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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 19, May 11, 2024

Modi’s Electoral Power At Stake? | Nilofar Suhrawardy

Saturday 11 May 2024, by Nilofar Suhrawardy


The greatest test these elections seem to spell is for the one who earlier never refrained from talking about his “56-inch chest” against whom his rivals bore no significance. Yes, this refers to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose political tone is no longer as confident as it was earlier this year and prior to preceding parliamentary elections, he won in 2014 and 2019. In fact, he had exuded confidence a few weeks ago while talking about his party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) returning to power for the third term by winning more than 400 seats. In 543-member Lower House of the Parliament (Lok Sabha), 272 seats are needed to form the government. Now, Modi’s words seem suggestive of his being apprehensive of reins of power not being in his hands following these elections. While addressing people at a recent rally, paradoxically, he asked the people to “think” before electing “anyone,” implying “anyone” else but him. “…If the country has to be given into someone’s hands, we will think before giving it or not? Will you give it to anyone?” Criticizing the opposition leaders’ “formula” of government formation, Modi said, it will have a different prime minister every year. “If they get the opportunity for years, they have told their alliance partners that each one will get one year of prime ministership. This means one year, one PM, next year second, then third and fifth..,” Modi said. His words suggest that he probably is deliberating on prospects of his rivals stepping into power and not him. At least, this is what he seems to apprehend and has also voiced before people. This would be the situation if BJP and its supporters fail to win 272 seats. The very same politician who earlier loudly talked with great confidence of winning more than 400 seats seems sceptical of managing win of 272 seats. Well, the change in his tone certainly spells the dilemma Modi is faced with.

Will he return to power or not- the question appears to boggling him with greater pressure as electoral heat is increasing. Subtle but definite change in Indian media’s approach towards Modi’s “return” with a great win cannot be missed. Social media posts and video links have certainly been marked for quite some time with an anti-Modi tone, criticizing the pro-Modi media as “Godi-media.” Of late, even print media has started according space to views questioning Modi’s return to power for the third term. These include opinions on that certain BJP members are apprehensive of him becoming too powerful leading to their being cornered. Sections of business community are also reportedly alarmed at Modi having been extra-generous with businessmen of his home state (Gujarat) and ignoring others.

Informal conversation with people from the labour class and poor Indians, whose vote matters the most, revealed their being fairly agitated at having not received any benefits under two terms of Modi-led government. Rather, their grievances include economic problems such as inflation, loss of jobs and so forth. Middle-classes are also suffering because of greater importance being accorded to more privatization in certain basis areas, such as health and education- thus making these services more expensive for them. In addition, conversation with self-employed youngsters working as cab drivers, etc. indicates their unwillingness to accept Modi’s campaign targeting primarily Congress leaders, particularly Rahul Gandhi. In their opinion, they want Modi to answer what has he given them during two terms of power?

It cannot be ignored that when Modi decided to contest parliamentary elections for the first time in 2014, he was not backed by any national image or major accomplishments of his own. The anti-government card played by him, focusing on “negative” image of the then Congress-led alliance had the desired impact but not on the entire electorate as his party failed to win even 40 percent of votes in 2014 as well as 2019 elections. He seems to be banking on two old strategies even now- one is “religious” card and other is talking loudly about his rivals’ “negative” image. But, neither of this appears to be having desired impact upon common voters, including majority community. Even illiterate voters, belonging to labour class seem to have become extremely conscious about political nature of Modi’s religious-card, including construction of grand temple at Ayodhya (Uttar Pradesh). At least, conversation with quite a few suggests this. They view these as nothing else but electoral-strategies.

Statistically, the hype raised about Modi’s communal-card or Hindutva-card has had a limited appeal from the beginning. If it really appealed to the entire majority community, that is the Hindus, BJP would not have fallen short of winning 50 percent votes in the preceding two parliamentary polls. Hindus form about 80 percent of India’s population. Besides, diversity in the country’s population has a strong impact on its politics too. To a degree, Hindutva-card has no impact in southern India and states where regional parties are apparently giving a strong fight to BJP. Ethnic divisions marked by caste, class, racial, religious, regional, tribal and other factors cannot also be ignored. In addition, the strong fight being given by the newly formed grand alliance of opposition parties – Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (I.N.D.I.A. –bloc) appears to be spelling a major headache for Modi and his supporters. Of course, Modi is going overboard in taking “action” against them. This includes imprisonment of one of its founder Arvind Kejriwal, who is Delhi Chief Minister and leader of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). This has turned cards against Modi as now Kejriwal is viewed as a “political hero,” who would not have been send to jail if elections were not round the corner.

Seriously, political cards being played by Modi are not having the strategic impact desired by him. Rather, in national politics, never before has his prowess been questioned at so many levels. This is 2024 and not 2019. Earlier, negative jargons used by Modi against his rival succeeded but now voters are questioning his credibility because he has been in power for two terms. Besides, opposition parties had not campaigned so assertively, with most being united in their seat-sharing agreement, as they are now. Even BJP-stalwarts are well aware that electoral politicking is no more a one-man show for them, decided by so called Modi-wave and/or his exercise of Hindutva-card. It is possible, Modi’s political fate may be decided by new generation of voters concerned about their economic grievances and democratic rights, for whom his rhetoric bears virtually no importance. Whoever, whichever party/alliance ultimately wins, this is not likely to be an easy win, unless of course, “malfunctioning” of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) “decide” the final result. Nevertheless, dilemmas confronting Indian politics at practically all levels had probably never been so complex and confusing as they seem to be now, particularly for Modi!

(Author: Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. She has come out with several books. These include:— Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? (2019); Arab Spring, Not Just a Mirage! (2019), Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015) and Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006))

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