Sushil Aaron

Modi appeal fading but divided opposition gives him edge

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There is, however, no denying the fact of widespread discontent and a sense of loss of governmental control.

The Narendra Modi government is beginning to look as beleaguered as Rajiv Gandhi’s was before the 1989 elections. If the Bofors deal and confrontations with the Press weakened Rajiv’s authority then, it is the aggregation of protest and disaffection that is now taking the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by surprise. Many see information and broadcasting minister Smriti Irani’s measure to regulate the media through guidelines on fake news as a desperate attempt to suppress bad news and complicate the very idea that discontent exists.

There is, however, no denying the fact of widespread discontent and a sense of loss of governmental control. Recent headline stories string together their own narrative. The Bharat Bandh protests called for by Dalit groups over the Supreme Court’s ruling on the SC/ST Atrocities Act raged in north and central India leaving nine people dead. A mob of 5,000 people subsequently set fire to homes of two Dalit politicians in Rajasthan.

Reports about violence and discrimination against Dalits surface frequently. A regional party leader has warned the Centre not to harass Dalits in the name of law enforcement. Prior to this, the Union government had to deal with two separate examination paper leaks, provoking protests from hundreds of thousands of job seekers and high school students. The grant of autonomy to universities has generated new fears about levels of public spending on education. The job scene in India constantly throws up jaw-dropping statistics. Around 25 million people applied for 90,000 jobs in the Indian Railways.

Fuel prices remain high even as international crude prices stay low. Agrarian distress continues. South India is furious with the BJP about the imposition of Hindi and the terms of reference for the 15th Finance Commission, while parties in Andhra Pradesh compete to slam the Centre for denial of funds to the state. Compliance with Aadhaar is widely resented. Businesses are exhausted by the demands of the Goods and Services Tax. The decline of public order is all too evident. Religious tensions have spiked in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It is doubtful that women in India feel safer now than they did in 2014. The Supreme Court has pointed to a “complete breakdown” of law and order in Delhi. India’s influence in South Asia has perceptibly declined. Analysts are alarmed by the state of India’s military preparedness. The list goes on.

All this is bound to affect Modi’s standing and authority. The BJP’s image builders seek to make a distinction between the virtues of the prime minister and the failings of the party but that transcendence is tough to sustain amid a highly personalised form of rule. A leader cannot presume to avoid blame if his party insists that he gets all the credit for policies. The results speak for themselves. The BJP lost in crucial Lok Sabha by-polls in Gorakphur and Phulpur recently and Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan has avoided tabling a no-confidence motion for two weeks. Jokes and cartoons about Modi circulate relentlessly on social media. The fear is gone, irreverence is in.

The BJP hopes that a combination of the prime minister’s personal brand, a big war chest and control of mainstream media will carry the day in 2019. That may be tough, as Modi does not have the means to fix the problems. Demonetisation devastated the economy. The regulation of cattle trade has disrupted longstanding forms of social exchange making it difficult for rural India to recover. All this affects growth, which means that Modi cannot buy his way out of the situation. Politically there’s a genuine crisis of distribution. There are too many angry groups clamouring for a share of the limited pie. Dalits will not be easily pacified as law enforcement in BJP-ruled states is weak. BJP rule in UP and Bihar has translated into upper caste control of institutions, a fact not lost on other castes. There’s little he can to do amend this.

There’s one perception that Modi will have to contend with. As 2019 approaches, the BJP will come to be increasingly associated with the loss of consent that has been a hallmark of its rule over India. The middle class and the poor did not want Aadhaar to take over their lives, businesses wanted fewer rules not increased tax scrutiny, women did not sign up for the degree of policing of their lives nor did citizens seek politicisation of all human contact. For that reason respite from ideologically charged politics, an intrusive state and relief from fraught neighbourhoods may be the most that many voters seek – an expectation that Rahul Gandhi is seeking to address. Modi cannot change course on these fronts, too. GST and Aadhaar march on inexorably. The culture wars are difficult to scale back too – since the base he depends on for electioneering takes identity politics and polarisation seriously.

What then are Modi’s options – and the conditions that the BJP can hope for? One is of course opposition disarray. Previous efforts at forging opposition unity have often been ungainly – the collective looks divided because of competing interests and it fails to project strength and stability. Rahul and the rest will need to pay attention to the optics of negotiation while they agonise over seat adjustments. Two, distractions may be useful. BJP leaders will hope that friendly TV channels and supporters can generate a controversy to counter each setback the government faces. Diversions have served the party well so far – whether it be “anti-national” protests in JNU, or occasional crises with Pakistan. It is not clear if more of the same would be beneficial for the BJP were they to materialise again. All this makes for an unsettling future. An ambitious prime minister leading a well-funded nationalist party now confronts aspirational India and a variety of social forces that have lost their faith in him. The opposition can take heart from the fact that the public mood is shifting and that they have to only keep pace with the latter.

  • Sushil Aaron is an India-based journalist. Source: www.khaleejtimes.con

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