Politics

To Win In 2019, Modi Will Have To Reinvent Himself In A New Avatar

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via GettyImages) 
Snapshot
  • The promises made in 2014 need to be addressed in 2019, even if there are some misses.

    Here’s how Modi can bring his failures up and mention what he is doing about them.

That the 2019 Lok Sabha election is now wide open is obvious. That the opposition will mount a serious challenge to Narendra Modi is certain. That the Modi government has not delivered great economic performance is disputed, but few economists disagree that growth and jobs are an issue.

While the opposition will be in denial, there is also little doubt that Modi is Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) trump card. It is this simple issue that will turn the election in the BJP’s and National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA’s) favour, and if Amit Shah and Modi do not get this part of the messaging right, they will face a serious setback in 2019, even if that does not amount to defeat.

If one were to look back at Modi’s career from his days as Gujarat chief minister to 2014, one fact stands out: he has reinvented himself every five years. In 2002, he was the Hindutva icon. In 2007, he was the Gujarat growth tiger, the “Chhappan ki chati” strongman; in 2012, he was the most business-friendly CM in the country, over whom the foreign media drooled. In 2014, he modified this development image to take the BJP to the Left of Centre, reinventing himself as the messiah of the poor with the slogan Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas.

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There is little doubt that in 2019 Modi will have to reinvent himself again. In 2014, he promised “achche din”, and Indians bought the story in large numbers; in 2019, he will be judged against that promise. He has delivered in spades in some areas (Jan Dhan inclusive banking, direct benefits transfers to the poor, extension of power and gas connections to almost every household); he has even delivered what economists and business were baying for (fiscal prudence, low inflation, higher tax revenues, a bankruptcy code and the transformative goods and services tax or GST).

The overall sense, though, is that something is missing. There is rural anger over low farm wages and product prices; there is urban dissatisfaction over weak jobs and incomes growth; and the BJP’s original base – the trading community – is boiling mad over GST and what it is forcing them to do. Elsewhere, the pursuit of higher tax revenues has brought back memories of “tax terrorism”, though how much of this is needless harassment of assessees and how much is merely the pressure to comply with tax regulations is debatable. For those unused to paying taxes, merely expecting compliance may look like terrorism.

But in an electoral democracy, an issue is an issue, even if economists and the party in power may believe it is not real. This means Modi has to address the issues raised directly, and not by pretending they don’t exist. You may be convinced that you have saaf niyat (best intentions), and are doing sahi vikas (the right development), but your electorate may not be fully convinced.

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Acknowledging an issue, and promising to deal with it better the next time, admitting a mistake and hoping to correct it, mentioning your achievements, but with humility, and illustrating what you have done in terms that the voter can understand are the essence of good political communication. Instead, what we saw in the recent assembly election campaign was criticism of what the Congress didn’t do in six decades, abuse of the Gandhi dynasty and the corruption, and repeated mentions of Modi’s own humble origins. These are not real issues, though they may form part of your polemics.

Now, under pressure from Rahul Gandhi and the opposition to take more disastrous decisions like a central farm loan waiver, Modi is being pushed to a corner, and will lose either way: if he gives in and offers large freebies, he will destroy the fiscal rectitude he has worked so hard to build; and if he doesn’t, he will be seen as anti-farmer.

The electorate knows all this, and does not need reminding. What it needs is a reassurance that the visible failures that the opposition is pointing to will be handled better the next time.

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In short, a lot depends on how Modi actually talks about his 2014 promises, and how he will address them after 2019, if not already addressed. Additionally, the voter would like to see Modi in a different avatar, not as someone who can solve all problems of India, but as someone who is willing to try hard, and learn from even his failures. If this is guaranteed, few voters will give up on Modi. Arvind Kejriwal goofed up in 2014 when he resigned prematurely as Delhi CM, making the city-state’s voters angry and betrayed, but in 2015 he came roaring back by merely apologising for his mistake.

The promises made in 2014 need to be addressed in 2019, even if there are some misses. The same is the case with the opposition’s allegations against him – including corruption in the Rafale deal, or that he favours big businessmen, etc.

Here’s how Modi can bring his failures up and mention what he is doing about them.

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1. The jobs deficit: He can list the kinds of jobs that are already visible (in logistics, beauty parlours, education, health, small urban services, etc). He could point out that when old laws are preventing job creation, creating more worthwhile jobs is taking time. He can point to the reforms in the Apprentices Act, fixed-term labour contracts, and subventions in social security contributions to encourage employers to take on more labour as initiatives that will deliver in due course.

2. Promise of bringing back black money. It doesn’t matter if the voter believes that Modi promised them Rs 15 lakh or Rs 5,000. All Modi needs to do is show he made the effort and it is slowly paying off. He can list the amounts actually collected from three black money schemes – the foreign assets amnesty scheme of 2015, the domestic amnesty scheme of 2016, the PM Garib Kalyan Yojana announced during demonetisation, and the extra taxes collected from previously undisclosed income. He can mention that it all adds up to so many thousand crores. And he can also say where the money went – to Ujjwala, or providing last-mile electricity connections to distant households, or any pro-poor scheme. He needs to add that getting money back is a long-term exercise, since it involves foreign governments, and this will happen steadily if they elect him again. Or else the crooks will take over.

3. The Ambani-Adani canard, or that he is all about big business. The Modi communication needs to be very clear that he has brought loan defaulters and business crooks to book. He can show that Anil Ambani has actually lost his telecom business, and so have the Tatas. The Ruias, Jaiprakash group, GMR, GVK, and the rest have all had to give up their promising businesses due to loan defaults – something that never happened under the Congress. He can also show how the businesses of absconders like Vijay Mallya are being frozen in India, and thus no one can evade the law. He can also point out that the United Progressive Alliance wanted to pay $8 per mmBtu for Mukesh Ambani’s gas, but the actual price under NDA is much lower. This is, of course, bad economics – for government to fix the price of gas – but politically it will play out well.

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4. The downside of demonetisation and GST. Modi needs to acknowledge the pain the rural and urban economy and the poor have gone through, but he can mention that the payoff will be in the medium term, as more people pay taxes, and the government can invest more to create social safety nets. He can suggest that schemes like Ayushman Bharat were essentially possible only because of higher direct tax collections.

5. Farm loan waivers. Modi should point out that most states have already offered waivers and asking for one more from the Centre is not just unaffordable but damaging to farmers. He can point out that when farmers stop paying loans, banks will stop lending to them. And if more money is spent on loan waivers, there will be less in the sarkari khazana to pay for roads, cold storages, procurement, crop insurance subsidies, etc. While it is popular to give freebies, the Indian voter is sensible enough to understand that a politician telling them the truth is worth more than someone promising them the moon.

6. Privatisation: Modi and the BJP communication should point out how Air India is gobbling Rs 30,000 crore of taxpayer money just to keep a few thousand people in high-wage employment? He can point out how this money can create 10 times more jobs for the poor if Air India is sold. This will take the story of privatisation out of the economists’ wish-list to the voter’s level of understanding, which is what makes for good politics and good economics.

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One can go on and on, but we can stop at this point and ask how Modi can reinvent himself and his message for 2019?

The answer lies in one part of the slogan – Saaf Niyat – which the voter is already willing to believe. Few people believe that Modi is corrupt, never mind that Chowkidar Chor hai is the opposition war-cry. If Modi additionally says he is not going to promise them the moon, they will find this even more believable. What he has to convince them about is the vikas that will come in the second term.

A counter-intuitive thought: it is presumed that the voter wants only freebies. Isn’t it time for Modi to try the Kennedy line: ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for the country. If Modi asks the voter what can you do for the country, even while he does something for them, the focus will shift from freebies to good economics. It will drive down voter cynicism and build trust in politicians.

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Maybe, the right tagline to follow the Saaf Niyat, Sahi Vikas motto is this simple exhortation: Chalo, Desh ke liye kuch karein. (Let’s do something for the country). Or Chalo, Ab Desh Ki Sochein (Let’s think about the country). The message is we will do what is needed for vikas, but the voter needs to do her bit.

Politicians ought not to be so cynical as to believe that voters have no higher motives than meeting their own selfish needs.

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