If Modi Wants To Win 2024, Here’s What He Must Do

by Minhaz Merchant - May 20, 2021 07:13 AM
If Modi Wants To Win 2024, Here’s What He Must DoPrime Minister Narendra Modi.
  • If the economy rebounds in 2022, Modi will have over two years to reboot and refurbish his prime ministership.

    That is why the Opposition and its media hound dogs want to nail him while the going is bad in the pandemic.

Smart leaders surround themselves with people smarter than themselves.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi doesn’t have an overflowing bank of talent in his cabinet or among his top officers and advisors. But even from that limited stock, talent is being ignored or underused.

Modi has achieved significant milestones in the first seven years of his prime ministership. If he wants to govern India for another eight years, he will have to lead the BJP to victory in the 2024 Lok Sabha election.

It won’t be easy. The Covid-19 public health crisis has exposed fault-lines in governance.

It can be argued that poor health infrastructure in India is a Congress legacy reflecting 70 years of neglect. The spread of the pandemic to rural India has cruelly exposed how little former governments have spent on health care.

It is cold comfort that Modi has probably done more to improve the country’s health infrastructure in seven years than previous administrations did in decades: establishing new All India Institutes of Medicine (AIIMS), introducing the Ayushman Bharat health insurance scheme, doubling the number of households across India with access to clean tap water, and focusing relentlessly on improving sanitation to make India as open defecation-free as culturally possible.

The second wave of Covid-19, now abating in the cities but infecting vulnerable rural areas which have little or no health infrastructure, has hurt Modi across demographies.

The middle-class in the past grumbled about tax complexities but gave the Modi government the benefit of the doubt. Covid-19, however, has hit them hard. The bitterness will not fade easily.

The wealthy, already disillusioned by over-regulation and an increasingly onerous tax compliance regime, are seeking greener pastures abroad. The poor, who gave Modi a pass over the first lockdown and migrant distress, are no longer prepared to forgive and forget.

Losing goodwill across demographies is a warning sign.

The BJP’s slide actually began, mostly unnoticed, in December 2017 when it won just 99 seats in the Gujarat assembly election, its lowest tally in decades. Defections allowed it to climb back up to triple figures.

A year later, in December 2018, the party lost three important state assembly polls in the Hindi heartland: Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh (again defections helped it regain MP). Karnataka and Goa too were lost but political engineering brought them back into the BJP fold.

In January 2019, several analysts projected that the BJP’s likely tally in the April-May 2019 Lok Sabha election would fall from the 282 seats it had won in 2014 to around 250.

The Pulwama terror attack and India’s strong response on February 27, striking Balakot, a terror camp deep inside Pakistan, transformed the electoral arithmetic. It helped the BJP, two months later, to sprint past 300 seats.

That gave the second Modi government and newly appointed Home Minister Amit Shah the confidence to press ahead with three key issues: reading down article 370 to extinguish Jammu and Kashmir’s special status; passing the Citizenship (Amendment) Act; and establishing a timeline to build the Ram Mandir following the Supreme Court’s order in November 2019.

Modi thus ended 2019 on a high note. But his annus horribilis was about to begin.

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the Opposition seized on the government’s missteps. The first economic stimulus to alleviate the national lockdown was too small to re-ignite the economy. But it is the lethal second wave that has turned the tide of public opinion.

The Indian media is a strange creature. While a significant section behaves like a government lapdog, another equally large section acts like a hound dog. In a noisy, diverse democracy, leaders have to learn to live with both.

The Modi government has been justifiably criticised for its response to the farmers’ protest, now in its fifth month. It gave farmers’ leaders, who were more politician than kisan, far too much leeway.

The government has also mishandled the vaccination rollout. Instead of booking vaccine doses in advance, it followed a creeping acquisition policy, leading to shortages and an urgent change in strategy to vaccinate the entire adult population of India with 216 crore doses of various vaccines, both locally manufactured and imported, by year-end.

Modi though has one key advantage ahead of 2024: the combined Opposition lacks a single leader who can be projected as its prime ministerial candidate.

Public memory is short. If most of the country is vaccinated by December 2021, the chances of a fourth lethal wave will recede. Modi could even claim credit for defeating the Covid-19 pandemic, however politically cynical that might be.

If the economy rebounds in 2022, Modi will have over two years to reboot and refurbish his prime ministership. That is why the Opposition and its media hound dogs want to nail him while the going is bad in the pandemic. That window is a narrow one and could slam shut soon.

Modi has three years to repair the damage done to his government’s credibility. There are five immediate steps he must take to restore confidence:

One, use the talent he already has at his disposal more effectively. Nitin Gadkari, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Jay Panda are just three examples of BJP leaders whose roles can be enhanced.

Two, create more economic innovations like the Production Linked Initiative (PLI) scheme which has the potential to convert India into an export and manufacturing hub.

Exports for the first time are likely to cross $400 billion in 2021-22. The PLI, when fully operational, could lift exports to $1 trillion annually over the next few years at a compounded annual growth rate of 18 per cent. That will turbocharge GDP growth.

Three, be decisive. Half measures can rebound. For example, notify CAA rules or abandon them. By allowing laws to linger, you inflict a wound on your political credibility.

Four, take a tough stand on conflict of interest. There are increasing cases of this in, for example, the BCCI. That erodes the BJP’s stand on dynasty and nepotism.

Five, and finally, decentralise policymaking. Delegate decision-making. Avoid the error Indira Gandhi made: running a government by diktat rather than consensus.

The Opposition is waiting to pounce on any further missteps Modi makes. The Uttar Pradesh assembly election in early 2022 is its immediate target. But it is already casting a beady eye on April 2024.

There will be no Balakot effect this time around. Both Pakistan and China want Modi out and will not give him an opportunity to use their toxicity to his electoral advantage.

No Indian prime minister, bar Jawaharlal Nehru, has won three consecutive full terms as prime minister. The bar is set high. Modi will need to rise up to it.

Minhaz Merchant is an author and publisher. 

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