PM Modi Bets On ‘Shining Poor’, Rahul Gandhi ‘Stoops To Conquer’

Politicians are awful at predicting their own defeat. The stronger the politician, the louder their echo-chamber, and therefore the darker their blind spot.

Remember Indira Gandhi in 1977? She cut short her Emergency and called for polls, based on intelligence inputs that people were happy because “trains were running on time and there was general discipline all around”. She also believed her TINA – There Is No Alternative – factor. She completely missed the anger bubbling in the countryside, as a coercive state went about sterilising people and demolishing slums. She was wiped out in the elections, losing her own seat to Raj Narain, a clownish leader; and her son Sanjay lost from the family pocket borough of Amethi. It was brutal.

Cut to Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004. Once again the TINA factor made him look invincible. But then he blundered into the ‘India Shining’ campaign celebrating trivial urban joys, like access to a mobile phone. India’s poor, trapped in a low-income, stale-mated existence, recoiled in horror. Vajpayee lost heavily to a ‘faceless’ Congress led by the ‘inexperienced’ Sonia Gandhi. Suddenly, TINA had become TIAA (There Is An Alternative)!

Something eerily similar is happening today, and the most powerful politician of our times could be missing the smoke signals.

Unlike with Indira and Atal, all three factors are in play this time – the misplaced belief in TINA, premature celebration, and a coercive state.

Are India’s Poor Shining?

Have you seen Prime Minister Modi’s Saaf Niyat, Sahi Vikaas (noble intentions, correct development) campaign? Beautiful smiles light up creased rural faces, thanking Modi for giving them a home, top-class education, electricity, bank accounts, and smoke-less gas cylinders.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s new campaign. (Image: Bharatiya Janata Party/YouTube)
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s new campaign. (Image: Bharatiya Janata Party/YouTube)

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Frankly, this one could be even more harmful than Vajpayee’s India Shining videos; here India’s poor are shining! Never mind un-remunerative farms, lack of jobs, spiralling crime, racial violence, social schisms, child malnourishment, worsening sex ratios… never mind all of that, just hold your hands and sing ring-a-ring-a-roses in a verdant, beatific countryside. Did you say echo-chamber?

Clearly, political momentum is shifting, although it is yet to register on the Richter Scale. But turbulence is discernible if we parse Prime Minister Modi’s 48 months in office in three remarkably different phases:

  • Phase 1: about 36 months, from May 2014 through 2017, an ascending romance with an unbelievably energetic, voluble and visible leader, culminating in demonetisation followed by the landslide victory in Uttar Pradesh.
  • Phase 2: about 6 months, from June through December 2017, a period that was the Plateau of Doubt.
  • Phase 3: another 6 months, from December 2017 through May 2018, when the plateau curved into a slowly accelerating descent for the rulers, and a marked upturn for Rahul Gandhi’s Congress and a clutch of regional chieftains.

Let’s dig a little deeper into each phase.

Phase 1: 36 Months Of An Uninhibited Honeymoon

Prime Minister Modi could simply do no wrong. He was everywhere, hugging Barack Obama on Rajpath, rousing non-resident Indians at Madison Square Garden, doing yoga, cleaning streets, serenading Xi Jinping by the Sabarmati, surgically striking Pakistan, and commanding an unstoppable election-winning machine. Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Assam, Jammu… he was steamrolling to victory everywhere. He did suffer reverses in Delhi and Bihar, but these were brushed away as local oddities in the overwhelming euphoria.

Then Modi played his most audacious political card – demonetisation! 86 percent of people’s cash was made worthless, traumatising ordinary folk. Modi now showed the political mettle he is made of. He converted people’s suffering into a ritual cleansing, something God-fearing Indians unquestioningly believe in, that a painful sacrifice is necessary to rid the world of evil. The ‘evil’ here was “the rich man, with his ill-gotten black cash”.

Customers wait in line to withdraw cash outside a Bank of India branch in the Zaveri Bazaar in Mumbai, India, on Nov. 19, 2016. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
Customers wait in line to withdraw cash outside a Bank of India branch in the Zaveri Bazaar in Mumbai, India, on Nov. 19, 2016. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

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The poor numbed their misery and applauded Modi for his courage.

Momentarily, his anti-rich halo became as powerful as Indira Gandhi’s pro-poor manoeuvers in nationalising banks and abolishing royal privileges in the late 1960s.

And just as Indira had swept the 1971 polls, Modi annihilated his political opposition in the Uttar Pradesh elections that were fortuitously held about four months after D-day.

It was Prime Minister Modi’s electoral climax, a highly visible political orgasm.

Phase 2: June-December 2017, The Plateau Of Doubt

Soon the contrived divinity around demonetisation began to peel away. People saw the rich getting away with what former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called “plunder on a monumental scale”. Touts, bank managers, black-to-white cash converters, jewellers, unscrupulous showroom owners – just about everybody was taking a 30-50 percent cut to change the worthless notes. Before long, cash came flooding back into the system, now in much easier-to-launder stacks of Rs 2,000 notes.

It was business as usual for everybody except the devastated poor in the informal economy.

Naturally, they were beginning to get angry.

Then came another whiplash – a hastily implemented Goods and Services Tax. Once again, the sword fell on the informal economy, which failed to grapple with the complexity or provide input credits to big buyers. Jobs were lost; working capital got locked up in taxes that were not refunded; glitches gummed up the tiny sectors.

Workers sit on sacks of goods at a wholesale market in the Old Delhi area of Delhi, India, on July 1, 2017. (Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg)
Workers sit on sacks of goods at a wholesale market in the Old Delhi area of Delhi, India, on July 1, 2017. (Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg)

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Big corporations were handsome gainers as dual taxation was eliminated. But the lower income classes, whether workers or traders, felt short-changed. Their anger was now several notches higher.

To compound the pain, an utterly foolish new law was made to ban cattle culling. Small farmers, Dalits, Muslims, leather tanneries, slaughterhouses – the bulk of India’s rural economy – saw incomes dwindle further. Unproductive cattle were let loose, threatening to destroy standing crops and cluttering roads. Worse, upper caste vigilantes began to unleash state-acquiesced, if not sponsored, violence on these very hapless people.

It was a combustible heap of rural misery, waiting to explode; and wreak political revenge.

Phase 3: Post Gujarat Polls, Modi’s Curve Dips, Rahul’s Congress And Regionals Ascend

The bend in the river Ganges (err sorry, Modi’s electoral graph) occurred with the Gujarat assembly polls, which, interestingly, coincided with Rahul Gandhi’s appointment as the unfettered, not de facto, Congress chief in December 2017. I know it’s intellectually fashionable to pummel Rahul Gandhi, but let me say this upfront – he has taken several risky calls in the last six months, and quite a bit of the credit in turning the Modi graph downwards must go to him.

Rahul Gandhi waves during a Samvad program with the supporters of the party in Ahmedabad. (Photograph: PTI)
Rahul Gandhi waves during a Samvad program with the supporters of the party in Ahmedabad. (Photograph: PTI)

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Assuming that I am allowed to use Prime Minister Modi’s trade-marked alliterations, here go Rahul’s Five-Ss:

Spunk: he had the temerity to lead the Gujarat campaign up, front, and centre, challenging and nearly-vanquishing the lion in his den; he also green-lit the extraordinary petition to impeach the Chief Justice of India.

Savvy: in the digital world, he was a late starter, but is now outpointing Modi ; and politically, his decision to focus on the ‘winnable 300 Lok Sabha seats’ is an effective, practical strategy, rather than getting trapped in the doctrinaire “we are the 130-year-old Congress, we are a national party, so we will fight all 543 Lok Sabha seats” position.

Better to target a strike rate of 50 percent in the winnable 300 in the ‘semi-finals of 2019’, rather than scatter-shoot in areas where Congress’s influence has disappeared.

Secure: he seems quite comfortable in his skin, empowering heavyweights like Amarinder Singh, Navjot Singh Sidhu, Siddaramiah, DK Shivakumar, Kamal Nath, Ashok Gehlot, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Oommen Chandy, and others to occupy the stage and take substantial decisions.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi, along with Gujrarat state in-charge Ashok Gehlot, and Arjun Modhwadia, in Gujarat, on December 12, 2017. (Photograph: PTI)
Congress President Rahul Gandhi, along with Gujrarat state in-charge Ashok Gehlot, and Arjun Modhwadia, in Gujarat, on December 12, 2017. (Photograph: PTI)

Scions/Stars: he seems to have an easy equation with other political scions, like Akhilesh Yadav, Tejashwi Yadav, Jayant Chaudhry, and emerging stars like Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and others; there is a ‘cooler vibe’ among the young guns, compared to the hostility and suspicion produced by the political legacy of their ancestors.

Stoop: after the quick/decisive call in Karnataka to play second fiddle, he is showing an unusual desire to ‘stoop and conquer’, which goes against the stiff, inflexible “we are the Indian National Congress, and so are destined to rule” attitude; once again, he is showing a will to win, even if that means living with a relative setback for now.

So get set for Lok Sabha 2019. It’s not a one-way contest anymore!

Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.

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