg: Namumkin Bhi Ab Mumkin Hai – or, even the impossible is possible now!
He seems unperturbed by Rahul Gandhi’s strident barb — Chowkidar Chor Hai — about the alleged corruption in the Rafale fighter jet deal and the constant criticism from different parties about agrarian distress, the lack of jobs, the continuing negative aftereffects of demonetisation and the teething problems of the implementation of GST, the lacklustre performance of the economy and media headlines and heated TV debates about NPAs and economic fugitives like Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi. Mr Modi believes that several provisions of the interim Budget, particularly the direct credit of Rs 6,000 per annum to a certain category of farmers, will get him farmers’ votes and the salaried classes might rally around him thanks to tax benefits. He believes countless socially inclusive and people-friendly schemes: the Jan Dhan Yojana, the Saubhagya, the Ujjawala, Ayushman Bharat, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao and the Swachchh Bharat Abhiyan, even if not implemented 100 per cent, have generated enough goodwill among the disadvantaged sections of society to nudge them to vote for the BJP. The interim Budget was friendly to the middle class too. Though domestic investment hasn’t picked up as expected, the enactment of the bankruptcy and insolvency law and the jump on the list of the Ease of Doing Business Index from 142 to 100 are positive achievements. Besides, though the economy slowed down a bit in the last two quarters, it still remains the fastest growing economy in the world. So, India Inc. can’t be terribly unhappy with Mr Modi.
He has done rather well in the conduct of foreign policy notwithstanding some negative developments in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan. With a slew of India-specific policies — Make in India, Digital India, Startup India, Standup India and smart cities — Mr Modi emerged as a pro-development, pro-growth strong and a resolute leader of India who could hold his own at the global and regional summits; he has forged productive personal relationships with US Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump; Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe. Amazingly, he has developed a warm rapport with the rich and successful Indian diaspora with his nationalistic rhetoric and his rockstar-like buzz-creating ability.
Yes, media reports about alleged cronyism, attacks on various institutions and independent-minded media houses, divisive, aggressive and intimidating actions of proponents of Hindutva, controversies about lynchings, cow vigilantism and beef-eating and the disdainful dismissal of contrarian views and thuggish trolling of the government’s opponents on the social media aren’t non-issues. But the resulting undercurrent of disenchantment hasn’t resulted in a strong anti-Modi wave as was the case against Indira Gandhi in1977.
Obviously, Rahul Gandhi has overcome his fear of Mr Modi and metamorphosed into an aggressive leader; he fires corruption charges against Mr Modi like the sixers of Virat Kohli! But will Rafale allegations get him votes in rural India? He needs to offer some more attractive economic packages to farmers for their votes than simply offering loan waivers. Ironically, by not forging electoral alliances with the Samajwadi Party and the BSP in Uttar Pradesh, Trinamul Congress in West Bengal and the AAP in Delhi, he is brightening the BJP’s prospects! Above all, the recent airstrike at Balakot and subsequent handling of the tensions with Pakistan might have shifted around two per cent of votes in favour of Mr Modi.
Rahul Gandhi has to realise that putting up a common candidate against the BJP is the only game in town to defeat Mr Modi and the BJP. Otherwise, Ek Bar Phir, Modi Sarkar looks like a certainty.
The writer is a retired Indian diplomat