At a time when BJP is in a befuddled state, making it worse is the growing perception about Modi losing his touch.
Addressing people at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan in 2014, Narendra Modi appealed that since they had given 60 years to the ‘shaasakon (rulers)’, they should ‘try out the sevak (servant) for 60 months.’ Addressing the BJP’s national meet at the same venue five years later, Modi, now as the Prime Minister, struggled to set a narrative for 2019 elections.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) two-day national council meet at Ramlila Maidan last week —the last mega gathering of senior party leaders before the Lok Sabha elections—left many lasting images: Narendra Modi and L.K. Advani sitting glum-faced beside each other for hours; Shivraj Singh Chouhan touching the latter’s feet on his arrival; and, all BJP leaders standing and singing Vande Mataram with Shabana Rehman, a Muslim, who sang from the dais.
The most touching sight, however, was of a brooding Modi looking fondly at a lotus flower, the party’s symbol, presented to him by Delhi BJP leader Manoj Tiwari. Some of the petals were wilting and Modi was seen gently and carefully putting each of them back into a full bloom.
He was ushered back from his deep thoughts to listen to what BJP president Amit Shah had to say about the party’s roadmap for the Lok Sabha elections. Shah took Modi’s name 67 times in his 67-minute speech. That set the template for other speakers for the rest of the convention.
The saffron party’s meet might have left many delegates disappointed for the lack of substance—other than the chant of the ‘Modi chalisa’—but it sent out two strong messages.
Let’s read the fine print:
Demoralised, panic-stricken Lotus
The BJP’s loss in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh elections last month has rattled it more than one imagined. So much so that the party’s top leadership didn’t even mention it in their speeches, not to speak of discussing or explaining the reasons for the drubbing to the delegates coming from across the country.
It earned a cursory mention on pages 10-11 of the party’s political resolution: “We note with a mixed feeling, the recent results of Vidhan Sabha elections in different states…. All the BJP state governments have given exemplary record of development and good governance. We shall surely draw the right lessons but surely this will serve as an inspiration for the party workers and cadres to work with renewed vigour in the Lok Sabha elections.”
Barely four months after Amit Shah had declared that the party was there to rule for 50 years, he was telling the party’s national council on Friday that the 2019 Lok Sabha election was like the third battle of Panipat in which the loss of the Marathas had led to 200 years of slavery.
Did Shah really mean it: That the Congress would become the British and the BJP slaves if the latter lost the next election? He added that the results of the next election would have ‘an impact’ for ‘centuries’ to come. Really!
For a party that still rules 16 states in India, such reactions defy logic. But that’s what happens when a party that considered itself invincible until a few weeks back suddenly discovers that it, too, could be vulnerable.
Post-Assembly polls, the BJP appears confused about its priorities—the choice is between the core support base (of the erstwhile Brahmin-Bania party) and the expanded one that includes a significant section of the OBCs and a section of Dalits.
It was quick to jeopardise the latter at the first sign of unease among the former. Ten per cent reservation for economically weaker sections in the general category was the BJP’s knee-jerk reaction to reports about the upper castes having abandoned it in three ‘heartland’ states.
Their resentment was largely localised— for instance, deep grudges against Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan and her Madhya Pradesh counterpart Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s provocative comment that “koi mai ka laal” (no mother’s son, loosely translated) could not end reservation.
The BJP could perhaps take a lesson or two from Chouhan’s successor Kamal Nath, who explained to ThePrint Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta at the Off-the-Cuff programme that he didn’t get much perturbed by controversies as all of them had ‘an expiry date’.
Modi losing his touch and the nerve?
At a time when the party is in a befuddled state, making it worse is the growing perception about Modi losing his touch. He often looks jaded and probably weary of carrying the burden of his entire party on his shoulders. And he minced no words at the national convention: “Ek hawaa phailti hai ki Modi aayega, sab theek ho jayega, sab jeet jayenge… sunkar achha lagna hai… (we would be taken in by such sweet talks if we hadn’t come through all that hard work for the organisation)”
The burden of the entire party has taken a toll on Modi. The familiar infectious and disarming smiles are few and far between. In their place is often a scowl.
The humour and wit with which he used to pulverise his political adversaries has been replaced with rancour. Five years ago—a week less, to be precise—at the national council meeting at the same venue, the BJP’s then prime ministerial candidate was at his oratorical best.
In a sharp dig at the Congress for not declaring Rahul Gandhi its prime ministerial candidate, he said there was a human angle to it. “When defeat is certain, which mother would send her son to the battlefield only to be slain?” he asked, drawing peals of laughter that hid the virulence of the political message.
“Unki soch hai ki Bharat ek madhumakhi ka chhatta hai, meri soch hai Bharat hamari maata hai; unki liye garibi man ki awastha, hamaare liye Daridra Narayan; woh kahte hain hum jab tak garibon ki baat nahin karen, mazaa nahin aata, haemin garibon ki soch kar nind nahin aat (their thinking is that Bharat is a beehive, my thinking is Bharat is my mother; to them, poverty is a state of mind but to us, service to the poor is like service to god; they say they don’t enjoy until they talk about the poor, but we can’t sleep thinking about the poor),” said Modi, in a scathing attack on the Congress president without even taking his name.
People loved his speeches—the satire, the pun, the wit, the humour, all of it. His talks about bullet trains, inter-linking of rivers and jobs thrilled them with anticipation.
His speech five years later at the same venue was yet again peppered with attacks on the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi family. But the BJP’s prime-ministerial candidate used to sound genuine and convincing. The Prime Minister sounded political and churlish.
Their corruption versus my innocence was the central theme of his speech in 2019. Like Manmohan Singh of yore, Modi was blurting out numbers to enumerate his government’s achievements. And he skipped issues that had enthralled millions in 2014—jobs, black money stashed abroad (10-15 per cent of which was to land in voters’ bank accounts), bullet trains, smart cities, and all those other big-ticket projects.
The man everyone witnessed Saturday was definitely not the Modi they knew.
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