A battle for India’s soul, a referendum on Narendra Modi

“At 5 in the morning, Pakistan began crying, ‘Modi struck us, Modi struck us, Modi struck us’,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi told an adulatory audience in Noida last week, describing the air strikes in Balakot in response to the Pulwama terrorist attack on February 14. This will be the most repeated theme in Mr. Modi’s re-election bid over the coming weeks.

If Mr. Modi was the challenger in 2014, in 2019, he is the defender. And starting with his first election in Gujarat in 2002, he has shown a unique capability to play the victim and victor simultaneously. Still, he must have been wary of making his personality — with demonetisation as its most remarkable exposition — the front and centre of the campaign this time. He would surely have liked a different storyline.

Then Pulwama happened.

Contrast with 2004

Now, he is the central character of that story and Mr. Modi appears confident of making 2019 into a referendum on himself. Instead of giving answers — having been in power for five years with a clear majority — Mr. Modi is now seeking them from his opponents.

The disjointed Opposition wants this election to be about local issues. They want to focus on concerns connected to the daily lives of people — livelihood, security and basic infrastructure. They want to focus on broken promises, lost jobs, a limping economy and agrarian distress. They also want to corner Mr. Modi on corruption by questioning the Rafale fighter jet deal.

Though not very strongly, they also want to discuss issues of democracy and social relations.

For them, this election is a battle for the soul of India. But the discussions on all these have suddenly turned into a discussion on Mr. Modi’s personality, whether or not it is intended.

Contrast with 2004

In 2004, the BJP went to the polls with the question “Vajpayee versus who”, to contrast its clarity of leadership with the disarray in the Opposition. It lost the polls, but 2019 is different, BJP general secretary Ram Madhav says.

Unlike Mr. Vajpayee, Mr. Modi has many things going for him. Allies were deserting Mr. Vajpayee ahead of 2004, while Mr. Modi has numerous regional parties supporting him. Unlike Mr. Vajpayee, Mr. Modi has a firm grip over the caste dynamics in the Hindi heartland. His carefully cultivated caste identity — he projects his nominal backward caste origin and seeks to promote unity among castes without questioning hierarchy — is convenient for Hindu consolidation. And crucially, unlike Mr. Vajpayee, he is not accused of being a closet Nehruvian.

On questions on the government’s performance, the BJP will contest Opposition charges. After trying to bury official data on unemployment, the BJP claims to have created lots of jobs, reducing it to a perception battle. Schemes run by the government for the poorer sections, even if many were legacy programmes, are numerous — from cooking gas to electricity and housing to health care support. There is a political dividend to be sought for these. If the Opposition parties indeed succeed in pinning this campaign down to material questions, that will not be a one-way street. And if they confine their campaign to the economy and corruption, Mr. Modi’s agenda of Hindutva will go unchallenged.

For Mr. Modi, it is in his own persona that all the promises for ‘new’ India are epitomised — decisiveness, incorruptibility, patriotism, hard work, commitment to the poor, purity of purpose and the ability to act militarily against enemies. To his opponents, he personifies all that they want to challenge — authoritarianism, ineptitude, hubris, and the destruction of democratic institutions.

If this election is for the soul of India, it would also be a referendum on Mr. Modi.


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