Modi’s Popularity Dips, Yet Opposition Can ‘Gift’ Him a Third Term
If the opposition parties fail to get their act together they could gift Modi a 3rd term, thanks to TINA Factor.
A leader faces a credibility challenge long before he begins to face a leadership challenge. Cracks in credibility are the first signs of danger suggesting that, unless filled, they can cause cracks in the edifice of leadership.
Here, we should discount questions coming from die-hard opponents. They will always question the man in power. Those in the neutral category questioning his credibility cannot, of course, be ignored because fence-sitters can someday break the fence and march in a direction uncomfortable to the leader.
Is PM Modi’s Armour Beginning to Fracture?
But the fence-sitters’ unease is not harmful in the initial stages — that is, as long as they are still perched on the fence. It is when the faithful begin to show disappointment and discord that credibility, a leader’s protective armour, begins to fracture. And when this shield develops chinks, even invisible ones, it will become less effective in repulsing blows coming from the opposition. That is when a leader becomes defenceless.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is still nowhere near the point of being defenceless. Nevertheless, for the first time since the inauguration of his premiership seven years ago, he is beginning to suffer from a credibility deficit. The opposition’s criticism has expectedly intensified. But that will not bother him.
PM Modi knows how to handle an opposition that still remains weak, splintered, leaderless and bereft of a superior agenda of development and governance. Nor will he worry much that the neutral group is becoming unhappy with him. For he knows that that group is by no means enamoured of the opposition either.
What Must Worry PM Modi
What must worry Modi is that many in the Sangh Parivar and its supporters are now getting worried. They know the prime minister’s popularity has taken a big hit after the outbreak of the devastating second wave of the covid pandemic. It is the worst humanitarian crisis independent India has faced. That he and his government have grossly mismanaged the nation’s response to this crisis is now well known and well documented.
His government’s complacency and negligence, made worse by the ruling party’s arrogance of power, resulted in a grave lack of planning and preparedness — in life-saving oxygen supply, in production and procurement of vaccines, in augmenting beds and ICUs in hospitals, and in ensuring smooth Centre-State coordination.
Modi has not emulated Harry Truman, the former US president who kept a sign on his desk in the Oval Office with the now-famous phrase “The buck stops here”.
But the buck in India does stop at the PM’s desk. No government since 1947 has been so completely personalised by the PM, and so solely institutionalised by the PMO. All powers are concentrated and centralised in his office.
The cabinet has been disempowered to a degree unmatched since the short-lived Emergency regime of Indira Gandhi (1975-77). “No role for the cabinet in pandemic control, PMO calls the shots,” reported The New Indian Express on 16 May. “All that the cabinet has done since 1 April is take insignificant (non-covid) decisions.”
Therefore, he cannot evade responsibility for the catastrophe India has faced and pass the buck to others.
Continuous Decline in the BJP’s Credibility
What has equally dented Modi’s credibility is that neither he nor home minister Amit Shah practiced what they preached about covid-control. They became “superspreaders” by flagrantly violating their own government’s guidelines and restrictions with their reckless campaigning in the recent state assembly elections, most alarmingly in West Bengal.
On top of this were the hasty declarations of victory over the pandemic by Modi and Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan. “We defeated Covid without vaccines” the PM told the chief ministers on 8 April.
The BJP, which has become a huge sycophantic echo chamber, even passed a boastful resolution on 21 February.
It stated: “It can be said with pride that India not only defeated Covid-19 under the able, sensitive, committed and visionary leadership of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi but also infused in all its citizens the confidence to build an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’”.
Since Modi was present at the meeting of the party’s national office bearers who passed this resolution, there is no way his apologists can claim he was not guilty of broadcasting this dangerous falsehood about India “defeating Covid”. Sycophancy does not grow in a vacuum; its seeds are planted by the autocrat who hankers for self-praise. This chorus of hailing Modi can go on so long as the going is good. However, after the going gets bad, and goes from bad to worse, no leader can keep his credibility intact.
Sangh Parivar’s Shaking Faith in Modi
Many in the Sangh Parivar and its supporters have begun to see the hollowness of this praise because they, too, have seen the photos and videos of mass-burning of the bodies of covid victims at crematoria and in open spaces. They are not unaware of the nationwide revulsion caused by media reports of hundreds of bodies floating along the Holy Ganga in UP and Bihar. The outcry due to people dying of the acute shortage of oxygen is not unknown to them. Nor is the widespread public suspicion that the government is undercounting deaths due to the pandemic.
The Economist magazine in its latest issue (May 15), which has a cover feature on its “new model of the true death toll from COVID-19”, claims that in India “about 20,000 are dying everyday”. This is nearly five times higher than current average of about 4,000 deaths daily. It also writes: “Our model suggests that COVID-19 has already claimed 7.1 million-12.7 million lives” worldwide. This is far higher than the figure of 3.42 million deaths recorded by WHO. With more deaths taking place in rural India, doubts about official undercounting of fatalities cannot be summarily dismissed.
These facts, figures and doubts are enough to shake the faith of many in the Sangh Parivar in Modi’s handling of the covid crisis.
Despite Disclaimers, Buck Stops at Modi’s Desk
Of course, not the entire blame can be placed at the doorsteps of the prime minister. True, the speed, severity and scale of the spread of the pandemic in its second were beyond the expectations of the government. The state governments, too, were unprepared to deal with the magnitude of the crisis. It is also true that the glaring shortcomings in the public health infrastructure and services in India are of systemic character, and the seven years of the Modi government alone are not responsible for them.
With all these disclaimers, however, the buck still stops at Modi’s desk because he is India’s all-powerful prime minister. He does not delegate authority.
He is not like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who made Sharad Pawar, a prominent opposition leader, vice chairman of the National Committee on Disaster Management with the status of a cabinet minister, following Kutch earthquake in 2001. He has so far held very few all-party meetings on the covid calamity. As several chief ministers have complained, his meetings with CMs are monologues — not dialogues in the spirit of partnership and cooperative federalism. Therefore, no one in the BJP or the rest of the saffron family can say that someone else, and not Modi, is responsible.
Mohan Bhagwat’s Veiled Criticism
No senior leader of the RSS or outfits in its parivar has so far directly criticised Modi. Yet, there were some rare and unmistakable signs of disapproval in a recent speech by Dr Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the RSS. Speaking in a series of lectures organised by an RSS-linked platform aimed at promoting “positivity” in society in the wake of the covid crisis, he said the government, along with the public, developed “complacency” after the first wave of the pandemic. He said, “This is not the time to go into the rights and wrongs of what has happened.” But, ominously for Modi, he added, “That time will come.”
In other words, the RSS chief acknowledged that the Modi government has committed some serious “wrongs”, which the people have a right to question later.
One of the “wrongs” Sangh supporters are already questioning privately is the wisdom of constructing the costly Central Visa project in the national capital. Talk to them in confidence, and they will say they support the opposition demand that Modi’s vanity project should be halted at least until the corona crisis is over.
In addition to the barrage of criticism in the global media, some courageous voices of reproach by Modi supporters are also now being heard in the Indian media. Writing in Open magazine (24 May), Minhaz Merchant, a well-known author editor and publisher, slams the “Left ecosystem” in the media for attacking Modi. Yet, he also faults the prime minister. “The Narendra Modi government has only itself to blame for its predicament...Many of its policy decisions over the past seven years have been poor — inept Cabinet appointees, overarching regulatory mechanisms, Covid-19 management…The Modi government has three short years to change the way it operates… A two-man Modi-Shah government is unviable.”
Still, Opposition Can Gift Modi a Third Term
These are the cracks now appearing in Modi’s image of invincibility. Some of the very people who constructed it are now slowly breaking it. This process will pick up speed when Modi fails to win state assembly elections for the BJP in the coming three years, and also fails to arrest the misery of the common people due to poor management of the economy.
Parliamentary elections are still three years away, and three years is a long time in politics. It is difficult to forecast how politics in India will evolve as we approach 2024. But we can correctly identify two possibilities.
First, with Modi’s personal popularity sagging, and with the BJP losing its attraction even faster, they will likely have a stronger temptation to play the card of communal polarisation and Hindutva nationalism more aggressively.
Second, if the opposition parties fail to get their act together — which means, coming together as a national ‘Mahagathbandhan’ with unity, cohesion and purpose, under a credible leader and with a credible programme of development and governance — they could gift the TINA (‘There Is No Alternative’) Factor for Modi to have a third term in office. The colloquial synonym for TINA is ‘Aayega to Modi hi’.
Both possibilities must be foiled.
(The writer, who served as an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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