Almost exactly two years ago when Narendra Modi led BJP scored an emphatic victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the supporters were overjoyed and the haters demoralized. While the BJP supporters are a varied bunch – ironically painted as some homogenous group – who had mixed expectations, the bulk of the haters, who are the same thaali ke chatte batte (‘birds of the same feather’ doesn’t have that effect), genuinely believed that Modi would meet the fate of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Vajpayee, the only BJP leader other than Narendra Modi who could become the Prime Minister of India, could last for just one full term in office. He had to face an almost a similar level of resistance and propaganda as Modi had to in his first term and continues to face (even more coordinated and sharper) in his second term.
For example, one of the first things that was claimed in 1999 after Vajpayee came to power was ‘Christians under attack’ and coincidently the same narrative was peddled months after Modi came to power in 2014. There are other such ‘coincidences’ too. If a scam in Rafale fighter jets purchase was being claimed during the Modi era, scams in the purchase of arms and even coffins were claimed during the Vajpayee era. Congress questioned claims during the Balakot airstrikes by Modi, while questions were raised about Kargil victory during Vajpayee.
‘Achchhe din’ of Modi was declared fake, and so was ‘India Shining’ of Vajpayee. Modi was supposedly working only for a few industrialists (‘suit-boot ki sarkar’ taunts), while Vajpayee was asked ‘aam aadmi ko kya mila’ (what did the common man gain?) by Congress in 2004. There are many other similarities, but the point is that the strategy undertaken to defeat Vajpayee was deployed for Modi too. As a result, the haters were confident that they were all set to repeat history and defeat Modi in 2019 just like they defeated Vajpayee in 2004.
The following tweet from a random hater reflects this confidence:
This is the year we defeat them.— Dushyant 🇮🇳 (@atti_cus) December 31, 2018
Back in 2016 itself, I had written how Modi is facing similar propaganda and that’s what could be playing on his mind as he plans his moves. To quote myself (sorry), this is what I had written:
“While the 2014 mandate might look like a directive for Modi to go aggressively after Gandhis and to make more and more free-market policies, his policies will be decided by what happened in 2004. The political incidents in 2014 and 2015 would have only strengthened this belief that the challenge before Modi is not to repeat 2014 but to stop the repeat of 2004. Because the usual suspects are repeating, purposely or pavlovian, what they did to Vajpayee.”
Now around 5 years since I wrote the above, I am indulging in something similar vis a vis the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, because suddenly that is being talked about in wake of the second wave of Covid-19 that has hit us like a sudden Tsunami. Fortunately, the cases are on the decline as I write this, but the damages that it has already caused are going to be there for a long time.
The haters are evidently happy. They can’t even attempt to hide their glee as people die and systems come under unbearable strain. After a long long time, they are finally witnessing the deaths and devastation that they had been religiously waiting for, so that they can proudly say “I told you, this is what fascism brings”.
Fear of mass deaths and devastation was sold by liberals from day one since Modi came to power in 2014. If liberals were to be believed, first Christians were dying left and right and their Churches being attacked, then Muslims were being lynched in every street of India, then women were being raped everywhere (remember ‘cows are safer’ slogans) and finally every second poor person was dying standing in a queue during demonetisation. No one really bought this rhetoric from them, but the Chinese virus has finally given them a perfect sales pitch because the deaths and pain are real this time.
That is why their toolkit demands that everything about this virus must be linked to Modi and his policies, for otherwise ‘fascism causes virus infections’ is something even the Instagram generation might find difficult to digest. This particular virus was actually caused by communism if one must go down that path of rhetoric.
Nonetheless, coming back to how it all affects the 2024 Lok Sabha election, first of all, it has to be said on unclear terms that it’s too early to foresee or analyse anything. Further, this virus is so unpredictable that we don’t really know what else is there waiting to unfurl.
However, one thing was always going to be true vis a vis 2014 Lok Sabha election regardless of any virus – if last time, Modi had to make sure that he stops repeat of Vajpayee’s 2004 fate for himself, for 2024, he has to make sure that he stops repeat of Manmohan’s 2014 fate for himself.
In isolation, that idea itself would appear ‘insulting’ to Modi supporters that how can Modi be compared with Manmohan, for there are virtually no similarities between the two unlike between Modi and Vajpayee, where many can be found. But the comparison is not really between two personalities here, but two challenges. In 2019, Modi faced challenges similar to what Vajpayee had faced as a one-term Prime Minister while in 2024, he will be facing challenges as a two-term Prime Minister.
Well, one may as well ask why to use Manmohan Singh and why not Indira Gandhi as the benchmark for challenges that a two-term Prime Minister faces. We don’t know. I’m currently assuming that we are not going to have events that are as dramatic and extreme as they were in Indira Gandhi’s second full term – a full-fledged war with Pakistan, full ideological control over institutions (thanks to Indira’s Faustian bargain with the left), and of course, Emergency. As much as Modi’s supporters would want at least two of these to happen, I’m assuming (with a heavy heart about at least one) that they are not happening anytime soon. That’s why I am not benchmarking Indira Gandhi’s challenges.
So as of now, Modi has to make sure that none of the factors that led to the defeat of Congress in 2014 is applicable to his government in 2024. That might sound easy because we think Congress lost due to huge scams and the Modi government’s track record on corruption is clean. Despite all the propaganda around Rafale, Modi’s integrity and image as ‘incorruptible’ remained unblemished, and that aspect is not going to change. But it’s not about scams or corruption per se.
I think Congress lost in 2014 due to the following reasons, where corruption happened to play the role of a trigger or a catalyst, not the sole reason per se:
Its own ecosystem gone rogue – the whole anti-corruption movement was an example of an ecosystem fed and nurtured by the Congress gone rogue. The ecosystem wanted a bigger pound of flesh and Congress didn’t appear ready to humour them, so they decided to act themselves. The 2011-12 global movements around Arab Spring gave the ecosystem a hope that they can perhaps too gain direct political power instead of relying on Congress for it. Except for in Delhi, where they succeeded in form of AAP, the ecosystem essentially overestimated their own powers and are now reduced to batting for Congress again – think likes of Prashant Bhushan and how he’s begging for Congress to come back. This ecosystem controls the mind and thinking of the masses, and a part of it going rogue proved to be fatal. <More on this can be read in my book, sorry for the commercial break>
Arrogant and dismissive attitude – the arrogance of Congress leaders where they called someone like Anna Hazare ‘corrupt from head to toe’ to the dismissive attitude of the government believing that everything was okay (zero loss theory, et al). It essentially resulted in them rejecting all feedback that they might be getting from those supporters who had ears on the ground and top leadership surrounded themselves with sycophants. Such attitude also resulted in doubling down on its own propaganda of ‘Saffron terror’ that only ignited counter Hindutva feelings.
People could see an alternative in Modi – one of the big reasons why Congress kept winning for so long in the country was what is known as the TINA factor. TINA stands for There Is No Alternative. But Modi proved himself to be the alternative. Thanks to his body of work in Gujarat, his oratory, his image, and various hopes and aspirations he could trigger (which are why his supporters are not homogenous), he appeared a solid and credible alternative to Congress or any of its leaders and gave a reason for people to go for a change.
For the first two reasons, the corollary is, that in order to avoid 2024 what happened to Congress in 2014, the Modi government basically needs to ‘keep its ecosystem happy’ and ‘has to listen to all kinds of feedback’. Oops. But where is the ecosystem of BJP or the Right Wing?
Now that’s an enterally debatable point about ‘RW ecosystem’ and an entire book can be written about it, but let us paraphrase it like this – BJP has to care about those who can influence others’ thinking (like the left’s ecosystem does on almost an industrial scale). The party and the government have to analyse why such people might appear unhappy or like going rogue. Some can simply be dismissed – like Subramanian Swamy, he’s a professional rogue – but one still has to figure out why they have found takers for their ideas. Dismissing everyone and everything with arrogance is a sure recipe for disaster.
And the last point is where Modi has a natural upper hand. As of now, you can’t talk of a single person who enthuses hope and aspirations as a national alternative to Modi. The ecosystem, now resigned to its fate where it knows that it must not fight Congress again, has been trying to dress up Rahul Gandhi as that leader, but perhaps they too realise that it’s not helping. Or maybe they don’t realise at all, and genuinely believe that Rahul Gandhi can ‘come of age’ and become that leader eventually. I hope it’s the latter case.
But such a leader proves to be useful only if people yearn for a change. Corruption proved to be a trigger for many to yearn for that change. Unfortunately for Modi, the virus – as of today – could be that reason for people to wish for a change. It’s not so that all of them consider Modi personally responsible or all of them genuinely believe that someone else can do a better job handling the pandemic, but it’s a strong feeling that ‘things should change’. This feeling has to subside and go away by 2024.
The entire Congress-left ecosystem will do everything to sustain this ‘things should change’ feeling till 2024. Actually, that’s what they had been trying to do by crying fascism, but no one bought that bogey. However, this time they have got a nice opportunity in the virus.
But Modi has the time, and the ability, to make sure things change and that’s how he can make sure that ‘things should change’ feeling goes away.