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Time for a course correction, Mr Modi

By Shekhar Gupta
May 24, 2016 10:24 IST

Narendra Modi'Modi swept the 2014 elections for two main reasons: First, the disgust with the Congress government with a non-functional PM, and second, more importantly, his promise of performance and hope.'
'He can't expect to win 2019 on these planks again.'
'His own success in finishing the Congress will take away one plank, and with 5 years of reign on his CV, he will need to flaunt performance more than promise,' says Shekhar Gupta.

There is one critical difference between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress. One is willing to learn from its mistakes, the other is unwilling to learn even from its successes. The BJP suffered in Bihar by not projecting a state leader and making its campaign too divisive.

Both approaches were abandoned in Assam where the party does not have its own indigenous (as in Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-origin) leaders and where, given the nearly 34 per cent Muslim vote, more aggressive polarisation was tempting.

It also learnt from its adversaries in Bihar to put together a larger alliance, even with those who may jostle with you for the same vote bank (as with the Asom Gana Parishad).

The Congress, on the other hand, spurned Nitish Kumar's efforts to build a coalition with Badruddin Ajmal. We know that alliances work on chemistry, but arithmetic can't be tossed out. Even in the results, the Congress and Ajmal's All India United Democratic Front aggregated more votes than the BJP-led alliance. The result is a BJP success that substantially restores the political capital it lost in Bihar.

It also seems to be also following Mamata Banerjee's lead in trying to become the main ideological opposition to the Left in Kerala. For more than a decade, as the Congress plugged a softer Left ideology in Bengal and Banerjee fought them, often violently, in the streets and backstreets, the growing population of Left-haters saw her as the alternative, not the Congress.

We might see the same coming to pass in Kerala as the Congress leadership continues to be pinko-Left while the BJP/RSS emerge as a rival with real product differentiation.

The course correction was evident in the entire BJP campaign in these states. The PM may have spoken a language critical of incumbent governments, but the divisive tone was eschewed.

No Pakistan, no cow protection, not even Islamophobia in Assam.

While the presence of 'illegal Bangladeshis' was made an issue, there were no threats to throw anybody out. In fact state leaders, particularly Himanta Biswa Sarma, firmly stated that the idea of deporting anybody who has already come and settled was impractical.

From West Bengal to Assam to Kerala, the party's local and national leaders also passed the 'beef' test, saying what one ate was a personal choice. Interestingly, this was also the line in Assam where cow slaughter is technically illegal under a Congress-era law.

To sum up, these elections showed the BJP's ability to change and adapt, and choose pragmatism over, sorry to use the expression, ideological bull-headedness.

The question now: Will the same realism now be reflected in the BJP's approach to governance as well?

While the Congress was still a visible threat, the BJP's confrontational approach to Parliament and governance was understandable. Now the objective of 'Congress-mukt Bharat' has more or less been achieved, would it pay to keep the confrontation with the party and its ruling dynasty at the same level as before?

Or would the BJP prefer to ignore them for some time: Prashant Kishor or no Prashant Kishor, the party doesn't look like posing much of a challenge in Uttar Pradesh yet, and may yield to the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab.

A key fact of post-2014 national politics is that while the Congress is losing its vote share rapidly, almost none of it is going to the BJP/National Democratic Alliance. Most of it is being picked up by locally powerful political parties (AAP included) that generally speak a Congress-like, povertarian language.

In other words, while the Congress is in terminal decline, the Congress vote is intact. It is just that other parties are taking it. In obsessively focusing on just the Congress, the ruling party may be missing the realities of politics.

These elections provide a significant resting point just short of the beginning of the second half of the Modi government's term. The next state elections are a year away. The Modi government should be using this breather to fix its governance, and focus on several areas of governance that lag.

We know the prime minister does not like being reminded of the need for a Cabinet reshuffle, probably because that involves accepting that some things are not working quite perfectly in his government. He also doesn't like doing such things under pressure. That's why this, a moment of strength, should not be missed.

Modi swept the 2014 elections for two main reasons: First, the disgust with the Congress government with a non-functional prime minister, and second, more importantly, his promise of performance and hope.

He cannot expect to win 2019 on these planks again. His own success in finishing the Congress will take away one plank, and with five years of reign on his CV, he will need to flaunt performance more than promise.

The phenomenon we have seen rising in post-reform India, the rise of the non-ideological, 'I-don't-owe-nobody-nothing' voter has only strengthened. This has made politicians' relationship with their voters unprecedentedly transactional. It is fashionable not to acknowledge it, even to dispute it, but the days of blind voter loyalties are now over.

The questions today's voters ask is: What have you done for me, what is in it for me, and so on. Besides the rise of the younger, 'I-me-myself' generation, this also arises from a slowly growing realisation that the Constitution is the real power in India and places formidable limitations on ideological spreads of Left or Right.

Whether or not the Congress introspects on its failures is no longer relevant to Modi. He has to introspect, instead, on how well his government has performed so far.

Has the constant confrontation in Parliament been helpful?

Now that he and his party are so secure and getting stronger, do they still need so much negativity around them?

Confrontational politics is an addictive high. But it comes with a price he should no longer want to pay.

On the last day of the Budget session, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley made a spirited speech questioning the judiciary's increasing 'undermining' of the legislature and the executive. I would submit, with great humility and trepidation, that he is correct on facts.

If our courts start shifting Indian Premier League matches, redefine jurisdiction as on the Board of Control for Cricket in India, 'order' the government on drought relief or to pass laws on this or that, it introduces an imbalance to a Constitutional arrangement built on a sensitive distribution of powers.

But while Jaitley is right on facts, he and his government have to think about why the courts are still able, compelled or even tempted to intrude.

It was one thing to do so under the United Progressive Alliance-2 as it was weak, lacking in political capital and credibility, and the judiciary and activists moved into the vacuum.

If that space is still available, it is because this government, despite not having the weaknesses of the UPA, is burning too much political capital on confrontation, Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh being good examples.

The moment of respite and reassurance from these elections should be used for course correction to move away from constant combat and focus on Parliament and governance.

Shekhar Gupta
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