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'It's premature to predict Modi will be a one-term PM'

By Archana Masih
February 11, 2019 10:13 IST
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'The united Opposition can definitely give the BJP a good fight.'
But this remains the BJP's election to lose.'
'Modi remains the most popular politician in India; the BJP's organisational and fundraising prowess is considerable; and the Opposition, while newly collaborative, has no leader or clear economic messaging as yet.'

Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi addresses a rally in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh. Photograph: PTI Photo

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi addresses a rally in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, February 10, 2019. Photograph: PTI Photo

One of the biggest changes that Narendra Damodardas Modi has made in the last five years is reasserting India's role on the global scene, believes Milan Vaishnav Director, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Washington, DC.

"Modi is more pro-business than pro-market -- that is a subtle, but important, distinction; while politically the BJP has become the new centre of gravity," Dr Vaishnav, who recently won the Ramnath Goenka Award for Journalism in the non fiction category for his book When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics, tells's Archana Masih in the concluding segment of a two-part e-mail interview.


Mr Modi remains the most popular political leader. What changes do you see in him since he assumed office?

Obviously, the rhetoric has changed. The lofty talk of turning India into Gujarat, as he'd promised in the 2014 campaign, has slowly disappeared.

The government has pivoted into more traditional areas like welfare and development. Modi still exudes confidence publicly, but I think he and the party have been rattled by the state of the economy, the Opposition's newfound collaboration, and the Congress victories in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan.

This helps explain the BJP's last-ditch attempts to shore up key constituencies ahead of the election.

How has India changed in these five years?

First, I think Modi has been able to reassert India's role on the global scene. He has not always lived up to the rhetoric around the notion that India will act as a 'leading power' rather than a 'balancing' one, but there is a feeling globally that India embraces its regional and global role in a way that it might have shied away from in the past.

Second, Modi has spent a lot of time convincing the world that India is 'open for business' again. Here, I think the record is very mixed.

We have seen serious reforms -- lifting FDI caps, GST, the new Bankruptcy Code, and so on.

But we have also seen a serious bout of protectionism -- increasing tariffs, local content restrictions, the new e-commerce regulations that hurt Amazon and Walmart-owned Flipkart.

I think the net assessment on Modi is that he is more pro-business than pro-market -- that is a subtle, but important distinction.

Third, politically the BJP has become the new centre of gravity. I don't think there is any question about that. The Congress is a shell of its former self and regional parties are on the back foot in many parts of the country.

The BJP controlled just five states as recently as 2014; today it is in power in 17. This is a big shift.

The BJP's last campaign was about 'vikas', are you seeing the party going to go back to the Ram temple and Hindutva as it tries to win another term?

In 2014, the BJP deployed Hindutva when and where it suited them. It popped up in western Uttar Pradesh in places like Muzaffarnagar. The card was played in Assam and in the border areas of West Bengal and the north east.

I do not foresee it being the overarching theme, but it will be part of the layered messaging that the BJP deploys. And it is important to keep in mind that this messaging need not emanate from Modi -- it can be exploited by his surrogates.

An US intelligence Report recently said there is a strong possibility of communal violence in India if the BJP stresses on Hindu nationalist themes ahead of the general election. What are your thoughts about this report? Is this an alarmist view?

I do not see anything alarmist in what the US director of national intelligence has said in his report (external link).

The report states that if the BJP campaigns on the back of Hindu nationalist themes, that could trigger communal strife that could, in turn, result in violence.

We have seen this movie before and it is a risk factor. My own sense is that the BJP is not going to run a heavily Hindutva campaign and it does not really need to given Modi's own bonafides among the Hindu right.

Of course, it will use polarisation in certain regional theatres, but I do not see it being a central, overarching, theme in the national theatre of politics.

Even the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has announced that it will delay its agitation over the Ram Mandir issue for at least four months.

What impact is Priyanka Gandhi's entry into politics going to have?

There are two obvious benefits. First, Priyanka gives the Congress greater leverage in the party's negotiations with the BSP-SP alliance.

The alliance finalised a seat-sharing arrangement that left the Congress out in the cold --the BSP-SP merely said it would not contest the Congress pocket boroughs of Amethi (Rahul Gandhi's seat) and Rae Bareli (Sonia Gandhi's seat).

The Priyanka factor might help the two sides seal an unofficial tactical alliance that gives the Congress preeminence in some eastern UP seats.

Second, the move enthuses the cadres. The Congress rank and file has had very little to cheer about over the last five years.

The December 2018 state election results, coupled with Priyanka's entry as general secretary, has put new wind in their sails.

But the most important impact -- in my view -- is that Priyanka's induction will provide free media time and marketing for the Congress.

Given how significant the BJP's funding advantage is over the Congress, this helps close the gap because the Congress can be ensured of coverage whenever Priyanka speaks and wherever she goes.

So I think of her entry as a kind of substitute for raising political finance.

Can a united Opposition give a good fight and turn the tables? Or is the BJP now a well oiled election-winning machine, despite the setbacks in the assembly elections?

The united Opposition can definitely give the BJP a good fight. But I start from the premise that this remains the BJP's election to lose.

It possesses a lot of advantages. Modi remains the most popular politician in India; the BJP's organisational and fundraising prowess is considerable; and the Opposition, while newly collaborative, has no leader or clear economic messaging as of yet.

There are many people confidently predicting that Modi will be a one-term prime minister; I think that is very premature.

The national campaign has not yet begun in earnest and he has every incentive to presidentialise this election, as he did in 2014.

One thing we know is that campaigns do have an independent, causal, impact on people's voting decisions in India.

The Opposition constantly harps about the assault on public institutions under the Modi government, especially the use of the CBI. Do you feel institutions are being interfered with and are under threat?

First things first, many previous governments have abused institutions due to political expediency. The CBI was not called the 'Congress Bureau of Investigation' for nothing!

I think there are two new trends.

First, look at how many apex institutions have appeared to face a credibility crisis in recent years -- the Election Commission, the CBI, the Reserve Bank of India, the Supreme Court, the list goes on.

Second, there is a brazenness to the interference that I think is new. Look at the middle-of-the-night ouster of CBI chief Alok Verma.

Or the suppression of economic data. Or the pressure placed on then RBI governor Urjit Patel by the government's handpicked members of the RBI board.

I think this all raises the question: Is the BJP the 'party with a difference' or simply a different party?

Defending one's actions by pointing to the Congress's past foibles is neither here nor there; there is a reason the Congress has 44 seats in Parliament today.

What is the upcoming election going to be in terms of the money spent, selection of candidates and campaign rhetoric?

The Centre for Media Studies estimates that the 2009 election cost around $2 billion and that parties and candidates spent around $5 billion in 2014.

I expect 2019 to easily top 2014. It could well double the 2014 estimate. This is not a partisan issue -- all parties (save, perhaps, for the Communists) will be spending inordinate sums to win this election.

82 percent of Members of Parliament elected in 2014 are crorepatis and I expect this number to reach nearly 100 percent in 2019.

Parties require the assistance of self-financing candidates who can cover their campaign costs, pay for party tickets, and subsidise candidates who do not have resources.

All sides will decry the use of money and muscle power, but will simultaneously depend on both to win. This is one factor that unites the government and the Opposition.

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