New Delhi: From Pinarayi Vijayan’s unity call to 11 chief ministers of opposition-ruled states, Mamata Banerjee’s ‘Jo darte hain, wo marte hain’ defiance to Uddhav Thackeray and Hemant Soren’s constant run-ins with the Centre, opposition chief ministers have been rallying against the Modi government, with the BJP now admitting that the constant attacks have the party worried.
Senior BJP analysts told ThePrint that they are facing their biggest test in the seven years of the Modi government, more so because the Prime Minister finally appears to be losing some of his popularity.
At least two recent surveys have concluded that the Prime Minister’s image has taken a substantial hit, with one by an American firm claiming that the government’s handling of the devastating second Covid-19 wave has resulted in Modi’s lowest-ever approval ratings of 64 per cent from a peak of 84 per cent.
BJP leaders admit that with the Centre struggling with vaccine supply, the failing economy and the devastating second Covid-19 wave, the opposition has enough ammunition to target the Modi dispensation with, although they feel it will not last for long.
“It is true that in recent months, particularly since April, we are battling the severest challenge of the last seven years. Maybe we did not sense the magnitude of the outbreak and hence our preparation to fight the second wave was not up to the mark,” a senior BJP leader said. “Lots of people suffered, a lot died. People are angry and these political parties want to exploit that anger. But after realising our mistake, our entire organisation and central machinery has been working overtime to take control of the situation.”
The party leader added that while the momentum is with the opposition for now, it may not last long.
“Once the situation normalises and vaccine availability improves, the ball will be in our court,” he added. “Do you think Rahul Gandhi will not campaign against Vijayan in Kerala in the next Lok Sabha election? Or will the Congress and the Left join hands with Mamata in Bengal? There are so many leaders with different aspirations; this unity is only temporary to corner Modi.”
A second BJP leader also said that while the situation is worrying, the opposition has done little to help its cause.
“Opposition unity will not last because there is no coherence in their approach and DNA,” the second leader said. “We have made mistakes earlier too but due to lack of a cohesive opposition, we sailed through easily in difficult situations. Similarly, right now except the Congress, which other opposition party is on the ground helping people fight Covid? Where is Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati? They are making a hue and cry on social media. This will not result in any electoral dividends.”
Political analysts back the assessment.
“There will be no outcome to the unity call. The opposition can only damage the Modi government on perception, which is already dented,” Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for Social Development Studies told ThePrint. “Will Kejriwal not fight the Congress in Punjab or will Akhilesh not battle the Congress and BSP in Uttar Pradesh? So the total outcome will depend on how the Centre manages its home in the coming months.”
The first leader, however, admitted that the more worrying aspect is the Prime Minister losing his sheen.
“We are more concerned by public perception, particularly the Prime Minister’s image having taken a hit in the recent crisis,” the leader said. “Although our efforts to reach out to the population will improve the situation in our favour, the opposition has been widening the trust deficit, between the people and the PM, by creating fear about vaccine unavailability. But we are aware of the situation and people’s anger.”
A union minister, who did not want to be named, also said that the party will have to undo some of the damage done to Modi’s popularity.
“We have lost several state elections, from Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan to Bengal, but in all these states, we never lost the Modi political capital,” the minister said. “In some of the states, we lost due to local leadership, others due to strong opposition leaders. The biggest worry now is that we have lost some political reserves of Brand Modi. But in our case, we brought this on ourselves. Only we can defeat ourselves, not the opposition.”
A buoyed opposition
This is not the first time that opposition chief ministers are at loggerheads with the Centre — they have attempted to corner the Modi government on a range of issues from demonetisation, the Goods and Services Tax (GST), the farmer protests and even the crisis with China.
While in the previous instances, it failed to strike a chord with the electorate, the opposition believes that the Modi government’s disastrous handling of the pandemic is now allowing to raise other issues.
“Opposition chief ministers have realised that the Modi government is in a precarious position due to scarcity of vaccines and the economic uncertainty,” a Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader told ThePrint. “With Modi’s image sliding due to Covid mismanagement, states that have suffered due to various reasons such as CBI raids, governors’ overreach and other central agency misuse, have found a reason to corner the Centre.”
Another opposition leader, who did not wish to be identified, seconded the view.
“The Prime Minister’s teflon-coated image has been wrecked in the second Covid wave. In politics, only perceptions matter,” the leader said. “There are no signs that the economy or vaccine availability will improve in the next two years. Perception can be repaired but not trust. This time, people have lost trust in Modi. It is now up to the opposition on how they capitalise in the states.”
TMC MP Sougata Roy, however, told ThePrint that it isn’t all about politics. He said that his party Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, right now in conflict with the Modi government over the recall of her former chief secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay, was fighting authoritarianism.
“Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s fight against the Centre is due to the Modi government’s authoritarian attitude, whether it is the issue of the chief secretary or the use of central agencies,” Roy said. “Mamata’s appeal (to the country) is not for any political front but to fight the Centre’s attitude that is hampering the federal structure.”
The Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Manoj Jha echoed the sentiment.
“Saving the Constitution, federalism and our institutions is more important than even the 2024 results,” Jha said. “If the country fails, nobody will survive. It is a real challenge, rather than a perception challenge, to defeat Modi.”
The respite for the Modi government is in the form of Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and his Andhra Pradesh counterpart Jagan Mohan Reddy, both of whom have backed the Centre on a number of occasions.
Prasanna Acharya of Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD) appeared to suggest that his party was maintaining a neutral stand.
“Naveen Patnaik never indulges in a blame game. The shortcomings in vaccine policy can be rectified with the Centre’s help; it’s not the time to score political brownie points,” he said. “But nobody can deny the fact that there has been huge complacency on the part of the Centre in managing the situation.”
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)