At the beginning of this year if you said that it was not certain that Narendra Modi would become prime minister again next year, you risked being charged with wishful thinking or lunacy. But, as that old cliché goes, a week is a long time in politics. The political mood has changed even if the message has not yet reached the big man himself. High officials in Delhi scoffed when I told them last week that during recent travels in northern India I had seen a disturbing degree of despair setting in.
This was not their ‘feedback’ from social media, they said, and the Prime Minister’s Mann ki Baat continued to have huge resonance. Perhaps because small businessmen and small farmers do not waste time venting on Twitter. It is among them that I detect the most disappointment with Modi. They believed him when he promised that he would bring ‘parivartan’ in their lives. This has not only not come, but on account of Modi’s two main economic reforms —
demonetisation and GST — many have seen their lives worsen.
So it did not surprise me that as I sat down to write this, a friend sent me a recent poll that reports a serious drop in Modi’s personal popularity. The poll done by Lokniti-CSDS-ABP found that the drop has been so sharp that Rahul Gandhi has almost caught up. Chances of the scion of our oldest political dynasty reclaiming his inheritance (India) may seem dim at the moment, but if the Congress wins Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, things could start looking different. Meanwhile, Rahul and his Mummy showed in Karnataka that they have become very good at making friends and playing junior partner if this helps keep Modi from becoming prime minister once more.
If not Modi then who could be India’s next prime minister? Is it time to start asking this question? I think it could be because Indian voters are today more impatient than they were 10 years ago, and they are much more aspirational. When they gave Modi a full majority in 2014 it was because they desperately wanted change and development. This latest poll says that today close to half the Hindu voters polled across India admit that they are unlikely to vote for Modi next time. Muslims, Sikhs and Christians were unanimous in their desire not to.
So will they vote for Rahul Gandhi instead? This is not certain because he is so good at ruining his own chances. A fine example was the speech he gave to Congress workers in Delhi a couple of weeks ago when he said that the man who started Coca Cola had sold ‘shikanji (lemon water)’ in the streets and that the man who started McDonalds used to run a ‘dhaba’. Why did this sort of thing never happen in India, he asked, without noticing that this was less Modi’s fault than that of his grandmother whose licence raj treated entrepreneurs with such brutality that they were punished for exceeding their production quotas.
Rahul’s confused political thinking is not the only reason why his chances of becoming India’s next prime minister continue to look bleak. The more important reason is that the Congress has shown no signs of revival in Uttar Pradesh. In this electorally vital state, the power to defeat Modi lies in the hands of Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav. If their alliance does not dissolve before the next general election, then they could cause the BJP to lose at least half of the 73 seats that it won last time. Between Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav, it is she who is ahead in the race and this is probably why Sonia Gandhi made such a point of hugging her publicly on that stage in Karnataka where almost every opposition leader in the country gathered to celebrate keeping the BJP out of power.
In the lineup were dynasts, communists, secularists, liberals and Leftists of varying hue, united not for reasons of ideology or high ideals but only for the single purpose of ensuring that Modi does not become prime minister again. They claim that their desire to collude in this endeavour is based on their concern about saving secularism, but this has a hollow ring because anyone who leaves the BJP is immediately anointed secular and allowed to join the club.
Will it be good for India to have this kind of coalition take power after the next general election? Maybe not. As someone who has openly supported Modi in this column, I continue to believe that he is a taller leader than anyone in the caboodle that seeks to defeat him. But, in a democratic country like India it is in the hands of voters to decide the political future. For the first time since he became Prime Minister, there are signs that Modi is losing his personal popularity.