Since 60 per cent back the idea of giving the NDA another chance, one can presume this has largely to do with the Modi charisma and the possibility of electing unstable coalitions instead of him.
While Modi can pitch himself as the leader for stability, he also needs to focus on what he has achieved so far, and why another term is needed to complete the job he has begun.
It is always a mistake for runners doing the last lap to look back and check how close his challengers are to him. At this stage in a race, the focus of the leader must be on the finish line, and how to accelerate towards the goal.
This is exactly the situation which the Bharatiya Janata Party/National Democratic Alliance (BJP/NDA) finds itself in as we enter the last lap before the polls are announced in early March. Two surveys yesterday (24 January) – one by Indian Today TV, and another by Republic TV – show a hung house, with the NDA getting around 237 seats, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) 166, with the rest 140. The vote percentages given out by India Today TV are 35 for the NDA, 33 for the UPA, and 32 for the rest. This is as close as we can get to a three-way race, where all outcomes are possible.
For the BJP, the worrisome factor is that it is slipping while the Congress is gaining, and if the trend continues, the NDA will do even worse that what the current polls suggest. Hence the need to focus on the finishing line rather than getting distracted with what the Congress is doing, or what the regional parties are. The induction of Priyanka Vadra into the Congress front line in Uttar Pradesh is no reason to get distracted. She has been brought into the battle only to do that.
The only encouraging part of the India Today poll, from the BJP’s point of view, is that 60 per cent of the respondents would like the NDA to be given a second chance, and this is the real message for Narendra Modi. This feeling is what will enable the NDA to claw back the lead which is now slipping.
The key to doing this lies with Narendra Modi himself – others are support actors. Since 60 per cent back the idea of giving the NDA another chance, one can presume this has largely to do with the Modi charisma and the possibility of electing unstable coalitions instead of him.
In this scenario, a positive agenda works best. While Modi can pitch himself as the leader for stability, he also needs to focus on what he has achieved so far, and why another term is needed to complete the job he has begun. A campaign focused on the message that a good beginning needs a good ending will work to his advantage, since the voter knows that a change in government at this juncture will bring more disruption rather than stability and progress. This mix of giving a scorecard on what’s been done so far and how he is the best man to finish the job can be done only by Modi, assuming he is willing to be a bit more modest about his claims. Tall claims about projects that are yet to touch all people will not work.
The second area where Modi needs to step in directly is management of allies. The Shiv Sena is a case in point. While Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis is handling the alliance negotiations with the Sena chief, Uddhav Thackeray, the real problem is not the Sena’s reluctance to enter into a deal, but Thackeray’s personal sense of being insulted by the BJP after the 2014 assembly results. Ego apart, the Sena chief is miffed more with Amit Shah than Modi, though the formal attacks are directed at Modi.
Even if Devendra Fadnavis is able to calm Uddhav down and get a deal, the key to future alliance chemistry lies with Modi, who has to personally step in to mollify Uddhav. Modi made the mistake of focusing only on running the government, leaving ally management to Amit Shah; while this works for small allies, the bigger ones do not take kindly to being given lower importance by the top boss. A meeting between Modi and Uddhav will do more to rescue the alliance than one purely negotiated by Fadnavis.
What holds for Maharashtra is equally important in other states where the BJP needs allies or already has one – as in Tamil Nadu or Punjab. The Akali Dal, another old ally of the BJP, needs to be given greater importance than what Modi has given so far. Last, there is Assam, where regional forces are up in arms against the Citizenship Bill. Modi needs to explain the bill and not leave it all to the Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal or his Finance Minister Hemanta Biswa Sarma.
A third area for Modi action is Odisha. The party has been hesitating to go for the kill in the state as it is worried that it may need Naveen Patnaik as a future ally. This is also probably why it has not inducted Jay Panda into the party, as Panda has been a critic of Patnaik and was recently turfed out of the Biju Janata Dal. The BJP has a good chance of making gains in Odisha as Patnaik has been at the helm for long, and there could be a desire for change. This can’t happen if the party dithers on whether to give Dharmendra Pradhan its full backing for taking on Patnaik in 2019, or asking him to pull his punches to spare Patnaik. The answer should be to give Pradhan a full go ahead so that he can campaign in full force. Once again, it is Modi who must take the call.
The same applies to ties with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or encouraging actor Rajinikanth to launch his own party. This can’t be done at the last minute.
A fourth, and last move, which again only Modi can sanction, would be to send positive signals on a Hindu agenda. While the 10 per cent quota for the economically weaker sections will help, it has come too late to deliver big vote gains in 2019. On the other hand, signals to the dormant Hindu votebank can come from moving a constitutional amendment to give both majority and minority communities parity in matters of managing their religious and educational institutions.
A private members’ bill to make changes to the Constitution already stands ready in the name of Minister or State Satya Pal Singh (the Constitution Amendment Bill 2016, Bill No 226), which seeks to amend articles 15, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29 and 30 so that the majority community is treated on a par in terms of the rights granted to minority communities.
The bill is non-discriminatory, in the sense that it does not seek to deny the minorities any existing privileges to manage or administer their own institutions. It only seeks the same rights for Hindu institutions. Anyone who opposes it is essentially anti-Hindu without a doubt.
The Modi government can send a strong message that it will not allow discrimination against Hindus by making Singh’s bill an official one. There is only one Parliament session left to get this done – the budget session that begins next week. Regardless of whether it passes or fails, the Modi government will send a strong message that will energise its base.
Once the base is enthused, Modi’s job is half done. This should be his first priority right now.