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Modi vs non-BJP CMs: When most popular isn’t all-powerful & why Centre-state ties will worsen

Modi’s inability to win many states, and the huge popularity his rivals enjoy there, is pushing Indian politics in a more robustly federal direction.

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Is India headed for a period of fractured Centre-state and inter-state relations because of our bitter and contentious politics? It may not seem so if we just look at the central reality of a prime minister with Narendra Modi’s popularity and power ruling in New Delhi. But then some facts and data emerge to raise the red flag.

See the latest India Today Mood of the Nation poll for example. On the surface, it’s humdrum, definitely compared to the last one that pointed to growing popular stress and a steep decline in PM Modi’s popularity to just 24 per cent.

There, as they would say in stock market talk, a ‘sharp correction’ has come about, although on the upside. It has gone up to the old familiar of 53 per cent, widening the gap to 46 between him and Rahul Gandhi, at about seven. The rest of the movement, if at all, is in the same direction. If anything, discounting the setbacks to Modi and the BJP in the last (August 2021) poll, we could say our politics is back to the old normal.

If we delve deeper, we can find the odd nugget. For us, it’s the popularity of chief ministers in their own states. Yogi Adityanath doesn’t feature in the top nine. Unlikely he could be number 10 or thereabouts either. Because if he was, it is unlikely that the published list would stop at nine. It is just that he’s just too big a name for any publication to see him miss a listing narrowly. The magazine says that it has only listed those chief ministers whose popularity in their respective states exceeded the overall net average of all, at 43 per cent.

In the top nine, only one BJP chief minister features. It is Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam at number seven, with a 56 per cent positive vote. Compare that with Naveen Patnaik at the top with 71.1, Mamata Banerjee at 69.9, M.K. Stalin and Uddhav Thackeray and Pinarayi Vijayan follow in the sixties. Arvind Kejriwal is next with 57.9.

While at eight and nine are Congress chief ministers Bhupesh Baghel and Ashok Gehlot, we need to underline the fact that even Himanta is a latter-day import from the Congress to the BJP. No original BJP leader, who’s risen through its system, ranks among the most popular chief ministers.

Here’s the contradiction. Narendra Modi is way more popular than before. The poll still gives his party a near-majority at 271 Lok Sabha seats and his NDA 298. Yet, while his party has CMs in 12 states, none of his chief ministers, except one import, goes past the qualifying mark.

The obvious conclusion from this is that the BJP vote is now mostly for Narendra Modi. And as we have noted before, he isn’t able to translate the same popular sway into votes for his state leaders.

We need to dig deeper to understand some serious implications for our politics and governance. Especially as just this Friday as this column is being written, another set of data has been released by the World Economic Forum at Davos, its widely quoted and respected Global Risks Report for 2022.

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The WEF report is put together every year based on a survey of at least a thousand leaders in various fields across the world. Check out the ranking of risks by country. The topmost risk for India is ‘fractured inter-state relations’. We shall take the liberty of also stretching it to Centre-state relations. We don’t see such a risk factor for any other major nation, and on the top of the risk hierarchy for any.

Now read this with that India Today data on the popularity of chief ministers in their states. Narendra Modi may be overwhelmingly popular nationally, but look, many of his regional opponents are even more popular in their own states. His own chief ministers, barring one, do not even make the qualifying mark. Not even a figure as formidable as Yogi. He and his party are at odds with almost all of these popular chief ministers and their parties. In most cases, the personal equation is also broken. The BJP and these chief ministers’ parties routinely trade abuses.

The Centre, long denied the Indira-Rajiv era power of Article 356, desperately employs the muscle power of the central agencies. But, by now, these are losing oomph with overuse. At least two chief ministers, Mamata Banerjee and Uddhav Thackeray, have already demonstrated the states can pay back in kind using their own police and ‘agencies’. Now the anti-corruption bureau of Stalin’s Tamil Nadu police is moving against BJP ally AIADMK. In the not-so-unlikely event of AAP winning Punjab, that space would need watching.

The most popular national leader in two generations is expanding a style of governance that is presidential by the day. At the same time, his inability to win so many states, and the humongous popularity his rivals enjoy there, is pushing Indian politics in a more robustly federal direction. This is the contradiction: Between governance and politics.

Implications won’t just be over his ability to push his welfare schemes as he centralises them almost entirely. It has already begun to bedevil the quality of governance and shaking new institutions. The pushback from many of the states to his latest proposal to assume sweeping powers over the requisitioning of All India Services officers is only the latest example. Some border states are in the Supreme Court to similarly challenge the expansion of the jurisdiction of the Border Security Force (BSF). Several have fought back over centralised orders on pandemic control.

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The challenge it presents Modi is simply that his overwhelming popularity does not translate seamlessly into total power. That’s why his presidential style is being challenged. When he moved in this direction, the facts on the ground were different. Until March 2018, for example, still in his first term, his party ruled 21 states, and 71 per cent of India’s people lived in these as this, an Indian Express report noted. Now, the states are down to 17 (for NDA, not just the BJP), and only 49 per cent of Indians live here. That is the numerical reality buttressing the political one today.

It will be uncharacteristic for Modi to reach out to adversarial state leaders. That will be contrary to his politics. Yet, even if the BJP does brilliantly in the coming elections, the best it can do is retain its states. It cannot wrest even one additional state. With BJP continuing to be the constant combatant, centrifugal pressures will rise. Fractured relations between the Centre and the states, as between BJP and non-BJP ruled states, is a sizeable risk going ahead.

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