The second wave of the pandemic has broken through the formidable personality cult of Narendra Modi, which had endured through demonetisation, the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the strict lockdown to prevent against the spread of Covid-19 last year, the farmers protests against new agricultural laws and the border crisis with China. Why has this happened and how will this shape the political prospects of Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party in the near future?
To answer the first question, we need to look at the formative elements of Modi’s political brand and how they have come unstuck for the moment.
At the heart of the Modi phenomenon lies the intuitive trust he engenders among large segments of the population. This trust is a function of the messianic image of Modi – a self-described fakir unattached to family and material possessions, who is here not just to lead India politically, but also socially, morally and spiritually.
This trust is critical in the morality plays around which every big issue is framed: the well-intentioned leader trying to protect or rejuvenate a pure national community in battle with a myriad internal and external saboteurs. This is the grand narrative of Modi’s leadership that has allowed him to fend off a variety of challenges over the last seven years, thereby maintaining an extraordinary level of popularity.
This author, for instance, has argued at various points that Modi and his party would likely face little political cost for the protests against the citizenship initiatives, the lockdown migrant crisis and the China crisis. But this pandemic-caused healthcare crisis is different, for three reasons.
Firstly, the crisis has damaged the trust that is at the core of Modi’s appeal. Unlike demonetisation in 2016 or the implementation of the goods and service tax in 2017, the focus of public criticism has not just been on Modi’s competence but his very intentions. In previous instances, Indians have shown themselves willing to absolve Modi of the botched-up implementation of his government policies or to place the blame on his ministers or bureaucrats, judging him only for the purity of his vision.
However, the images coming out of the Bengal election campaign have portrayed a cynical politician privileging the pursuit of power over the lives of his countrymen. Nothing could be more scarring for the messianic image of Modi, which is built on the conception a leader who does not hanker after power except in the furtherance of national interest.
In a belated bid to exculpate himself, a sombre Modi began his last address by invoking his role as a “member of your family”. This was meant to highlight his social leadership, along with the pleas to his “bal mitras” (child friends), an attempt to repair trust. However, initial impressions matter. It was the early lockdown that allowed him to win the narrative on the first wave through all that followed. But with the second wave, it will be difficult for Modi to live down the impression that he abandoned Indians at their time of need.
Secondly, the nature of the crisis has thwarted any attempts to package it into any divisive or uplifting ideological narrative. While the Hindu community was sought to be consolidated during the first wave by sowing bigotry against members of the Tablighi Jamaat Muslim group, it is not possible to paint the pandemic in a communal colour anymore. If anything, it is the Hindu Kumbh mela gathering that has attracted much of the blame in the media for the second wave.
Similarly, Modi had been able to spin the first wave as a unique opportunity for the national community to rally behind him and help him build an “atmanirbhar Bharat” or self-reliant India. That narrative lies in tatters as India has been reduced to a humble supplicant on the global stage, dependent on basic medical aid from countries a fraction of its size.
Lack of a grand narrative
The lack of a grand ideological narrative has also meant that popular suffering now assumes a political potency that was absent during both demonetisation and last year’s lockdown. The suffering of Indians during those events was transformed by the alchemy of Modi’s politics into pious sacrifice for the nation. This tapped into a historically resonant strain of Indian politics, starting from the time of Mahatma Gandhi who told his followers that no freedom was possible without tyag (sacrifice).
Again, during demonetisation, the populist “honest people versus the corrupt rich” narrative meant that Indians were willing to bear some adversity in the hope that the corrupt rich had it even worse.
The Bharatiya Janata Party ecosystem has scrambled for an effective narrative during these past weeks. In reality, the attempts to provoke public anger against a “vulture” foreign press has found little traction beyond hardcore online warriors. If you ask a person waiting for an oxygen cylinder in Meerut what they think of the pandemic coverage by the Washington Post or the BBC, they will dismiss you with barely concealed contempt.
Similarly, the efforts to pass the buck at Opposition ruled states has had little credibility given that Modi had zealously made himself the face of the “successful fight” against the first wave of the pandemic. In the absence of any ideological narrative or grand purpose to ground the suffering, it is slowly being transformed into anger against the government.
Thirdly, the anger against Modi is emerging from his most loyal political base – the urban middle classes. This is the group that holds disproportionate influence over the production of political opinion in the country, and has been a critical ideological supporter of the government. If the mainstream media has been much more critical of the Central government during this episode, it is because both their audience and personnel are drawn from these classes.
While the middle classes have shown themselves willing to forego financial losses for their ideological support to Modi, the second wave represents the sort of trauma that could force a re-evaluation. Not only have many lost their family or friends to the pandemic, but also at a more fundamental level, there has been an unprecedented devaluation of their enormous relative privilege. Their financial power and network of connections have often proved futile in securing things as basic as hospital beds and oxygen cylinders, or even ensuring the last rites of their loved ones.
This brings us to the second question. How will the all of this play out politically? The test of what the political fallout of the second wave means for Modi and the BJP will undoubtedly be the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections early next year. They are shaping up to be the most consequential elections of the second Modi term. As the recent panchayat elections show, the BJP is still not as dominant in Uttar Pradesh as was earlier assumed. No incumbent government has returned to power in Uttar Pradesh since 1989 and the BJP would likely need Modi’s appeal to drag them over the line.
Unlike Bengal, a loss in Uttar Pradesh would be a devastating blow from which it would be hard to recover. After all, this is a state where the BJP holds more than a three-fourth majority, which is home to the prime minister’s constituency and which is ruled by the premier Hindutva icon after Modi. The odds of the Modi government at the Centre returning to power in 2024 would then be reduced to a toss-up, and all other institutional actors – the media, courts, bureaucrats, regional parties – would mould their behaviour to fit the weakened state of the government.
However, the Uttar Pradesh elections are still a year away, an eternity in Indian politics. Therefore, any forecasts for those elections, let alone 2024, need to tempered with a healthy dose of caution. A year ago, the anger over the Citizenship Amendment Act threatened to dislodge the BJP from power in Assam. As it happened, the BJP comfortably came back to power, sweeping the Upper Assam region that were the hotbed of protests.
It must also be said that it is unlikely that the pandemic or healthcare will be major electoral issues in either the 2022 Uttar Pradesh or the 2024 general elections. It would hardly be surprising if few people cite these issues as important to them in election surveys. However, the political significance of the moment lies in the pandemic possibly becoming a crystallising event for all the other causes of dissatisfaction with the government – unemployment, falling incomes and rural distress.
These issues have been bubbling up under the surface for quite a few years, without reaching a level of political saliency that could threaten the government. The personal appeal of Modi, aside from BJP’s ideological dominance, has ensured that these issues remain disparate complaints and do not fuse into a general anti-incumbency sentiment. The second wave of the pandemic, therefore, threatens the BJP’s dominance from both ends: one, it could crystallise feelings of dissatisfaction into a coherent sentiment of anti-incumbency; and two, it could weaken the personal appeal of Modi which the BJP’s most effective weapon to subdue such a process.
Turn in ‘sentiment’
A recent Cvoter weekly tracker poll indicated some initial signs of a turn in sentiment. For the first time in seven years, pollster Yashwant Deshmukh reported that satisfaction with the Central government had gone down: 40% from 64% last July. At the same, the number of respondents describing themselves as “not at all satisfied” swelled from 32% from 15% last year.
However, it would be a serious mistake to write the political obituary of Modi, an extremely wily politician who has refurbished and reinvented his political brand many times before. As we have seen in many recent elections, there is no guarantee that even dissatisfaction with a government translates to electoral reverses, in the absence of a strong opposition, and, especially, a credible alternative face.
The national opposition to Modi remains weak and divided. In the same Cvoter poll, there were more people who responded with “don’t know/can’t say” than Rahul Gandhi on the question of their preferred choice for Prime Minister.
The pandemic has pushed Indian politics to a crossroads. A lot depends on whether the Opposition can seize this moment and make it into a political turning point, or whether Modi restores his personality cult and the BJP summons the forces of history to deepen its stranglehold on Indian politics.
The only thing we can say for certain is that Modi’s grip on power does not seem unshakeable anymore.
Asim Ali is a Research Associate at the Centre for Policy Research and a political columnist based in Delhi.