In this interim period where we are done with PM Modi’s first tenure and are awaiting for the launch of his second, here is an opinion on the last five years.
We have now successfully put Modi 1.0 behind us, and while we can grab some popcorn (or a tissue) at the interval, it might be a good idea to also reflect on the last five years — in terms of the political discourse, the opposition parties and of course, the ruling dispensation.
The Political Discourse
First, a standout trait of this period was that the level of political discourse attained an all-time high quantitatively, but an all-time low qualitatively. Without using labels (especially because very few labels have held on to former definitions), both sides of the political divide had a lot to say but mostly spoke past each other.
If family WhatsApp groups and Facebook feeds could be taken as indicators (they were likely catalysts too), then India successfully switched gears from apathy towards politics to a lot more opinion and enthusiasm. However, the two sides rarely engaged to seek middle ground and were mostly preoccupied with increasing the decibel levels of their respective echo chambers.
While this British football fan behavior might be excusable for a democracy in its late adolescence, one hopes that the next five years see more maturity in the engagement between opposing views and a lot more space for nuance in the discourse.
The Opposition Parties
Second, the opposition parties. Down to an all-time low vote share of 19.5 per cent in 2014 and a party figurehead that the nation called ‘Pappu’, the Congress had its back to the wall from the word go. They were in the unenviable position of having to compete against a ruthlessly efficient and resource-rich BJP, and having to collaborate with a bunch of insecure regional political parties.
Rahul Gandhi tried valiantly to find his feet first, and then his voice, but the turnaround in his party's fortunes was simply not to be. The Congress ended the 2019 elections in shambles, with an identical vote share from five years ago, and aspirational India simply did not find the Congress' narrative (or narrators) compelling. Free advice for the Congress Working Committee is not in short supply, but one hopes the country's primary national opposition party moves beyond mere introspection and goes through the necessary churn to come back stronger (or, as Yogendra Yadav would wish, die and get out of the way).
Almost perversely, one of the positive aspects of the 2019 elections was that very few regional parties were able to reap benefits by catering to traditional vote-banks (the DMK and YSRCP gains had a lot to do with anti-incumbency). The BSP, SP, JD(S) and the Trinamool Congress, all ended up punching below their weights, and the quasi-regional CPI(M) is almost on the brink of irrelevancy.
However, the AAP's phenomenal success in the 2015 Delhi Assembly elections might still be the best blueprint available for regional parties to compete against a far better resourced BJP. The AAP stopped the BJP in its tracks in Delhi with a fresh narrative, local focus, on-ground hustle and a dash of realpolitik. While this might be harder for a more traditional political party to pull off (or even for the AAP to pull off at a larger scale), the dwindling impact of vote-bank politics means that reinvention is now a necessity. The aspirational youth vote will only increase in importance, and a lot of these regional parties (barring a few exceptions) will have to change their tune to start resonating.
The Ruling Dispensation
Finally, the ruling BJP dispensation. Modi 1.0 started off amid a lot of hope and trepidation at the same time, both justifiably so. It can certainly be argued that there was a honeymoon period for the first year or so, with initiatives around cleanliness, financial inclusion and foreign policy appearing promising. The charisma of the man was on full display, and an enduring memory of the period was his rockstar-like reception at the Madison Square Garden.
Then, demonetization happened and was quickly followed by the appointment of Yogi Adityanath as UP Chief Minister. Both these events, along with a growing narrative about cow vigilante violence, forced the fence-sitters and also some Modi fans to take closer notice at what was really happening.
It turned out that India's purported reformer-in-chief was neither as imaginative nor as effective when it came to delivering positive economic impact. Although infrastructure investments, a few last-mile delivery projects and the Insolvency & Bankruptcy Code were all positives, the overall handling of the economy was a far cry from the "Achche Din" promises.
The government's propensity to grossly exaggerate their achievements, their ineffectiveness in pushing ahead with GDP (and jobs) growth, their alleged manipulation of official data and seemingly authoritarian tendencies all made Modi 1.0 an underwhelming journey. To the consternation of neutrals, the 2019 election campaign was fought on a plank of national security bluster and polarization (capped off by the nomination of Sadhvi Pragya as the party's candidate from Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh).
However, there were bright sparks. Ministers like Nitin Gadkari and Piyush Goyal showed a rare combination of vision, ownership and execution, and Prime Minister Modi periodically demonstrated genuine intent that reflected in his approval ratings. Significantly, big ticket corruption was conspicuous by its absence.
While strategic foreign policy efforts did not follow early promise, the common man still made note of softer touches such as the UN declaration of International Yoga Day, or harder ones such as India's responses to cross-border terrorism (a departure from the verbal-only responses of the recent past).
An underappreciated point was that, while this government might have been guilty of taking nationalism for a walk too far right, it is still to its credit that it was the first central government in recent memory to bring nationalism as a topic back on the table (think of how 1 crore Indians gave up free LPG subsidies because of the PM's pitch).
It has been an eventful 5 years, but unlike in 2014, we can now enter Modi 2.0 with calibrated expectations and a clearer sense of what can go wrong. On the cusp of turning 72, it is probably also time that the world's largest democracy grows out of a jaunty and bipolar adolescence into a wiser and more mature adulthood with plenty of room for dialogue.