A gust of opportunity is blowing in New Delhi where political winds seldom remain still. In the final year of his term, as prime minister Narendra Modi and his ruling band begin the exercise of scripting a return, the beleaguered opposition has sensed a comeback.
Modi tore apart – or into - the Congress in two scathing oratorical outbursts delivered within a span of few hours in both houses of Parliament on Wednesday.
His intervention in the discussion on the presidential address was seen as a tone-setting event for the general elections due in 2019, but could be called anytime if the government chooses to exploit favourable winds.
Centred on the Modi-pole, the country’s polity lies bitterly divided today.
The sardonic tone of the prime minister against the principal opposition has not just raised political temperatures, but also has given an indication about the most-likely collapse of civilities among political opponents.
Barring a few setbacks, Modi has won most of electoral gauntlets thrown at him after coming to power with a historic mandate four years ago.
But just when he looked unbeatable, the prime minister stumbled in his home turf and pocket borough Gujarat. The BJP won the elections, but with a much reduced mandate.
The Gujarat elections had two critical takeaways. First, the truism that if Modi could be contained in his own fort, he could also be contained in other parts of the country. Second, the Gujarat elections for the first time showed Rahul Gandhi as a real contender for the 2019 Lok Sabha election and not a fly-by-night politician.
The Gujarat verdict also forced the BJP to change tactics after it read in the results the obvious writing on the wall: Modi’s development rath had not reached the villages.
The biggest opportunity to bring the rural voters back into the BJP fold was the Union budget 2018-19, the last before the general elections. Addressing rural distress even at the cost of annoying BJP’s core support base of middle class was the party’s response to the wake-up call.
The Gujarat elections also showed that Modi’s development mantra had lost its sheen. The famous Gujarat model of development that helped in building Brand Modi, appeared to have lost a lot of its edge.
In his last few public appearances from Davos to Delhi, the PM has been handing out his four-year report card, dishing out dazzling statistics to prove that India under him was running like a rabbit leaving behind the tortoise pace set in by a scam-ridden 10-year Congress-led rule.
The economic numbers, however, are not adding up. This was exploited by the opposition. Rahul Gandhi, now leading the Congress, for once, did his home work right. The grand old party countered Modi reminding people about the long list of unfulfilled promises. The Gandhi scion hit where it hurts the most. Realising that the Modi government has failed to generate employment as promised, he has started taking pot shots at the government for its failure to provide jobs.
The party has also tapped widespread resentment among the traders against the implementation of the goods and services tax (GST).
The industry was still reeling under the impact of demonetisation and the GST proved to be another headache, ruining businesses. The Congress coined Gabbar Singh Tax – a sobriquet for GST - which found resonance among the people in Gujarat.
While the right noises have been made, it remains to be seen if the Modi rath can be halted.
Despite the slump in the economy, the fact remains that Modi continues to enjoy mass public support. Despite the warts, he remains the most popular political leader in the country today.
There is an argument that assembly elections cannot become a test of Modi’s popularity. The dynamics will change when the people vote to elect a prime minister. Even those unhappy with the BJP government would not like to see an alternative.
A cursory look at Modi’s opponents shows that there is a big vacuum in terms of alternatives. The Congress has shown some signs of revival, but to come into a position of forming the government from its current Lok Sabha strength of 44 looks an uphill task.
The party will need the support of allies to put up a united fight. But the opposition is so bitterly divided that any harmony among them looks a distant dream at the moment. Even if a pre-poll alliance is reached, Modi versus the rest scenario will suit the prime minister. Past experiences have shown that he has emerged victorious every time he is pushed to the wall.
Even in his Parliament speech, Modi asked the opposition to keep throwing muck at him, saying sarcastically that the lotus will only shine in this dirt.
The opposition is not united on projecting a credible face. Rahul Gandhi is not acceptable to Mamata Banerjee, who also lacks charisma outside Bengal. The Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party cannot sit in the same room. The Left is going through an existential crisis. Leaders from Mayawati to Lalu Prasad Yadav are discredited. There is no fresh blood in the opposition. Young guns like Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav have yet not expanded their mass base. So while the ammunition is available against the government, the key question is who will deliver the ordnance.
The BJP on the other hand is confident that its mascot Modi will spin the magic again. But the party is justifiably worried that dividends might not be same in the Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh.
The party had already reached saturation point in these states from where it can either sustain or worse, go down. The by-polls in Rajasthan indicated that people’s mood is against the party. Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh will go to polls at the end of this year, less than six months before the general election.
To offset the negative mood among the people, the BJP might postpone assembly elections in these states. There is also talk of imposing President’s Rule and hold state polls will general elections next year.
This may help the BJP tide over anti-incumbency in these states. The party leadership has ruled out holding general elections ahead of schedule, considering the past experience when Atal Behari Vajpayee pre-poned the polls and lost in 2004.
Apart from Modi’s magic and the discredited opposition, the BJP is hoping that the economic hiccups can be overcome through engineering social issues.
The Supreme Court is hearing the Ayodhya Ram Temple case. If a favourable verdict comes this year ahead of the general elections, it will give the BJP a head start over its rivals.
The party has intensified efforts to reach an out of court settlement with Muslim bodies. If the Modi government makes some headway in building the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, it will be fulfilment of one of BJP’s main and long-time election promises and overshadow all other negative sentiments circling the government at the moment.
In addition, the prime minister has the knack of springing shock surprises on his opponents. There might not be room for any fresh bombshells on the economic front, but the government can make some dramatic moves to strengthen Modi’s image as a strong leader. This could be in the form of military adventurism on the Line of Control (LoC) and beyond or polarising the voters, a time-tested strategy that never fails to pay dividends.
As the BJP goes about consolidating its position, it is pretty much facing a revolt from its NDA partners. Though the party got a majority on his own in 2014, the NDA had remained intact. The situation has changed now with the Shiv Sena walking out saying it will contest alone in 2019.
Chandrababu Naidu of TDP is also unhappy with the BJP. Both the partners feel that the senior partner is out to finish them in their territories. The rebellion within the NDA ranks may throw up new political equations. Eyebrows were raised, for instance, when West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee met Shiv Sena chief Udhav Thackeray in Mumbai.
Naidu too dialled Thackeray to share his grievances with the BJP. Voices of dissent are also emanating from Punjab where Akalis are unhappy with the BJP. Even Nitish Kumar in Bihar is reportedly not too excited about its partner.
There will be a challenge from irritants like the emerging Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani and pro-reservation activist Hardik Patel. It is clear that the Hardik Patel factor had worked against the BJP in the assembly elections. If it is repeated in the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP will be in trouble.
Jignesh Mevani, who is an MLA in Gujarat, is already going outside the state with his anti-Modi tirade. His presence in Maharashtra in the middle of the Dalit unrest made the BJP positively uncomfortable.
The 2019 Lok Sabha battle is expected to be close unlike 2014 where the Modi factor prevailed over everything else. Every seat will count for the BJP, which will start as the favourite.
It will have to look for new catchment areas to compensate for losses in traditional bastions. The party is looking at expansion in the east. The north east and Bihar will be major hunting grounds for the BJP in 2019.
The prime minister has already began building a narrative against the opposition. He has attacked the Congress hard and reminds people that three former chief ministers – Lalu Prasad Yadav, Madhu Koda and Om Prakash Chautala - are behind bars for corruption. Ominously, he has warned of more meeting the same fate. The Sword of Damocles is dangling on former Himachal Pradesh chief minister Virbhadra Singh.
The move is aimed at painting a bleak picture of his opponents. Even those disenchanted with the BJP would like to give Modi another chance; the prime minister has set himself Vision 2020, signalling he is certain about getting a second term.
Before the next elections, even the RSS – BJP’s parent body - will undergo organisational changes. The term of Suresh Rao Joshi, or Bhaiiyaji Joshi, as general secretary is coming to an end in March. He is the key functionary, next only to the RSS chief. One of the four joint secretaries – Suresh Soni, Krishna Gopal, V Bhagaiah and Dattatreya Hosabale – is expected to be elevated. The organisational re-jig will be held by next month.
The RSS is satisfied with the Modi government’s performance as the core agenda is being followed. It has praised the Modi government’s handling of the border situation with China and Pakistan. It will see progress on its long pending stand of removing Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and building the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.
The opposition’s challenge, as compared to Modi however, is bigger. The chinks in Modi’s armour are visible but it remains to be seen if the opposition is strong and smart enough to grab the opportunity. Knowing that Modi is a tricky customer, 2019 is headed for a keen contest.
Going by the current tempo, the battle is going to be bitter, noisy and tough. Skeletons will tumble out of the cupboards. In the end, it is anybody’s game, where all options have an even chance of playing out.