In the 69 years of parliamentary democracy in India, no prime minister has been as audacious as Narendra Modi. He has said publicly that he will be in office for at least 10 years. Occasionally, he has also said that he would be the PM for 15 years — from 2014 to 2029. Indeed he can do so, if he first wins in 2019. That is possible if he wins Uttar Pradesh and the four other states in the ongoing assembly elections.
Narendra Modi’s strategists and supporters are confident that he will be PM till 2029. He will be 79 then. That fits into a pattern. Pandit Nehru was PM for 17 years, from the age of 58 in 1947 till he was 75 when he passed away in 1964. Manmohan Singh was 72 when he became the “accidental” prime minister and was 82 when he resigned in 2014, after the landslide defeat of the Congress. So, age and energy are on Modi’s side.
Modi and his followers argue that there is no challenge to him from either the opposition or within the BJP. The Congress is so fragmented and decimated, they argue, that it won’t even be able to forge a front under its leadership. Moreover, people have seen what happened to coalitions in 1989-90 (during the tumultuous V.P. Singh and Chandrashekhar years) and in 1996-97 (the unstable rule of Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral). Non-Congress fronts have been non-starters and there is no chance of a Congress-led coalition, like in 2004. So, Modi will march on till 2029 and radically transform India.
According to Modi bhakts, there is no one else in the party to take his place. The old guard — L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi — as well as Modi’s cabinet colleagues, Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley, have been so effectively sidelined that within the party he is the only one.
Therefore, the question “After Modi, who?” will surface, say the bhakts, only in 2029. In the ’60s, the hotly debated issue was “After Nehru, who?”. The renowned American journalist, Wells Hangen, had written a book with that title, which raised a storm. He named Morarji Desai, Y.B. Chavan, Jayaprakash Narayan and Indira Gandhi among others. Nobody would dare to write about Modi’s possible successor, in 2019 or 2029.
The years 2024 and 2029 are far away. Actually, even 2019 is not as close as we may think. Because it depends on Uttar Pradesh, 2017.
To win UP, he will have to get 202 seats, or at least 150, to become the single largest party to lead a coalition. But 150 or even 200 seats would be a major setback because going by the Lok Sabha results and its assembly seat breakdown, he should win over 320 seats. But let us not forget that Indira Gandhi had won 73 seats in UP in the famous “Garibi Hatao” election in 1971, and lost them all in 1977. The Janata Party’s sweeping victory in UP in 1977 had disappeared in 1980. So, the 2014 BJP landslide is no guide for 2017.
Predicting elections or referendum results is a hazardous business. It has now become an adventurous gamble, particularly in the last three years, when we saw pundits and pollsters going disastrously wrong with Brexit and the US presidential election, and at home before that, in Delhi and Bihar.
The current assembly elections will determine the future, not only of Modi’s political ambitions, but also the course of Indian politics in the coming decades. Modi knows that he cannot afford to lose UP. The “shock and awe” decision of demonetisation was clearly aimed at UP and other poll-bound states, to show that he is bold and ready for brinkmanship. If this brinkmanship boomerangs, however, 2019 would be an uphill task, somewhat like riding against the current of the Ganga to Gangotri.
Modi has to face not only the rejuvenated Akhilesh Yadav-led coalition but also Mayawati’s forces. But equally important, if not more, is the resistance to him building in his own party and the sangh parivar. Neither the RSS, nor the disgruntled Hindu middle class, who, in 2014, joined the Modi march, are as enamoured of him today. The belief that a corruption-free and Congress-mukt resurgent Hindu nation will bring back mythical ancient glory to the country has been shattered. Those who thought Modi would end the ideology of “povertarianism” are now shocked that Modi is reinventing class war. The language of massive privatisation, labour (read anti-labour) reforms, the abolition of wasteful welfarism like MGNREGA, attacks on Pakistan and the war on terror have become slogans with an expiry date.
Voter fatigue with these empty slogans will most likely be reflected in the polls. However, like other predictions and assessments, what if this too goes wrong and the opposition is routed again? Or indeed, if the Akhilesh-led coalition wins a majority? Or Mayawati and the BJP compete for second place? And what a shock it would be if the BJP emerges third because of the frustration exacerbated by demonetisation?
All the possibilities are open until March 11. Ironically a section of the BJP is actually worried that Modi’s mesmerising megalomania will sway the voters in the party’s favour. That will clear the pitch for him in 2019 and there will be no stopping him, even in 2024. Then, Modi’s ambition to compete and rise above Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Manmohan Singh will be fulfilled.