As Narendra Modi closes in on a full half-year in power, the big question that looms is this: has he done enough to keep the faithful who voted for him happy? His critics have found little to criticise him for because he has been talking more of his social agenda (toilets, inclusive banking) than the full-blown right-wing stuff they had expected from him. But his own supporters – both old and new - will be wondering when their payoff will come. The vocal ones are wondering if Modi has forgotten all about them.
It is tempting to speculate on what Modi’s trajectory will be in terms of popularity with his own support base at a time when President Obama in the US has been substantially disowned by those who had invested their hopes in him. Supporters are saying "No, he can't" about the man who told them "Yes, we can".
In an interesting analysis of President Obama’s fall from grace in the US, as evidenced by the recent election results where the Republicans gained control of both houses and won more governorships than the Democrats, Pratap Bhanu Mehta says in The Indian Express today (7 November) that Obama’s failure was more the result of his own followers loss of faith in him that the wounding attacks of his critics.
President Obama, who failed to nurture his own support base, is now reaping the whirlwind of disdain and has now been reduced to a lameduck chief executive. The UPA lost the 2014 election in 2010-11, when it failed to look after the interests of the urban constituencies
that gave it a huge increase in mandate in 2009 over 2004.
Mehta writes: "In democratic politics, your credibility is often most grievously wounded by your own supporters…. Small sections of the right had barely disguised contempt for Obama…but the biggest damage to him came from the fact that many of his supporters felt a sense of betrayal. The most scorching writing on Obama has come from the left, as it were, rather than the right. Their sense of betrayal and anger has often meant that they would rather see him punished for not delivering on utopia than counter the Republicans in any serious way. In a deeper sense, they, more than the Republicans, created the climate of opinion where Obama looked weak. Scorned supporters are more dangerous than dogged opponents."
Mehta adds: "Part of this was a consequence of Obama’s own charisma. It was not so much what he said, but his own persona that raised expectations of a radically new order. It was easier to judge him harshly because he was being judged against his own measure."
As things stand, Narendra Modi is at the peak of his power and popularity. But, in some ways, Modi too, like Obama, had raised expectations with his own great charisma and oratory. He could well face an Obama moment in future if he delivers less than what he
promised his own enthusiastic constituencies.
Broadly speaking, the groups that support him include the following: the young, especially the new voter, the neo middle classes (the groups that have moved out of poverty, and are now entering the consuming classes, from OBCs to even some Dalits), the small but
influential business and stock market community, the non-resident Indian (NRI) community, the Hindu Right-wing from the Sangh parivar, and the old middle class, which is now economically pro-reform and largely urban. This is obviously not an exhaustive list, but indicative of the kind of invisible alliance that brought him to power.
Modi’s actions and announcements since coming to power have addressed each of these constituencies, but with varying levels of satisfaction.
First, he has given more time to his social and political agenda than his economic one. His finance minister’s first budget did not set the Yamuna on fire. While he has moved fast on procedural and administrative issues, including a measure of deregulation, big-bang economic reforms are simply not visible, even though there has been talk of selling some loss-making public sector units, moderate labour reforms, and some proposed changes to the growth-retarding Land Acquisition Act. The UPA’s welfare schemes, like NREGA and the Food Security Act, are being allowed to atrophy into irrelevance, which encourages some of the economists and ideologues who backed him to hope he will make a more decisive shift to market-based policies once the election season is over. This group, which includes his intellectual support base and business, will give him a long rope, and will anyway not pass judgment till the next budget, which will signal Modi’s reformist intent.
Second, the poor and the neo middle classes, who still expect the state to deliver subsidies and benefits to them while they lift themselves out of poverty and aspire to own and consume more consumer goods, have been the focus of Modi’s initial policy initiatives and
announcements: the Jan Dhan Yojana for inclusive banking and the target of providing housing for all by 2022 are central to this wooing. Luck has played a part in keeping the interests of this constituency alive: as oil prices fell, he has been able to cut diesel and petrol prices, and this will help bring down inflation. He is also stepping up the pressure on the Reserve Bank to cut interest rates, since this class needs to borrow to buy its first fridge or two-wheeler. Jobs growth has been promised, but this will not happen if other reforms are not carried through. Labour reforms are crucial, and so are changes in the Land Acquisition Act. But farmers and rural vested interests will oppose this, and so will all major political parties. Modi has a choice to make: if he wants the urban neo-middle class on his side, he has to free the factors markets; if he wants the rural vote, he will have to slow down the pro-market reforms.
But so far, he has not done anything to hurt or upset either group.
Third, religious right-wing is already beginning to get belligerent at the fringes, but the RSS core is not behind this discontent. By giving the RSS chief access to a national audience on Doordarshan, and by allowing the Sangh to try its hand with the HRD ministry and history
writing, the immediate expectations of the right-wing are probably being met. This is why while the fringe is heating up the atmosphere with talk of love-jihad and such-like things, the Sangh core is largely with Modi right now. This may change in future, but that remains to be seen. In any event, Modi’s current prestige is so high that the Sangh needs him more than he needs them.
Fourth, the BJP’s own grassroot workers and internal support base, which forced the party to make him the Prime Ministerial candidate last year when the old guard was unwilling to do so, remains with him for now. With Amit Shah, an organisation man and Modi confidant, as
party president, the roots will not be left unwatered. However, with Modi there is a potential issue that could loom in the future. As someone who is forcefully stamping out corruption and making a stand against nepotism and dynasty politics, this rules out scope for keeping the base happy with handouts. In most other parties, the base is kept happy by selectively throwing economic benefits (a petrol pump here, a hawker’s licence there) and giving them opportunities for small-time corruption. Under Modi, this is unlikely to happen. It would be
interesting to find out how this base will be kept enthused in future. But as of now, it is fully with him, and the BJP membership drive currently underway will expand the base with new enthusiasts – possibly to replace the old faithful if they become disgruntled.
Fifth, the BJP’s biggest voter base – the upper castes, the moneyed classes and the traditional urban salaried cohorts - does not need anything specific beyond a faster-growing economy and a gradual reforms. This Modi seems likely to ensure over the medium term, if
growth revives. A key demand of this group is more affordable housing, but this is not about to happen as long as land supplies are going to be bottled up by a corrupt politician-bureaucrat-builder nexus. If this nexus is cracked – which seems unlikely – Modi’s support base, both in the middle and neo middle classes, will shoot up. But there are simply too many vested interests standing in the way.
Sixth, the BJP’s other leaders and allies will also become restive as time passes. Right now, Modi’s dominance has cut them down to size, with ministers like Sushma Swaraj, Nitin Gadkari and Rajnath Singh accepting a secondary role. State-level powerhouses like Vasundhara Raje, Raman Singh and Shivraj Singh Chauhan also give Modi primacy – some willy-nilly, some willingly. But this constituency will start raising its voice if Modi falters, or some adversity hits India. But as of now, Modi rules supreme.
As for allies, this is where Modi is facing considerable disquiet – as the souring relationship with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra shows. Other allies, like the Akali Dal in Punjab, and the LJP may be wary. As the BJP seeks to expand its footprint across more states, allies could
become frenemies – especially if Modi loses some of his current political capital or loses a state election or two.
Seventh, the constituency which is fully sold on Modi and will back him for a very long time is the NRI one. As his trip to the US showed, Modi has been extraordinarily successful in wooing this constituency, which may not vote, but may have family and friends in India who do. This constituency is easiest to please for it is not looking for economic benefits, but psychic belonging to the country of their origin. They want in in the India story, and Modi is more than willing to offer them easy visas and opportunities to invest.
More now, Modi has managed to play his cards well enough to enable the faithful to keep their faith. But in future, he will have to cater more specifically to his core constituencies to retain his power and popularity.
The writer is editor-in-chief, digital and publishing, Network18 Group