Bypoll Results: Diminishing Modi Magic

Almost no crackers on the festival of lights in pollution-free Kolkata and Bengal, while Delhi chokes and gasps for breath. And even while North India celebrated Deepawali with worshipping Goddess Lakshmi, Bengal worshipped the fiery Goddess, Kali, sometimes darker than darkness, her hair let loose, and at other times, ‘shyama’ – her face in blue.

Following Covid protocols and the no-crackers campaign, A subdued festival it was, though, post-Deepawali, all across Kolkata, the goddess was taken in small processions with the resonant beat of the dhakis and ghantas, and the auspicious echo of ulluk dhwani and shankh, for immersion in various ponds, water bodies and rivers, and this went on all day, until midnight.

Undoubtedly, the festival season has arrived with a heady note in West Bengal despite the sadness and restrictions of the pandemic earlier. The BJP has received a drubbing of its life in four assembly constituencies in the recent byelections. The Durga and Kali Puja also symbolise the universal celebration of ‘shakti’ in the state, where neither Jai Shri Ram nor the Ram temple in Ayodhya could make even an iota of religious or political breakthrough. Nor did the polarising politics of ‘termites’, outsiders, infiltrators, backed by huge money and muscle power, and pomp and show, with the prime minister and his home minister literally camping in the state, turning it almost into an ego issue. The drubbing therefore is yet another reminder that Bengal is continuously showing the way to the nation, and with no holds barred, just as Kerala and Tamil Nadu had shown earlier.

The recent by-elections, therefore, are more than symbolic indicators of the possible decline of the star power of Narendra Modi, and the polarising electoral power of communal and hate politics and Hindutva. The marginal reduction in excise duty on petrol and diesel, under tremendous civil society resentment and opposition pressure, is the first sign of backtracking and retreat by a regime in Delhi which remains absolutely unilateral, arrogant, unmoved and adamant in terms of popular demands, angst or anger, so sure it is of its 31 per cent hardened fanatic vote bank.

Not only have LPG prices been exorbitantly raised suddenly, again and again, inflation in terms of essential commodities, even during the festive season, is sky high. There is deep resentment inside crisis-ridden ordinary families, while millions are jobless or in serious economic distress, and even while a handful of super rich billionaires close to the current regime have reportedly amassed millions during the pandemic.

With UP elections round the corner, and signals from both Western and Eastern UP not bringing happy tides, the BJP, it seems, is clearly worried. Indeed, despite the BJP victories in Assam and the North-east, the signs from Bengal, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana means a different wind seems to be blowing in the country, and the BJP led by Modi seems on a sticky wicket.

The BJP has been decimated in Bengal. In Dinhata in North Bengal, Trinamool Congress candidate, Udayan Guha, once a Leftist from Forward Bloc with his father once a minister in the erstwhile Left Front government, polled a massive 84.15 per cent of the total votes. Near the Sunderbans in South Bengal, at Gosaba, the Trinamool candidate has polled 87.19 per cent of the total votes. The BJP was reduced to 11.31 per cent and 9.95 per cent of votes in the two assembly constituencies. The CPM stood third. In the four assembly polls, Trinamool won comfortable victories.

Social scientists and political observers point out that the BJP’s communal cards have been thrown into the garbage can in the face of secular politics in Bengal, and due to the grassroots development and social welfare initiatives of Mamata Banerjee, especially among women and the economically weaker sections. Indeed, during the lockdown and pandemic, the scheme of free food at the doorstep for the poor and economically marginalised, has been highly effective and it continues till this day, including other schemes such as Lakshmi Bhandar with monthly cash deposits for poor women and those belonging to the SC-ST communities, along with other schemes in health and education.

Tweeted Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee: “My heartiest congratulations to all the four winning candidates. This victory is people’s victory, as it shows how Bengal will always choose development and unity over propaganda and hate politics. With people’s blessings, we promise to continue taking Bengal to greater heights.”

The Congress had uplifting news from Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh. In Rajasthan, anti-incumbency is a crucial trend every five years, and the political dispensation inevitably changes. After three years of power in Rajasthan, and with Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot claiming to win another term in the next assembly polls in 2023, the Congress candidates won Vallabhnagar and Dhariawad assemblies with margins of 18,725 and 20,606 votes. Indeed, it is a fact that in the by-elections in the last two years, the Congress has scored victories under the leadership of Gehlot, even while the state BJP is a divided lot with two factions pitched against each other.

Barring Yogi Adityanath in UP, the BJP has changed chief ministers in Uttarakhand and Karnataka, to recover lost ground and fight anti-incumbency. There are reports that the chief minister of Goa might also be replaced after a lacklustre performance and all-round unhappiness against the BJP’s abysmal record in governance in the scenic state. However, there is real bad news for the BJP in Karnataka, especially because it seems to be losing the support base of the formidable Lingayat community which backed its protégé, BS Yedurappa, who was recently removed from the chief minister’s post.

Has the Lingayat community vote got divided, or, is it nursing some deep-rooted angst — that remains a conjecture. The BJP won with its support in Sindgi in the Vijayapura district, but had to face a major embarrassment when it lost the Hanagal constituency in the Haveri district. Significantly, and ironically, it is the home terrain of the new Chief Minister, Basavaraj Bommai, also a Lingayat, but without the clout of Yedurappa. So, will the BJP start looking for a new CM now, even in Karnataka!

The victory of Abhay Chautala from Elenabad in Sirsa district, against the might of the Kanda family backed by the BJP, is significant. Chautala had earlier resigned in support of the farmers’ struggle. The united farmers movement had called upon the people to vote against the BJP-JJP candidate in a predominantly rural constituency. Clearly, despite a tight contest, rural Haryana has voted for the farmers’ struggle.

Seasoned journalist Ramsharan Joshi, who has covered the Hindi heartland for decades, has an interesting, analytical perspective. He says, “When Amit Shah says that the victory of Yogi is a must in the assembly elections in UP so as to pave the way for the victory of Modi in the next Lok Sabha polls, it sounds like a Freudian slip. Why is he linking the two polls – is he not confident of Modi’s charisma in UP or in the rest of the nation, anymore! Indeed, the statement reflects three things: Yogi’s graph is fast declining in UP, Modi is for the first time dependant on Yogi’s victory in the assembly polls, and that the two have become sadly dependent on each other because both have become seriously weak, despite their similar brand of politics. Despite the communal violence in Bangladesh and Tripura, the BJP was unable to polarise in the current by-polls, except in Assam. Where ever there is a strong opposition alternative, the BJP’s communal card fails to play, though this is what they will do again in UP.”

There is another fact. Modi’s vote-catching ability for the Centre, has somehow not really translated always, across the Indian geography, when it comes to state politics and polls. This has yet again been reflected in the recent by-polls. No wonder, the ‘kabristan, namaaz, Pakistan’ discourse of hate politics seems to be getting resurrected all over again. If nothing else, it also reflects a sign of desperation.

Weekly Update: What Taliban’s Ascension Means for India; How Popular is Modi?

The turbocharged takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban within days after the US forces exited the country after two decades of waging a controversial war in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks has confounded diplomats, foreign affairs experts and the security and intelligence establishments. The swift takeover by the Taliban, which refers to it as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, has led to nations across the world scurrying to evacuate their diplomats from Afghanistan and to re-evaluate their relationship with Afghanistan under its new leadership.

But even as social media channels are abuzz with chuckle-evoking video clips such as the one of Taliban members romping about the gym at the Presidential palace in Kabul, which the Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fled, there is a sobre aspect of what the US military’s exit and the Taliban’s ascension to power means for India.

As the Taliban wrests control of Afghanistan, the consequences for South Asia, particularly the Indian subcontinent, will likely be significant. India’s relationship with its immediate neighbours–Pakistan and China–have for decades been fraught with risks and apprehension. In the best of times, India’s relationships with these neighbours have been testy. 

Pakistan’s borders with Afghanistan are sieve-like. Taliban militants, and those of the al-Qaida have frequently sought refuge in the northern part of Pakistan.And, as we know, the US sought Pakistan’s help to track down and kill Osama Bin Laden by raiding his hideout in Pakistan. The latter has always had an active role to play in the affairs of Afghanistan, with or without the help of the US. China, on the other hand, has been showing greater interest in the country of late. In July, the Chinese foreign minister had meetings with the Talibanjust before the US formally began its disengagement.

How would the roles that its two neighbours play in Afghanistan affect India? One theory is that Pakistan could now have a greater influence over the Taliban-led government in Kabul. Under Ashraf Ghani, Islamabad’s relations with Kabul had softened and this had perceptibly weakened Pakistan’s clout in the region. Many believe with the Taliban back in the driver’s seat, the new government in Afghanistan could reach out to Pakistan and the latter could, therefore, increase its say in the governance of the country. This could also mean that militants in the region could take advantage of the lax borders between the two countries and easily move closer to Pakistan’s borders with India.

The other area of concern for India could be China’s ostensible desire to play a bigger role in the region, particularly in keeping with its plans for the Belt and Road Initiative, which is a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to invest in nearly 70 countries and international organisations. Meanwhile, Russia, which once propped up a Communist government in Afghanistan and fought a war there for nine years,is one of the only countries that has not been alarmed by the Taliban’s ascension to power. It has decided to keep its embassy manned and has, in fact, lauded the Taliban. One view that some analysts have is that in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, China and Iran could increase their roles in the region, something that India is understandably apprehensive about.

While New Delhi evaluates its moves with regard to the changes in Afghanistan, it will be interesting in the coming weeks and months to see how the geo-political dynamics move in the region.

Is Modi Losing his popularity?

If two national surveys in India last week are to be believed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity could be waning. According to India Today’s Mood of the Nation survey, only 24% of respondents said he was best suited to be Prime Minister. Six months ago, it was 38% and a year ago 66%.

Likewise, another poll, the YouGov-Mint–CPR Millennial survey, showed that 46% of respondents think that there is a need for a new political leadership in India. And another 53% of people surveyed agreed with the statement that the people they “interact with are very upset with PM Modi’s leadership in the past few months”, while 42% agreed with the statement that “Modi was responsible for the healthcare disaster that followed the second wave of the pandemic”. 

According to the India Today survey, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath came in second as the person best suited to be prime minister — 11 per cent of those surveyed rooted for him. He was followed by Rahul Gandhi (10%); and the chief ministers of West Bengal and Delhi, Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal, respectively (both had 8% each of the respondents opting for them). 

While Modi with 24% remained as the prime choice, his previously unassailable popularity has come under severe pressure–partly due to the impact of the pandemic but also because of slowdown in the economy, rising inflation, and growing unemployment, all of which have seen people’s livelihoods affected adversely and also pushed millions back into poverty.

Some columnists, particularly the pro-government sort, have predictably disputed the survey findings and nitpicked some of the figures and percentages. It is, however, quite likely that Mr Modi has suffered a setback in the aftermath of the pandemic. India’s vaccination rate at 9.3% (fully vaccinated) has been low and lack of availability and inadequate infrastructure have wreaked havoc with its vaccination programme, which is marked by inconsistencies. Its economy has also failed to pick up. So, while opinion polls have their shortcomings and are never very accurate, the straws in the wind that they point to in terms of Mr Modi’s support from his countrymen should be a cause of concern for him and his party as the 2024 parliamentary elections come closer.

BJP Is Now Dominant NDA Partner In Bihar

Ever since the two parties joined hands over 20 years ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party has played second fiddle to the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (U) in Bihar. The saffron party depended on Nitish Kumar’s clean image and charisma to ride to power in the eastern state where it had negligible presence.

As Bihar prepares for its next round of assembly elections now, there’s a perceptible change in the equation between the two parties. With Nitish Kumar facing massive anti-incumbency after 15 years in power and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity at an all-time high, the tables have turned in favour of the BJP. Today, it is the Janata Dal (U) chief who needs the BJP to retain power.

Well aware that it is on a strong footing this time, the BJP is all set to drive a hard bargain with the Janata Dal (U) during its seat-sharing negotiations to be able to emerge as the single largest party post-polls which would open up the possibility of the saffron party laying claim to the chief minister’s post. On the face of it, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president J.P.Nadda have publicly declared that the coming assembly polls will be fought under Nitish Kumar’s leadership. The reason for this is obvious. The BJP obviously does not wish to alienate the Janata Dal (U) chief and push him to the rival camp.

But the BJP is also in no mood to concede the upper hand to its alliance partner. The saffron party has, over the years, used the Janata Dal (U) to expand its footprint in Bihar and it believes it is now in a position to emerge as the dominant force in the state. The saffron party’s Bihar unit has, therefore, been urging its Central leaders for several months now that the BJP should make a strong pitch for the top executive post in the state, especially since Nitish Kumar is personally on shaky ground. The BJP hardliners have been at pains to point out that the ground situation in Bihar has undergone a sea change and with the BJP’s improved presence it can dictate terms to its alliance partner.

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For the first time in his ruling terms, Nitish Kumar is facing mounting public anger. His government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the migrant labour crisis, rising unemployment, rampant corruption and the damage wrought by the recent floods have all combined to push Nitish Kumar on the backfoot. It is to deflect attention from his government’s failures that the Bihar chief minister, with dollops of help from the BJP, has shifted the political discourse to the Sushant Singh Rajput case, currently being probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation. The dates for the election are yet to be announced but the state is already dotted with posters of the actor with the caption “Na bhoole hain, no bhoolne denge”, a clear indication of how the poll campaign will pan out in the days ahead.

Even as Nitish Kumar is fighting with his back to the wall, he has to deal with another irritant. An ally – Lok Janshakti Party’s Chirag Paswan – has launched an offensive against the Bihar chief minister. Paswan junior has, in recent weeks, taken several potshots at Nitish Kumar and has even threatened to contest the Bihar assembly poll on his own.

As the anchor of the National Democratic Alliance, it would be expected that the BJP would step in to silence the LJP leader. But it has made no serious move in that direction. This has given rise to speculation that Paswan junior is acting on the behest of the saffron party. It is understood that his barbs are essentially aimed at garnering a larger share of seats for his party, which works to the BJP’s advantage. If the share of Janata Dal (U) seats is reduced and the BJP contests on more seats, it stands a greater chance of emerging as the single largest party.

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While Nitish Kumar finds himself in the doghouse, the Modi magic remains undiminished. Despite the Centre’s poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the slump in the economy and the standoff with China, people in Bihar, as elsewhere in the country, are not ready to blame the Modi government for the multiple crises facing the country. They are willing to overlook the Centre’s failures and even justify them on the ground that these problems are not confined to India but are a worldwide phenomenon. Modi’s image of a Hindu Hirday Samrat and the BJP’s majoritarian agenda is more than sufficient reason for them to support him and the saffron party.

If the BJP-Janata Dal (U) combine comes back to power (as it is expected to), the victory will be driven by Modi’s popularity and not Nitish Kumar’s governance record. The ruling coalition will additionally be helped by the disarray in the opposition camp and its inability to throw up a viable alternative. While the Congress has negligible presence in the state. Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad Yadav is out of action and his son Tejaswi Yadav is yet to evolve into a mature politician.

Even as the opposition is still debating the terms of building a coalition of like-minded parties, the BJP has already kickstarted its campaign with virtual rallies and is in the process of strengthening its digital infrastructure to connect with the voters. Since there are restrictions on physical campaigning in this election because of the coronavirus pandemic, the BJP has decided to maximise the use of social media and other digital platforms to inform the people about their government’s achievements.

The opposition just does not have the resources, the leadership and the organisation to match the BJP.

When Economics Nibbles At Politics

Two of India’s most credible voices spoke as if in unison on November 29 and 30 at events organized by major media houses. Their well-meant, well-timed warnings are that the economy is in bad shape, something the government of the day is doggedly denying.

The oft-repeated phrase, “it’s the economy, stupid!” comes to mind, but it will not suffice. Bad economic management has combined with widespread perceptions of fear in political and social arenas.

The TINA (there is no alternative) factor that had emerged only six months ago after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the alliance he leads won a bigger mandate than 2014 is sliding.  

Both, former premier Manmohan Singh and veteran industrialist Rahul Bajaj linked economic governance to a vitiated social climate. Fear, they said, was generated, not by those in power alone, but also by those who draw inspiration and support from them and act with impunity.

Singh’s warning was confirmed the very next day, doubly more than he had expressed last year. India’s gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen to 4.5 percent, the lowest in over six years, when Singh and his government, accused of policy paralysis, were in office. The GDP growth then was 8.5 percent. It had crossed ten at one time during his tenure.   

When Singh had last year darkly predicted a two percent GDP fall, then Finance Minister, late Arun Jaitley, had hinted at Singh’s going senile. Lawmakers and leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had been more direct in using harsh words.

Singh has been spared abuses this time – not that anybody in the government is taking his words kindly. The counter-response is only more resolute since the government apparently sees Singh straying into political arena by alleging that a “toxic combination of deep distrust, pervasive fear” is “stifling economic activity and hence economic growth”.  

More ire has been reserved for Bajaj, who has pierced through the bubble of India Inc.’s silence. To be fair, he was in the past critical of Singh’s economic management as well. And Singh, braving doubting Thomas all around in those early years, had been dismissive of that criticism. India’s entrepreneurial class is grateful to Singh, the reforms’ pioneer, whether or not they would admit it.

With formidable ministers Amit Shah (who is also the BJP chief), Nirmala Sitharaman and Piyush Goyal on stage, Bajaj spoke of corporates afraid to criticize government, of an environment of impunity for phenomena like lynching and of terror-accused Pragya Thakur’s political journey to Parliament with the BJP’s full backing and support.

The ministers, particularly Shah, denied or defended it all. He compared his government’s record with that of the Singh Government, of all things, on cases of lynching of Muslims and Dalits by vigilantes belonging to his party or its affiliates. Official figures prove his claim hollow. Shah has got to deny this since RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat who guides his party has decried the very term ‘lynching’ as something alien to Indian culture.  

While building its industrial base, the Bajaj family has a history of speaking up against the government of the day, especially that of the Congress. Rahul B. dared fellow-captains of trade and industry at the conclave to speak up, but none responded. Only leading woman entrepreneur Kiran Shaw Majumdar has taken the cue from Bajaj.

Come to think of it, India Inc. hails most Budgets and praises most finance ministers, as long as its purpose is swerved. It has always moved cautiously, sensing the political climate before speaking out on economic issues. In recent memory, the year 2013 was one such time when the Singh Government was besieged with political protests.

Behind this new churning, unmistakably, there is the Maharashtra factor. Sharad Pawar has sewn together government of an unlikely alliance of known ideological adversaries united to keep the BJP out of the richest state. His emergence, like Bajaj (incidentally, both have their respective bases in Pune) has confounded many calculations and put some life into a beleaguered Opposition.

New Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has taken some decisions responding to public concerns like environmentalists’ pleas against felling trees in Mumbai’s wooded area and has announced withdrawal of cases against the Maoists imprisoned under stringent anti-terror laws. The controversial Indo-Japanese Bullet train project, half-way through, is slated to slow down, if not ended. The latter two issues are bound to cause friction with New Delhi.

But he has compulsions. By reinforcing continued adherence to Hindutva that he shares with the BJP, Thackeray has had to keep future political options open. He cannot afford to shed his ideological moorings strengthened along with the BJP over the last three decades. Friction with secular allies is in store.             

Significantly, the BJP slide in recent elections is not because of, but despite, a weak Opposition. It remains divided and has nothing to offer to the people. The recent months have witnessed the rise of regional forces, Pawar being the best and the most promising of the lot. 

The Congress remains in deep slumber, as if running on autopilot. It merely reacts to events, unsure at times about its stand, only to be bashed back by the BJP and its voluble social media supporters. The Gandhis are seen as doing a holding operation, ineffective in office and indecisive about their own role, even as the party gets reduced to third or fourth position.

There are other fears surrounding enforcement of law to detect ‘outsiders’ or ‘infiltrators’. Everyone but the die-hard BJP supporters (read Shah supporters) think this would open the Pandora’s Box. Potentially, just about anyone among the millions who migrate for work or due to a natural calamity can come under suspicion for lack of documents that prove his/her domicile status.

The Modi Government faces long-term decline in economic growth. The latest GDP numbers merely certify what has been experienced on the ground for a long time now. What is striking about the slowdown this time is that it hits the most vulnerable sections of the population. Agricultural distress combined with the disastrous demonetization experiment, has hurt those that serve as the real economic engine.

How far the Singh-Bajaj-Majumdar observations reflect and impact the public mood remains uncertain. It would be premature, if not naïve, to expect anything radical. It is a long grind.

Truth be told, Modi remains popular among large sections and his government/party wield greater money and muscle power than all opponents combined.    

But message is clear: National pride and religion certainly have their own place. But people want jobs and basic necessities first, over everything else. To revive the economy, Modi will have to review the social and political ethos and philosophy. Nothing less will help him and the country.

The writer can be reached at