Speculation-time lengthens over India’s political scene. The big election is several weeks away. Uncertainties multiply, yet there is broad agreement on one factor that might favour Narendra Modi.
The Indian voter has always known the difference between national and regional elections. As the widely known face of a reputedly strong leader possessing a stable majority, Modi seems to confront no clear national challenger. Rahul Gandhi, the Congress president, may be closer than others to playing such a role, and he may be growing in confidence and appeal. Yet in large portions of India Rahul does not appear to be Modi’s principal opponent.
If therefore Modi starts on paper as the favourite -- the strong leader of a large party opposed by a smaller national party or by several smaller parties each possessing a regional chief --, the picture gets far more complicated when state-by-state assessments are made. Doubtless many in the Indian electorate want to see a familiar face at the nation’s helm, yet states where Mr Modi can repeat his 2014 performance are hard to identify.
In north and western India, regions swept by him in 2014, polls and recent state-level elections suggest a sharp drop in support for Modi. In southern India, indications are that he might get fewer seats than he did in 2014, which were not many except in Karnataka, where this time he faces a combined opposition, something absent in 2014.
Scope for making up in eastern India is being denied in West Bengal by a spirited Mamata Bannerji, who is invoking Bengali pride, which history teaches us not to underestimate. In Assam and the Northeast, a bill pushed by Modi and Amit Shah, the BJP president, to ease the naturalization of Hindu Bengalis from Bangladesh has triggered fierce opposition, including from BJP allies, all concerned about the region’s ethnic balance.
Sensing all this, Modi has with uncharacteristic indiscretion admitted the possibility of not winning. As Kolkata’s The Telegraph puts it in an editorial on Feb 10: ‘[E]ven a magician can suffer from telling Freudian slips. The prime minister let it slip in the course of his speech that a ‘mahamilavat (grand adulterated) coalition’ could succeed his government.’
That speech was made before parliament. According to columnist Tavleen Singh, this was perhaps ‘his last speech in the Lok Sabha’. In Singh’s view, ‘He tried to sound feisty and fighting fit but sounded defensive and vulnerable.’ (Indian Express, Feb. 10.)
Given Singh’s long record of support for Modi, this was an interesting comment, suggestive of a fading in Modi’s reputed way with the Indian voter.
However, neither Modi’s skills nor his commitment should be underrated. Nor the resources he commands. Even in combination, the BJP’s foes do not possess even a small fraction of that party’s cash.
Modi’s marketing skills should also not be discounted. In 2014, those skills were phenomenally successful, his party obtaining 31 percent of the total vote, enough for a decisive victory. It remains to be seen whether these skills will work this time, when instead of selling himself, as he did in 2014, he is trashing the Congress, including its past leaders. Nehru and Indira Gandhi were not error-free but respect for them is deep in many Indians
After five years of power with a strong majority, Modi’s rhetoric seems less about his and his government’s performance, more about the evils of the Congress and the risks of a coalition of assorted (and ‘adulterated’) parties.
These parties are far from having fused themselves into a single army. They are not marching under a single leader or a single flag.
But when a state-by-state comparison is made, the BJP’s opponents, including persons such as the BSP’s Mayawati and the SP’s Akhilesh Yadav in UP, the TMC’s Mamata in West Bengal, the RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav in Bihar, the DMK’s Stalin in Tamil Nadu, the TDP’s Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra, Kerala’s CPM chief minister Vijayan, AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia in Delhi, the Congress’s chief ministers/ministers in MP, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Punjab, and the Congress’s allies in Maharashtra and Karnataka, not to mention Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka, add up to an impressive-looking force.
And one that’s a good deal more united against Modi than it was in 2014.
On the BJP side, it does not appear that Modi’s assets are being greatly complemented by those of his party colleagues. The Leader has replaced the leadership, which is largely silent. One major party and ministerial colleague, Nitin Gadkari, has even uttered words that could be interpreted as dissenting. And is the Leader as fresh and appealing as he was in 2014?
A big battle is on. The possibility of provoked or unprovoked violence should be kept in mind.