Industrialist Rahul Bajaj has earned the admiration of Union ministers, parliamentarians and even leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party with his latest remark. People are scared of speaking up against the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah government because it won’t be appreciated, the Bajaj Group chairman said bluntly at The Economic Times’ ET Awards 2019 Saturday.
The BJP, might have applauded Rahul Bajaj, though quietly. Now that Shah has clarified “kisi ko darne ki koi zaroorat nahi hai (no one needs to fear)”, some BJP leaders may gather enough courage one day to break what they call “monologues” and “one-way traffic” at BJP parliamentary party meetings.
BJP not a dominant power in states
Until that actually happens, there is an absolute unanimity in the belief that Modi is the best thing that happened to the BJP, and Shah the second-best. They are also in agreement that the recent reverses in assembly elections do not reflect on the popularity and competence of the two leaders.
As results in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh last year and in the Lok Sabha elections this year showed, people vote separately for the assembly and national elections. In December 1998, six months after the Pokhran nuclear test conducted by Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, the Congress formed the government in Madhya Pradesh (Chhattisgarh was carved out of it in 2000) and Rajasthan, but the NDA returned to power at the Centre the next year.
In December 2003, the BJP formed the government in those three states but the UPA replaced the NDA government at the Centre five months later. The BJP’s loss of power in these states in the November 2018 assembly elections, followed by the party’s sweep in all three in Lok Sabha elections in May 2019, therefore, didn’t indicate any new trend.
The BJP might have been left high and dry after the Shiv Sena joined hands with the Congress and the NCP to form the government in Maharashtra under Uddhav Thackeray last week, but it doesn’t indicate any drastic change in the public’s voting preferences. These three parties together had a majority — 146 MLAs in the 288-member assembly — in 2014 too.
The BJP was never a dominant party in Maharashtra. Even during the ‘Modi wave’ in 2014, it could get only 122 seats, which came down to 105 in 2019. Recent electoral reverses in states are, therefore, not a worry for the BJP leaders.
What they are really afraid of telling the party leadership are the following:
BJP’s ‘lust for power’ is hurting Brand Modi
PM Modi slammed the Congress for its “lust for power” at an election rally in Jharkhand last week.
The irony was that as he was speaking, the BJP was desperately trying to cobble up a majority in the Maharashtra assembly by engineering defections in the NCP and the Congress. In its desperation to replace the Congress as the only national party with pan-India presence in power, the BJP has been borrowing heavily from its principal rival’s playbook — using central probe agencies to ‘neutralise’ political opponents, orchestrating defections, horse-trading, using constitutional offices to serve political ends and portraying pleas for political morality or propriety as excuses of losers.
Brand Modi was supposed to be the antithesis of such politics. If this brand suffers, no amount of political manipulations, agenda-setting or polarising slogans and tactics would resuscitate it.
If they were as free as Rahul Bajaj, the BJP leaders would tell Modi-Shah to not change the party that once boasted of clean ‘chal, charitra, chehra’.
‘Denial’ is no solution to economic slowdown
The Modi government has been in denial of the economic slowdown. The economic slowdown may have had no bearing on the voting behaviour of people who continue to repose their faith in Modi. But even if the ‘Modi wave’ continues, as was evident in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP’s regional leaders appear to be paying the price for the chinks in people’s ‘faith’ in him.
Manohar Lal Khattar of Haryana and Devendra Fadnavis of Maharashtra were Modi’s CM nominees who failed to live up to people’s expectations. People had voted for them because they believed Modi would make sure they deliver. But that unshakeable faith is beginning to get wobbly now.
If they were as free as Rahul Bajaj, the BJP leaders would like to tell Modi-Shah not to be in denial about the economic slowdown.
Don’t be like Manmohan Singh
As a BJP MP told me recently, people were ready to undergo all hardships following demonetisation once Modi acknowledged their problems and appealed to them to give him 50 days’ time on 13 November 2016.
“If Modiji tells people ‘look, India’s economy is suffering due to a global slowdown. Give me some time’, everything will be ok. The problem is we are not ready to say that,” he added.
The BJP parliamentarian may be very optimistic and probably simplistic, but his suggestion could make a good beginning. A total denial of the slowdown, made worse by PM Modi’s silence, does not seem to be helping the BJP’s cause.
If they were as free as Rahul Bajaj, the BJP leaders would tell Modi not to be silent like Manmohan Singh.
Opening up to anti-Modi jokes
The recent assembly election results betray the people’s disappointment and disillusionment not with Modi himself but with the delivery mechanism he put in place in their states.
It’s also visible in the form of jokes targeted at PM Modi on WhatsApp or social media platforms. For instance, a joke doing the rounds on WhatsApp nowadays is how residents of a village in Karnataka flagged two of their problems to Modi when he visited them. The first problem was the absence of any doctor in the village. As the joke goes, Modi took out his mobile and called someone. He then told the villagers that the doctor would be available in their village from the next day. “Now, what’s your second problem?” he asked. The villagers responded timidly: “Sir, there is no mobile network in our area.”
Such jokes may be the handiwork of opposition parties — though I refuse to attribute such wit and humour to them — but their wide circulation against Modi is only a recent phenomenon.
Until recently, such jokes were almost exclusively targeted at Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and other opposition leaders. Even those who swear by Modi don’t mind circulating anti-Modi jests now. That shows a change among Modi loyalists.
If they were as free as Rahul Bajaj, the BJP leaders would like to tell Modi-Shah that the memes and jokes are the first hint of the melting of their carefully constructed persona.
There are a number of other things BJP members would want the party leadership to change, be it their involvement in decision-making, promotion of regional leaders from state leadership, and choosing talent over loyalty, among others.
But they are not losing hope yet. They can rely on the discredited opposition to cover up the failings of governance. As for Modi’s popularity, here is British music artist Rod Stewart’s 1971 song Reason To Believe giving voice to the faithful: “If I listened long enough to you, I’d find a way to believe that it’s all true…I look to find a reason to believe….”