Next week’s elections in Maharashtra and Haryana have turned into a referendum on Narendra Modi. It is hard to remember any state elections that have been so overshadowed by a bigger story. Local issues and local leaders have given way in these elections to two big national issues. These are the Prime Minister’s personal credibility and the credibility of that vision of India he painted in such luminous colours during the general election where voters gave him (not the BJP) the first full mandate that a prime minister has been given in 30 years.
I would like to repeat again in this column the reasons why I believe that the Lok Sabha election was not won by the BJP. Before Modi became its prime ministerial candidate, I am convinced that the BJP’s chances of winning more than 160 Lok Sabha seats were non-existent. This is because in the past decade it has been no more than a bad facsimile of the Congress. Like the Congress, the main concern of BJP leaders appeared to be to bring their progeny into politics. And under the sham of “serving the people”, they served mostly their own families. Modi changed the narrative by telling Indians that instead of dreaming of not just being poor, they should dream of a prosperous India in which every Indian could “hope to have a roof over his or her head by 2022”.
It is this dream of a new kind of India that he has put before voters in his speeches in Maharashtra and Haryana. He knows that it is a dream that younger voters identify with. If he has campaigned in these elections as relentlessly as he did in the general election, it is because he knows that this is the first real test of whether voters still believe in his ability to transform his dream for India into reality.
Sonia Gandhi knows this too. So the main point she has made in her speeches in Haryana and Maharashtra is that Modi made “false promises”. Where have prices come down, she demands, where is the black money he promised to bring back… “You were fooled by false promises”. And her son and heir echoes Mummy’s speeches and adds a personal touch by saying Modi represents “rich businessmen” while he represents “the poor”.
In a funny kind of way, he is actually right. The Congress dream has always been only to “alleviate” poverty. Not to offer a release from it. So the investment that should have been made in the tools to remove poverty was never made: healthcare, sanitation, schools and rural infrastructure. Not only was this not done, investment in such basic services as clean water and reliable electricity suffered criminal neglect. Investment in these fundamental tools for the removal of poverty could not be made because all the money under Congress rule went into creating a vast structure of subsidies and welfare that did not end poverty. The aim was only to “alleviate” it.
If in the general election voters were bewitched by Modi, it was because he offered them a dream of prosperity. He told them that they had every right to believe that India could one day be rid of the curse of poverty and every right to want jobs, prosperity and decent public services for themselves. This dream is what won him a full mandate. This dream is what has brought huge crowds to his public meetings in Maharashtra and Haryana, and it is this dream that his main challenger, Sonia Gandhi, has tried in her speeches to paint as false. For her own part, all that she has to offer is the old dream.
Look what we have done for you, she says wherever she goes — “countries are not built overnight”; “it takes time and the effort of many leaders to build a country, but you were fooled by a false dream”; “you voted with your hearts and at election time, it is very important to vote with your minds”.
Ostensibly, these state elections have been about broken alliances and regional players. Ostensibly, they have been about local corruption and local candidates and these things always matter, but the narrative that dominates this has been more important. Narendra Modi has tried to convince voters that he can create an India that is different to the India of today. And, Sonia Gandhi (and her son) have tried to convince them that the India they live in is a fine place that has been built by the “sacrifices” of many leaders.
So in simple words, it is a choice between where we can go and where we have already reached. If the BJP does as well in Maharashtra and Haryana as the polls predict, it will be because voters believe that Modi is capable of building that shining new India.
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @tavleen_singh