Elections And Yo-Yoing Popularity Of Modi

If you looked at a comprehensive list of festivals in India it could seem staggering. India is often known as the country of festivals. With its range of diverse cultures, languages, costumes, number of religions, number of gods or avatars of god that are worshipped, and different ethnic backgrounds that is not surprising. But there is one type of festival that is different from the others and, possibly, unique to India. These are elections.

In any other democracy, elections are only a necessity, a periodic group decision-making process through which citizens choose individuals to public office: a mere means to an end. But in India, elections, especially when they are for electing MPs or MLAs become supercharged events that can rival the most popular festivals in the country.

In roughly two months from now will begin a series of elections to state assemblies. The elections covering seven states (eight, if Jammu & Kashmir, where there is President’s Rule, also goes to the polls) will begin in February and go on till the end of 2022. And because these state assembly elections can have a bearing on what happens in the parliamentary elections in 2024, the entire political apparatus of the country will be obsessed with them.

Among the states that will hold elections are important ones. Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India (pop: >204 million) where the BJP has been in power since 2017 is one. Many believe that what happens in the UP elections often determines the outcome of parliamentary elections. Gujarat, a stronghold of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state where he was chief minister for over a dozen years, is another. Then there are other small but significant elections. In Goa, where the BJP is in power, and where the contest has usually been between the BJP and the Congress, there is an aggressive new challenger–Mamata Banerjee’s All-India Trinamool Congress (AITC).

ALSO READ: Nuts & Bolts Of Mamata’s Not So Nutty Plan For Goa

What happens in Punjab would also be interesting to watch. Although the Congress is in power in the state, a few months back the state’s former chief minister and veteran Congressman Amarinder Singh resigned because of internal discord in the party. Singh has now announced the formation of his own party and that may be a force to contend with. In Punjab, it has traditionally been a two-sided battle between the Akali Dal and its alliances and the Congress and its alliances. If the former chief minister forms a new party and enters the fray, the shape of the contest could change dramatically.

In the meantime, there are mixed perceptions about the popularity of Mr. Modi and his party, which won the parliamentary elections convincingly (the National Democratic Alliance, which the BJP leads, has 334 of the 543 seats in Lok Sabha) in 2019. That clearly meant Mr Modi and his party were in top form when it came to popularity. But in August this year, when India Today magazine did its Mood of the Nation survey, polling 14,600 respondents, just 24% of them said they considered Modi best suited to be India’s Prime Minister.

Mr Modi’s plummeting popularity may have quite a bit to do with the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has hit India hard and while infections, hospitalization, and deaths have soared, it is the economic impact of the pandemic that has hit Indians hard. As many as 70% of the respondents in the poll said their incomes had fallen during the pandemic, and a third of them charged his government with inability to rein in price rises across the board–beginning with petrol and diesel prices that have soared.

How accurate are such surveys? It’s difficult to say. Because, in October, barely two months after the Mood of the Nation survey, another survey by YouGov, an international Internet-based market research and data analytics firm, found that Mr Modi’s approval ratings had bounced back. Based on YouGov’s methodology, his popularity among urban Indians had increased from 53% in August to 59% in October.

Part of the problem with such surveys is their sample size of respondents. India’s population is in excess of 1.3 billion. Even if we consider the urban proportion of that, it is more than 480 million people. The Mood of the Nation survey had 14,600 respondents. And, YouGov’s survey had 5,095. These are very small sample numbers relative to the universe that they try to find a proxy for and the accuracy of opinion polls based on such samples in a very diverse country can be questioned. For the record, the YouGov survey found that there was a North-South divide in Mr Modi’s approval ratings: he enjoyed a 63% approval rating among residents of Northern India, but 36% of those residing in Southern India disapproved of him.

There are, however, some fun facts in other survey-based research that YouGov has done. In YouGov America’s survey of The Most Popular Foreign Politicians, carried out among US citizens in the third quarter of 2021, Mr Modi ranks at No. 13, just below Russia’s Vladimir Putin (No. 12) and just above Mexico’s former president, Enrique Pena Nieto. And just in case, you are wondering who was on top on that list, here it is: at No.1 it was Angela Merkel, the former chancellor of Germany; at second spot, it was Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; and at the third position, it was France’s president, Emmanuel Macron.

‘Mamata Is The Only Leader Who Can Challenge Modi’

Chintan Patel, a sports physiotherapist in Panaji, Goa, feels Trinamool Congress has taken a calculated risk to enter a small state like Goa before emerging on the national stage

Owing to the fact that Goa is the smallest state in the country (40 seats), its political landscape is a little different from that of the other states, especially from that of West Bengal (294 seats). Perhaps Mamata Banerjee decided to start her national political innings from here because it is good to start on a small scale. That according to me is a wise step: to take only as much as one can easily commit to and handle.

The physical and metaphorical distance between the voters and representatives in Goa isn’t that much unlike in larger states. The cook employed at my house is a Goan native and says that local representatives do pay their residential areas regular visits. The voters are aware too and take active interest in local politics. Politics isn’t just about making promises to the janta, but also executing them properly. Mamata Banerjee and her party candidates will have to build a very strong base in Goa, if they want to make inroads into national politics.

Goa, being a small state, is no stranger to personality politics. It is also no stranger to ideas of cosmopolitanism and being open to other cultures, given its thriving tourism industry. Mamata Banerjee will have to strike a fine balance and really try to understand the local lifestyle well. It is good that she visited the state last month for a few days.

The Goa Assembly elections are scheduled in February 2022. As a sports physiotherapist working with the Goa Cricket Association and Goa Football Association, I come in contact with many star players regularly. One of my friends, footballer Denzil Franco joined TMC recently.

Patel comes from a politically conscious family in Gujarat

Anyone who fulfils their promises or tries to show genuine intent to understand and solve local issues will win the voter’s minds and hearts. During the second wave of Covid in May, Goa wasn’t able to handle it well and in the post-pandemic world people are looking for leaders who can be strong and lead from the front in moments of crisis.

ALSO READ: ‘A Daughter Of Soil, Didi Is The Leader To Watch’

The voter nowadays is also more aware thanks to social media and understands that state issues aren’t independent from that of the centre. The central leadership does affect and influence state politics in certain cases, such as a pandemic.

I am a Gujarati who has been living in Panaji for nearly five years now and my family is based in Gujarat. A few of my close relatives are actively engaged in politics and I am aware that the wind can change direction any time on any issue in politics. It depends on the charisma of the leader at top apart from the hard work of the party cadre on ground level.

Modiji or let’s say the BJP has managed to somehow win over the attention of the janta, but Mamata Banerjee is also a formidable opponent. Perhaps she is the only one giving strong ‘opposition’ to Modiji. Despite Congress being the single largest party in 2017, they lost Goa, but Mamata held the fort strongly in West Bengal and came back for a successive third stint as Chief Minister this year. It would be interesting to see if TMC can build a strong base in Goa and go from being a strong regional player to a strong national player.

‘A Daughter Of Soil, Mamata Is The Leader To Watch’

Anil Bhutoria, 59, an industrialist based in Kolkata, says the Bengal CM’s ability to connect with people makes her transition as a national leader inevitable

It is interesting to see the Trinamool Congress (TMC) spreading its wings and seriously panning out from being a regional player to being a national player. Be it Tripura, Meghalaya, Punjab or Goa, Mamata Banerjee and her party seem to be confident of creating a solid base of voters in these states.

Even though it is too early to say whether she will emerge victorious or not, I am sure she will be able to definitely connect with the local people in these states and make some serious advance into the local politics. For example, Bengal and Goa both have large Christian populations and a shared love for football; who knows what factor might tilt votes.

Most probably she will be able to make the transition smoothly into a national figure, for she is a daughter of the soil. She might not be the most camera savvy or suave persons around, but she definitely has her heart in the right place. Plus, she is not new to national politics. She has been a Cabinet Minister at the Centre and definitely knows her way. Again, it might be too early to say anything concrete but she may prove to be a good fit at central leadership or the PM’s role.

Bhutoria says Banerjee leads from the front

As an industrialist who has operated business under both the Left Front and TMC in Bengal (I established the Stadel group in 2003), I would say things had started improving under Buddhadeb Bhattacharya itself. But Mamata Banerjee did make things better. Nobody had ever thought that the Left Front would go out from Bengal, but Ms Banerjee fought single-handedly and won. Who knows what the future holds as far as national politics is concerned?

ALSO READ: Mamata In A New Challenger Avatar

As far as I am concerned, I don’t follow any leader or party blindly and only go by the ground reality or statistics. And I must say that the statistics speak for themselves. Mamata Banerjee is a proactive leader. She is forever strategizing and figuring out newer ways to connect with people. And that according to me is the mark of a good leader, someone who has her ear on the ground. Be it the remote areas of rural Bengal or a metropolitan Kolkata, she makes sure to stay connected with the populace. She takes care that social schemes are set in motion and that people benefit from them. One of the things that personally make me the happiest is that Kolkata has begun to look much cleaner than before.

Also, while other states were just fighting the pandemic, West Bengal had to deal with the double blow of the pandemic and cyclone Amphan. And Bengal dealt with it well. Bengal was really well-prepared for cyclone Yaas in May 2021. A good leader should be able to multitask well.

All in all, I think the country is ready for someone who is unafraid to be herself and lead from the front. But Mamata Banerjee also has to take a more balanced approach in connecting with people across the length and breadth of the country.

Nuts & Bolts of Mamata’s Not-So-Nutty Plan For Goa

When the assembly elections in the tiny Indian state of Goa (population: 1.60 million) are held in February 2022, a prominent contestant for a slice of the 40 seats in the state will be Ms. Mamata Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress (AITMC). The “All India” part of her party’s name could seem a bit of a misnomer because, at least in terms of the number of seats that the party has won in states other than West Bengal in recent years. It is predominantly a regional political party from West Bengal where Ms. Banerjee has served two consecutive terms as chief minister and is currently serving her third.

But could that change? Ms. Banerjee’s ambition of spreading her political domain to regions other than Bengal is not new. In the past, her party has contested assembly elections in other states: in 2001, in Assam her party won a seat; in Manipur, in 2012, she won seven; in the same year, in Uttar Pradesh, she won one seat, and in Tripura, in 2016, she managed to get six Congress legislators to defect to her party. But her party’s faring has been patchy. In Manipur, where she had seven, she lost six seats in the 2017 elections and has just one now. In Punjab, in 2017, she fielded 20 candidates but none of them won.

Tripura, Manipur, and parts of Assam (particularly in the south where Bengali speaking population is considerably large) are actually low-hanging fruit for Ms. Banerjee. Tripura and Manipur are small and not too distant from her home base and with the right kind of alliances, she could make inroads in those states. But these moves have at best been relatively small ones and not part of a bigger plan to spread the AITMC’s wings.

Till now. Enter Abhishek Banerjee, her 34-year-old nephew and MP, who was appointed as the party’s national general secretary this summer. Banerjee’s rise within the party that his aunt leads has been phenomenal. He has also been in the eye of several unseemly controversies, including having ongoing charges against him in cases of money laundering and disproportionate assets.  But it is Abhishek who is driving Mamata’s party’s national strategy to spread its presence outside West Bengal.

That strategy, as it begins to unfold, is about AITMC venturing out of its comfort zone in West Bengal and its smaller neighbouring states and taking a shy at fresh challenges. And the tactics that make up that strategy seem to be varied. Recently, Abhishek convinced Mamata to get on board Sushmita Dev, the daughter of the late Congress leader Santosh Mohan Dev, who was a veteran politician from Assam and Tripura and Union minister for many years. It was a sort of a coup that could give the AITMC a bigger foothold in, at least, a part of southern Assam.

The reason behind the national strategy is simple. With a broader footprint across India, the AITMC could shed its Bengal-centricity but it could also give Mamata Banerjee the credibility and a raison d’etre for pitching herself as a challenger and alternative to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a notion that has often been raised, particularly after her party’s victory for the third time in West Bengal.

ALSO READ: Mamata In A New Challenger Avatar

The tactic of going to Goa to fight the 2022 elections has an interesting background. Let’s begin with political strategist Prashant Kishor. No other electoral strategist in India is as famous as Kishor has been. He has worked for parties of every stripe: from national parties such as the BJP and the Congress; and for regional parties such as Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party in Andhra Pradesh, the DMK in Tamil Nadu, AAP in Delhi, and now the AITMC. Kishor is not only AITMC’s strategic consultant but, it is learnt, that he has a five-year contract with the party, an arrangement of that kind that has not been common in India.

What is more, Kishor is the main brain behind the Goa foray by Mamata. If Abhishek is the driver, Kishor is the navigator. Kishor did a detailed survey of the electoral situation and mood in Goa’s 40 assembly constituencies and came back with the findings that the voters of Goa (where the BJP leads the government although it won 13 seats to Congress’s 17 in 2017) are not happy with either of the two central parties. Although the BJP upstaged the Congress in the 2017 elections because it was faster in forging alliances than the latter and proved a majority in the assembly, thereby forming the government, it is not invincible as it had been before. The death of Manohar Parrikar (who was BJP’s chief minister for three terms before he died in 2017) has dealt a blow to BJP’s clout in Goa. The party’s current chief minister Pramod Sawant has neither the charisma nor the political clout that Parrikar, who was also defence minister in Delhi in the first BJP government, enjoyed.

As for the Congress, in Goa, as in many other states, it is rudderless and lacks vision. In the 2017 elections it had the largest number of seats but it dithered about finding partners to make up the majority and ended up handing over the government formation to the BJP.

The AITMC intends to leverage this situation by adopting quick tactics. Thirty percent of the population of Goa is made up of Christians (mainly Roman Catholics) and the AITMC has adroitly picked up a leading politician, Luizinho Faleiro, a former Congress leader and ex-chief minister of the state. Faleiro joined the AITMC in September this year. It’s a political win for Mamata Banerjee because Faleiro, besides having political clout in his own state, has been an alliance strategist for the Congress and is credited with forging alliances for his old party in many north-eat Indian states to help the party form governments.

Besides moves such as that, the AITMC has inducted the former tennis champion, Leander Paes, who is now settled in Goa; the socialite Nafisa Ali has also joined the party; and both personalities would likely be visible during the party’s public campaigning in Goa. But Goa also has a sizeable Hindu population (estimated 66%), a base on which the BJP built its support and for AITMC to succeed, it would need to target those voters as well.

To do that, Mamata and her party have been reaching out to smaller parties with a focused following in the state. One of the targets for an alliance is the Goa Forward Party, which has three of the 40 assembly seats and quit its alliance with the ruling BJP, accusing the latter of giving away Goa’s mining resources to the private sector.

Whatever be the outcome of Mamata and her nephew’s electoral strategy in Goa, it has already caused both national parties to be concerned–the Congress more than the BJP. Directionless with a leadership that does not seem to translate into votes, the Congress is particularly concerned that the AITMC is weaning away some of its own leaders at a time when that commodity, political leadership, is a scarcity in the Congress. But one thing is clear. Thanks to Mamata’s moves, the fight for Goa will be watched intently.

Mamata In A New Challenger Avatar

Since May 2014, after its victory in the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP as a party, and the BJP government in New Delhi, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, has been in ‘election mode’. Critics say it was this “obsession” for electoral victory that the government completely missed the deadly ‘second surge’ of the killer Covid-19 pandemic and failed to ramp up the healthcare infrastructure in time.

After a brief pause, the party leadership is once again switching to the ‘election mode’ with an eye on the coming Uttar Pradesh elections next year. For Modi and Shah, winning UP seems the last straw amidst a rapidly falling popularity graph.

However, the drubbing in West Bengal continues to rankle. Not only because ‘Didi’ has emerged as a ‘national icon’ after her incredible victory with Modi as her principal political opponent. But because she is tipped to be a possible leader of a secular opposition alliance in the next Lok Sabha elections.

Mamata Banerjee is not unaware of her new status. One can clearly witness that every political move of Didi since her victory on May 2, is designed to position herself as a ‘direct adversary’ to Modi, while attacking him routinely with an aggressive and creative consistency. This is bound to unnerve the ‘Dear Leader’ in New Delhi.

Take, for example, her statement after what seemed like the hounding of her chief secretary by the Centre on whimsical grounds: “There are so many Bengal cadre officers working for the Centre; if we confront like this, what will be the future of this country, Mr Prime Minister? Mr Busy Prime Minister, Mr Mann Ki Baat Prime Minister… what, do you want to finish me? Never, ever…. As long as people give me support, you cannot…” 

ALSO READ: Time For A Federalist Alliance Against BJP

The latest is the ‘big news’ of what seemed a predictable event – the return of prodigal son Mukul Roy, back into the Trinamool, which he founded with Mamata Banerjee in 1998 against the mighty CPM which ruled Bengal for more than 30 years. Undoubtedly, this was ‘breaking news’ not only in Bengal, but in the national scenario.

Mukul Roy was the second-in-command, responsible for organizational affairs in the Trinamool, appointed as Union Railway Minister at the behest of Mamata Banerjee, her point-man in Delhi’s power circles, even while he called the shots in Kolkata. All this changed after the Narada-Saradha scam, and the decline in his fortunes led him into the lap of the BJP – also perhaps because that was the only alleged ‘method’ to escape the Centre’s law enforcement agencies.

Mukul Roy was seemingly sidelined before the assembly polls in the BJP though he was the key strategist who lifted the BJP to 18 Lok Sabha seats in 2019, an unprecedented victory in Bengal for the Hindutva party.

Roy shared this ‘scam dilemma’, along with another high profile ‘turncoat’, Suvendu Adhikari, who switched over to the BJP before the 2021 polls, became a bitter enemy of his mentor, abusing her in the most communal and misogynistic language during the campaign, and is now reportedly a favourite with the Modi-Shah dispensation, adding to the angst and anger of the ‘original’ BJP workers and leaders like state party chief Dilip Ghosh.  

The inevitable return of Mukul Roy is therefore bad news for both Modi and Shah. In a party replete with discontent among its hardcore followers because it is filled to the brim with ‘turncoats’ — and several of them losing in the recent elections — his departure might trigger major defections back to Trinamool, including several MLAs. These defections are just a tip of the volcano – the BJP might be actually imploding in Bengal.

Indeed, with the BJP weakened in Bengal, and with Didi on the ascendant in terms of her ‘national stature’, it is believed by observers that all the signs are pointing to the beginning of the end of the Modi era, with a possible rainbow coalition of federal reassertion under a secular umbrella beginning to take shape in the national scenario. The latest is her move to send political strategist Prashant Kishore to meet Sharad Pawar, known for his tactical acumen; they had discussions for three hours.

Didi has called upon all opposition parties, including civil society organizations and NGOs to unite against Modi. Recently, in Kolkata, while yet again fully backing the farmers’ leaders who had come to meet her, she told journalists: “I have only one thing to say: Modi has to be removed from power.”

Besides, she told the farmers’ leaders that she will take the lead in organizing opposition leaders and chief ministers to hold a joint meeting in their support. Clearly, the importance she has been giving to the protracted movement and to specific leaders like Rakesh Tikait (the West Bengal assembly passed a resolution earlier in support of the farmers’ struggle), is evidence that she understands the political importance of the farmers as integral to future electoral dynamics, especially in the Hindi heartland, Haryana and Punjab.

Meanwhile, nursing the wounds of the massive defeat despite pumping in money and muscle, and the media hyperbole, the Modi-Shah regime started hounding Mamata Banerjee soon after May 2. First, there was this fake news campaign of organized violence against the BJP cadre and Hindus, with fake videos and Whatsapp campaigns trying to create a communal divide. She was blamed by central leaders, but the fact is that when the short-lived violence was triggered, the Election Commission was still in control, the central forces were still deputed in Bengal, and she had not been sworn in as the chief minister.

She took over, gave compensation to the victims across the political spectrum, and ordered a complete end to the violence. The violence stopped, even while Bengal celebrated the incredible victory of the secular forces against hate politics, with a deep, quiet and discreet dignity, mostly indoors.

Soon after, two of her senior ministers and two top leaders were arrested by the CBI, for being involved in the Narada scam. Mukul Roy and Suvendu Adhikari, also accused in the same scam, were left untouched. This was followed by the hounding of her chief secretary by the Centre, post Cyclone Yaas, for what seemed like a whimsical revenge act. Even the Congress and the CPM in Bengal criticized this, and there were rumblings within the BJP that this is indeed a terrible move by the Centre.

All this has been reinterpreted in Bengal and the rest of India as a display of arrogance and power, even while the feisty and resilient ‘Didi’ emerged yet again as a mass leader, street-fighter and formidable adversary against Modi. The more they hounded her, the more she has become popular, emerging as a ‘national icon’ who decisively took on Modi – and defeated him in his own game.

Clearly, as of now, it’s a win-win scenario for Mamata Banerjee. In a country where the Constitution and its federal structures have been so deliberately weakened in contemporary India, her brave and steadfast reassertion from the East might mark the rise of a new dynamics in mainstream politics in the country.