If punters have begun to get that the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) will suffer major electoral reverses in 2019, the reasons for it have less to do with the government’s performance or non-performance, but lack of clarity on why it is seeking a re-election. While the opposition has got its message clear – anyone but Modi – the Modi bandwagon is limping along with deflated tyres.
In an election where the vote will be for Modi or against him, Modi is actually missing in action. By this one does not mean the PM is not addressing meetings daily, but a larger psychic reality: the Modi of 2014 is missing.
In working out their electoral predictions, the pundits tend to give overwhelming importance to factors like caste, leadership image and organisational strengths apart from bread-and-butter issues like jobs and growth. So, their current calculations revolve around whether Modi’s image and Amit Shah’s election machine are faltering before the big vote. Modi himself has been addressing booth-level workers in order to boost their enthusiasm, but one is not sure he is succeeding.
Most party spokespersons one meets do not exude much confidence in the party’s ability to win 2019. The fact that some previously strong supporters are even advocating NOTA (pressing the None of the Above button in voting machines) should be a cause of worry for Modi. You can’t win an election where you own support base lacks enthusiasm. This is something Modi has to address personally, and not through the filtered process of the NaMo app, or Amit Shah’s party machine. Modi has to emerge larger than the machine by focusing on his message.
Many factors contribute to electoral success, but an incalculable ingredient is the leader’s own mojo, his own sense of being on top of the issues bothering the electorate. In a Modi versus the rest election, the decisive factor this time will be Modi with mojo, not Shah’s election machine.
Elections are won not by machines, but the appeal of the message exuded by the parties or leaders concerned. The party may disagree, but this time the Modi message is weak and garbled. It is not something the voter can easily focus on.
In 2014, Modi himself was the message of change; that’s why his cadre was enthusiastic, and he won hands down. In 2015, Arvind Kejriwal and Nitish Kumar made themselves the message, the former by apologising for his mistake in resigning prematurely in 2014, and the latter by positioning himself as a leader who works to secular principles and is acceptable to a wide cross-section of castes and classes.
Five years on, the Modi message in 2019 cannot be the same as in 2014, as we have to include what the electorate actually experienced in the meanwhile. The message thus has to focus on two things: what Modi has delivered, and what he will promise to deliver in the next five years. This means the successes and failures of the first term have to be craftily woven into the future promise, without obfuscation or deflection.
An honest admission that some initiatives did not work out is a better inducement for voters to keep the faith in Modi than a dishonest attempt to pretend that everything is hunky-dory on jobs of incomes. If the slogan is “saaf niyat, sahi vikas”, the niyat part is falsified if the candidate is seen to be evasive on his failures.
When we cut this argument down to its essentials, it boils down to one thing: this time Modi has to take charge of his destiny, and not leave it to the party or propaganda machine, which Shah can anyway run. Modi has to emphasise his big message; the machine will take care of itself. It is not data analysts and strategists such as Prashant Kishore or Praveen Chakravarthy who win elections for their parties, nor even a Shah with his panna pramukhs and booth-level workers. Victory primarily depends on effective messaging by Modi, including through his body language.
The themes Modi should focus on are the following:
One, saaf niyat has costs, and sahi vikas will come after a lag. Modi needs to explain in simple terms why demonetisation and goods and services tax may have imposed costs on the economy and people, but will deliver after a while. Any attempt to improve tax compliance and eliminate black money raises costs for everybody in the short run, and this is deflationary. The growth comes only when revenues from this tectonic shift in compliance attitudes actually translates to higher revenues, which can then be used to boost investment and growth and jobs.
Tying up the first term with the prospect of the second lies in accepting that the first one caused disruption, but telling the electorate that the second term is when their sacrifices will bear fruit. The electorate knows that the opposition does not have better answers, and so will probably trust a leader who does not hide the truth, or pretend there are no problems. Politicians find it hard to accept limitations or failure, but despite the risks, Modi can turn partial failure into an advantage, for he will at least prove the saaf niyat claim. Full-blown sahi vikas can be fulfilled in the second term, and some of it is already visible.
The second theme to explore more or less dictates itself from Rahul Gandhi’s “chowkidar chor hai” election cry, which seems to be obtaining some traction through constant iteration. Modi has indeed latched on to this by pointing out that thieves need to remove the chowkidar first in order to continue with their robbery. This theme needs to become central and the Bharatiya Janata Party counter-slogan ought to be “ulta chor kotwal ko dante.” (The term loosely translates as “a thief excoriates the police”).
The PM knows that the Gandhis are guilty of many dubious actions (National Herald, AgustaWestland, et al), but he needs to hammer away at these themes without undue political gimmickry. He needs to explain in simple terms where the Gandhis, the extended family, and key party supporters, from Robert Vadra to P Chidambaram’s son Karti, may have done wrong. Allusions to 'Michel Mama' may sound funny, but mean nothing to the voter at large. He has to explain the charges against his political rivals, and not merely mock them.
A third theme is obviously to focus on schemes well begun, and which will find fruition in the second term. These could be Jan Dhan bank accounts, the Ujjwala gas connection subsidy scheme, last-mile electrification of the remotest villages, rural toilet-building under Swachch Bharat, interest subventions for home-building in rural and urban areas, the Ayushman Bharat medical insurance scheme, and future benefits for farmers or middle income groups that may be announced in the 1 February interim budget.
But the critical point is to emphasise that full benefits flow to the voter from continuity in government, not change, since this will disrupt whatever is already underway. Of course, it is in this context that Modi must offer himself as the stable leader when the other choice is a messy coalition that will disrupt whatever good is happening in the economy.
Memes and cartoons can be developed around these themes, and the party can also tell positive stories about actual beneficiaries in one-minute films and videos that can be disseminated widely as propaganda material.
Modi will succeed only if he transforms the message by living his message, and banging away at it without digressing into general rhetoric.
The biggest challenge to Modi is internal: he has to break free from the party machine and the inner coterie he has surrounded himself with, and talk directly to party workers and ideological supporters, assuring them access now and in the future. This message is what will allow elements in Amit Shah’s party machine to bring voters enthusiastically to the booth. To his ideological fraternity, he has to assure them that his second term will include some elements of their agenda as well, as long as these are not negatively sectarian in nature.
Modi should stay on message, not depend on the party machine alone to deliver the voter. The missing M in Modi is the message, which has been confused and defensive so far, with the Prime Minister’s body language indicating anxiety and worry about his party’s prospects. The voter will vote as she will, but she should at least know that the PM has a message worth listening to.
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