BJP’s 2014 mandate is near its expiry date. Modi magic didn’t work in Karnataka

It is clear that the Modi magic rarely extended beyond the Hindi belt and Gujarat. BJP has become what it once claimed to oppose: a powerful, arrogant, entitled establishment.

Nearly everything in the world has an expiry date. This is as true of political platforms as it is of Ladoos or packets of butter. Nothing lasts forever, no matter how good it sounds or tastes when you first try it. And sooner or later, every political platform runs out of steam.

We have come to regard Narendra Modi as a force of nature. So we sometimes forget how he first came to power. He swept the 2014 Lok Sabha election because voters believed that the incumbent UPA was scam-ridden, weak and rudderless. In contrast, Modi seemed strong, financially upright and competent. It helped that he faced what was possibly the worst Congress campaign until that point, led by Rahul Gandhi who failed to enthuse the electorate.

The 2014 landslide was Modi’s personal victory. Had the BJP gone to the polls under Lal Krishna Advani (as Advani wanted), it may still have won but it would not have won by a landslide.

It is a measure of how brilliantly that campaign was constructed that Modi’s handling of the Gujarat riots, which was supposed to have been a millstone around his neck, actually became, if not an asset, then certainly a testimonial to his Hindutva antecedents. This was projected without Modi himself ever having to say anything overtly communal (he spoke about development instead).

And, to be fair to Narendra Modi, he delivered on most of his promises. Governance became decisive. The era of visible scams ended. Welfare measures benefited the poor. And Hindus began to believe that the government put their religion first.

All this helped Modi win again five years later and he was lucky that Rahul Gandhi ran an even worse campaign than he had in 2014, failing once more to connect with voters. And a certain BJP victory was converted into a landslide once passions were stirred by the Pulwama incident and the Balakot retaliation.

Because Modi continues to be the single most popular politician in India, we have never stopped to ask whether the 2014 mandate is now reaching an expiry date and whether he needs a new platform.

Only now, as a consequence of the BJP’s defeat in Karnataka, are people finally asking questions about the durability of the original mandate.

Time to look within

It is no longer enough for Modi to say that the BJP is better than the “scam-ridden” UPA coalition. He has played that card twice and as memories of the chaotic last year of the UPA recede, the comparison loses its impact. The BJP has spent much time and effort in portraying Rahul Gandhi as a joke figure but even that works less well now. Rahul has finally got his act together and begun to connect with voters. Ironically, he has also been willing to step back and demonstrate that unlike today’s BJP, the Congress is not always a one-man show.

That leaves Narendra Modi with the development part of his agenda. The Karnataka election result shows that the BJP still does well with the better-off. Where the Congress scores is with those who are economically worse-off. We are sometimes misled about this because the very vocal middle class dominates all media – social and mainstream. But voter surveys from Karnataka (and the result itself) suggest that there is genuine discontentment.

The other great plank of the Modi-campaign — that the BJP represents an alternative to an entrenched power structure — has also passed its sell-by date. For nine years, the BJP itself has been the establishment; not some insurgent alternative. It has taken to power like a tiger (or perhaps cheetah) takes to the neck of a fleeing deer and imposed its will on nearly every institution of governance. The image of a defiant Modi calling out some powerful establishment (the ‘Delhi Sultanate’ he once called it) no longer rings true. In fact, the BJP in office is far more powerful and much more feared than any government since the Congress of the Emergency era.

So, when its spokesmen attack the Lutyens’ elite, they are effectively attacking themselves and their own government. The Lutyens bungalows are now occupied by BJP ministers who not only control Lutyens’ Delhi but are spending thousands of crores of public money to have it remodelled to their specifications.

When he was attacking the UPA, Modi could be sharp and cutting. The pro-Modi/BJP army his campaign had organised on social media could be nasty and vicious. It made sense then: they were fighting a powerful establishment.

But now, the abuse and the viciousness seem unnecessary and come off as arrogance and entitlement. No senior member of this government seems to be able to deal with criticism without being aggressive or offensive. Even the cerebral Foreign Minister S Jaishankar, who has served India well through the Ukraine conflict by finding a way to buy Russian oil and still be friends with the US, loses his diplomatic discretion and comes off as a belligerent, snarling Shakha Pramukh at his domestic public appearances. As for BJP spokespeople, each time they appear on TV, full of abuse and hatred, they make their own die-hard, anonymous supporters on social media seem civilised.

It is hard for a political party to look at itself from the outside, so I’m not sure that the BJP realises that it has become what it once claimed to oppose: a powerful, arrogant, entitled establishment.

Renew the mandate

In times of adversity, the cracks in the edifice become all too apparent. It is now clear that the Modi magic rarely extended beyond the Hindi belt (and of course, Gujarat). The current BJP government in Maharashtra was formed by breaking the Shiv Sena. The government in Madhya Pradesh is based on defections. The BJP has no prospect of capturing power in Punjab. It counts for little in the South: its last bastion, Karnataka, has gone. It was thrashed by the TMC in West Bengal. Bihar has slipped from its grasp.

It remains all-powerful in Uttar Pradesh. And under Himanta Biswa Sarma, a sort of eastern equivalent of Adityanath, it is firmly established in Assam. But that’s not quite the same thing as an all-India presence.

Perhaps the BJP senses that its original mandate is expiring. Otherwise, how does one explain the excessive and slightly desperate focus on Hindu-Muslim issues in Karnataka (Tipu Sultan, hijab, love-jihad, etc.)? Even Modi, who is usually content with remaining above such things, often used religious references during the campaign to suggest that the Congress was anti-Hindu and shouted “Jai Bajrangbali”.

But none of this worked.

In the BJP’s electoral legend, there are always stories about how when the tide was against the party, PM Modi campaigned and single-handedly transformed the public mood. It should worry the BJP that in both Bengal and Karnataka, his campaigning made no difference. People voted as they would have anyway.

Any shrewd political party will recognise when the old tactics stop working. The BJP is the shrewdest party in India. So why does it not see the need to recast its platform so that it can renew its mandate?

The only explanation I can think of is this: when you are so powerful, your underlings are too scared to tell you what’s really happening. And with much of the media neutered, the truth never reaches you.

I am guessing that Karnataka will serve as a wake-up call.

Narendra Modi is still the most popular leader in India. He would lead the BJP to victory if a Lok Sabha election were to be held tomorrow. But he needs to figure out why the old strategies have stopped working.

Vir Sanghvi is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets @virsanghvi. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

Source: The Print