In his very first speech in Parliament after becoming prime minister, Narendra Modi surprised the audience by acknowledging the work done by his predecessors. “Various governments in the past tried to do some good work in their own way for which they deserve appreciation,” Modi said back in 2014. On Thursday, in what might have been the last Lok Sabha speech of his five-year tenure, Modi took a very different tack on the same subject.
Even though it was technically Modi’s reply to the Motion of Thanks on the President’s speech, the address turned out to be more of a preview of what is to come over the next few months leading up to the General Elections.
In 2013, Modi’s campaign was based on attacking the Congress and promising the moon. He may not want to admit it, but it seems clear that Modi cannot simply argue that the Acche Din (Good Days) that he promised have come. Rural distress, unemployment and the failure of Make in India alone should make that evident.
So instead, the tack Modi took in his Lok Sabha speech – which will undoubtedly become a key portion of his stump election address – sought to handicap his government’s record. Rather than comparing against his own promises from 2014, Modi insisted he had done better in 55 months than the Congress had done in 55 years.
Some of this is of course contested territory. In some cases, like electrification of villages, Modi is taking forward the work that had begun and simply lowering its own targets to claim completion. In others, like the Ujjwala scheme to ensure gas connections to India’s poorest, it has undoubtedly covered a significant number of new LPG connections, but has not led to a commensurate increase in actual gas usage.
The government’s claim of 98% sanitation coverage is based on an increase in the number of toilets but its own data shows only 14% of the newly built toilets have been verified.
But the details do not matter as much as the narrative. Modi is creating the framework of his election-time pitch to the Indian people. Not: “I achieved all I promised.” Instead: “I did better than them.” This allows Modi to spend as much time in his speech talking about the Congress as he does talking about his own government. And he certainly talked about the Congress a lot.
Take for example, his diatribe after being accused of damaging institutions.
The argument doesn’t exactly hold if you spend a moment thinking about it. Simply because Congress attacked institutions, one should conclude that Modi has not done so too? In fact, he has undermined them, whether it has been the Reserve Bank of India, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the judiciary and more. Nevertheless, it is yet another chance for Modi to point to what they did, without getting into the question of what has taken place over the last five years.
And any criticism of his actions, however, is tantamount to a critique of the nation itself.
Modi also admonished other Opposition parties for, in his words, trying to shield the corrupt. He called those parties that had worked with former prime minister and senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the first National Democratic Alliance “traitors” for now signing up with the Congress. He referred to the whole grouping as a “mahamilavat”, a sort of grand adulterated substance, rather than the “grand alliance” as they tend to be known.
So there we have what are likely to be the elements of the Modi campaign speech over the next three months. Forget specific promises from his own campaign (better minimum support prices for farmers, more jobs created, Make in India), and focus instead on what the Congress failed to do in comparison. Insist that they are the ones who have hurt Indian institutions, even if it is the other way around. Conflate all criticism of him with criticism of the nation.
And of course, make it about the dynast from the Nehru-Gandhi family versus himself.
Almost none of this is new. In part because he is the BJP’s chief vote-getter, Modi’s tenure has seemed like a non-stop series of elections, with the prime minister himself constantly on the road and in campaign mode. But things on the ground have changed considerably between 2014, when there was a groundswell of anger against the Congress that turned into a “Modi wave”. Jokes about the prime minister are much more common, the Congress has proven it can take on the BJP in North Indian states and “Acche Din” is a taunt, not a promise.
The question, then, for 2019 is: With ground realities not matching up to promises made in 2014, will Modi’s Congress-bashing be a strong enough pitch to bring him back?