The corporate world excels in “stretch targets”. The CEO sets an extremely high target — a pole vault height for a high jumper — for the top executives. These executives then give the middle managers their own stretch targets. Recently, at a meeting of party leaders, BJP president Amit Shah set a target of 360 seats for the 2019 general elections which look as stretched as pole vault height. This target is very much analogous to the corporate sector target. While a two-thirds majority in Parliament is hardly a “virgin peak” — it has been scaled five times in 16 general elections — BJP’s mission 360 is being seen with some disbelief and utter surprise.
It must be emphasised that PM Modi has repeatedly confounded analysts, who had dubbed 2014, for example, a “Mission Impossible” for the BJP but it was achieved with some ease. From that perspective, “Mission 360” may not be as unreasonable as it sounds. But dissonance on a variety of fronts — the sharp rise in fuel prices, the deepening agrarian crisis, lack of job creation, the echo of poorly implemented demonetisation and GST will cast a shadow over “Mission 360”.
Four summers ago when the BJP pitched for ‘Mission 272+’, it was termed a lofty goal by most political pundits and pollsters. But nobody could gauge the strong winds of anti-incumbency blowing at the time. The charisma of Modi got magnified on the blunders of UPA II, which had unleashed double-digit inflation along with the slowest growth of the decade in the last few years of its rule. The corruption charges at the high echelons of the government were flying thick and high every day. No doubt, the BJP breached the majority mark after 25 years of minority and coalition governments. However, Indian politics has yet to make a transition from coalitions to a one-party hegemony.
Barring a few by-polls recently where the BJP has been cornered by a united opposition, the BJP has been on a roll. In 2014, only seven States were under the BJP’s direct rule or through a coalition. Today, the BJP is ruling over 20 States. In the light of this surge, they have come up with a plan called ‘Mission 360‘. Shah played a crucial role in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, putting his best foot forward and winning 71 seats out of a total of 80 UP seats. This win led to Modi’s decision of appointing him as the party’s national president in July 2014. From then on, he has been an unstoppable force, winning the Legislative Assembly elections in Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, Haryana, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Northeast States.
Prima facie, it’s a tough challenge. In 2014, the BJP won more than 90% of the seats it contested in the Hindi belt and the west. It will be difficult to achieve this once more. In 2014, the BJP won 190 out of a total of 207 seats in nine States, including all seats in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Delhi and Uttarakhand. It can’t do any better in these four States. In Uttar Pradesh, it won a phenomenal 71 out of 80 seats. It may be difficult to hold on to this number. Even if there is no grand united opposition alliance, 71 is a hard number to defend. In 2014, the BJP won 27 out of the 29 seats in Madhya Pradesh, and 12 out of 14 in Chhattisgarh. Both States have had BJP governments for more than a decade and both these governments will be facing tough challenges from the Congress due to strong anti-incumbency.
On the positive side for the BJP, since 2014, the party has made deep inroads into the Northeast. It will definitely gain seats in the region. It may also raise its tally in Karnataka (17 out of 28 in 2014), Odisha (one out of 21), Maharashtra (28 out of 43), and Andhra Pradesh (two out of 25). Minority appeasement by the incumbents in Telangana and West Bengal will help the BJP, though more in Telangana than in the eastern State where Mamata Banerjee seems to be in command. In Bengal, BJP is now the principal opposition party; Congress and the Left Front have been decimated, as the results of the recent civic polls in the State indicated.
Setting a goal of winning 360 seats out of 543 is definitely ambitious. Though Shah and Modi have changed the entire paradigm of Indian politics, their 360-plus mission has left many people dumbstruck and many have dismissed it downright. Shah’s stated game plan is to focus on winnable seats and mitigate anti-incumbency in the BJP-ruled States. The unstated strategy involves dealing with the recent red-flagging of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s performance by none other than the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).
The record of the NDA governments has been vastly superior when it has come to fiscal prudence and inflation control. However, in a recent closed-door meeting of the RSS, frontal organisations like the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) severely criticised the government’s economic policies. The farmers’ agitations in Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh and Sikar in Rajasthan have highlighted the distress in the agrarian sector. The anti-corruption drive has evoked mixed reactions. While the vast majority was willing to buy the argument that demonetisation was aimed at curbing black money, the fact is also that it impacted the “clean” cash economy — a point that the RSS has highlighted openly. Demonetisation’s success in containing black money has been widely questioned.
Again, the complex system of taxation introduced by GST has left many small entrepreneurs floundering as they seek to comprehend and comply with shifting regulations. Things have not been helped by the lacunae in the GST software that is struggling to handle millions of tax claims and submissions. And while no major scams have erupted, complaints about unprecedented levels of corruption in regulatory agencies like the Income Tax Department and the Enforcement Directorate are rampant. As a result of the setbacks on the economic front, the very real fear that the BJP may be losing its vote base has been raised within the Sangh Parivar.
Traders have been hit by GST; farmers are crushed by debt and low prices of agricultural produce, youth are unable to find jobs. People have started questioning the government’s direction. The BKS has gone so far as to say that the Modi government has failed farmers.
The crucial difference between 2019 and 2004/2009 is that the Congress was not as weak as it is now and had an able leadership at the helm. Sonia Gandhi and her advisers put together a credible coalition to challenge the BJP. Today, the Congress has lost almost 5% of its core votes in 2014 which seems to have drifted away from the Congress. Rahul Gandhi as a leader does not inspire the confidence of these drifting voters to return in its fold. The Congress has lost the south; its success in 2004 and 2009 was based largely on undivided Andhra Pradesh. Also, Rahul Gandhi is not seen as a capable leader by his own party, much less the opposition as a whole. Whether tall regional leaders such as Sharad Pawar, Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Naveen Patnaik will accept his leadership is questionable, although not impossible. For the moment, however, the question of “Narendra Modi vs Who?” is still open, to the advantage of the BJP.
In 2019, as in 2004, alliances will be important. Although the BJP broke the numbers jinx in 2014 by getting the first simple majority in Parliament (282 of 543 seats) after 30 years, the election was a contest of pre-electoral alliances — the BJP-led NDA and the Congress-led UPA. Both formations featured strong regional players who came on board — and this is significant — before the elections, on the basis of seat-sharing arrangements.
The BJP’s steady growth since 1989 can be attributed only partly to mobilisation on ideological lines. Leveraging strategic alliances have played a critical role in the party’s trajectory. In 2014, it had 10 allies as opposed to six in 2009. Indeed, its loss in 2004 can be viewed in the light of the fact that the Congress had better alliances. While the space vacated by the Congress naturally offers the BJP an opportunity, regional sub-nationalism demands local-level alliances. In this respect, Tamil Nadu post-J Jayalalithaa is critical. The BJP seems inclined to forge an alliance with a united AIADMK, perhaps on the premise that the late leader’s vote base will accrue to anti-DMK forces. This could prove a do-or-die decision, as 39 seats are up for grabs. In Kerala, the RSS has been active for decades. BJP needs to build on that. However, West Bengal seems unassailable at the moment. Odisha is the only State that seems to offer fertile ground for growth.
To attain 360, the BJP has to increase its tally by 80 plus seats, or a full 30% from its current tally. Not long ago, the Congress increased its tally by a whopping 45% in 2009 general election over 2004 tally. But this was achieved on a stupendous nominal growth of 14% in the 2004-09 period in which Indian economy (real GDP) grew by more than 9% in three consecutive years. In contrast, Modi government seems to be trapped in NDA growth syndrome which is nothing but 10.6% nominal growth over the decade-long period of NDA rule. This growth metrics are below the trend line growth of 12% ever since independence and over 13% since the liberalisation began in 1991.
While the NDA government has managed fiscal deficits and inflation remarkably well, this is not true for Modi government in last 20 month after demonetisation. The economy has faced the twin whammy of a slowing growth and deflationary conditions in different parts of the economy. Alliance metrics have also been broken for the BJP’s discomfort in the last few years. While TDP has broken away, the Shiv Sena seems to be drifting away after getting a rough treatment by the current dispensation. The Modi-Shah duo seems to play on a sticky wicket, the growth and alliance metrics of which are under a cloud.
It is widely believed that Vajpayee lost 2004 election because BJP and Vajpayee focused too much on the middle-class metrics and ignored the underclass. It is said that the rural poor took the “India Shining” slogan as a personal affront and decided to teach the arrogant NDA a lesson by warming up to the Congress and its slogan ‘Congress ka haath, aam admi ka sath‘. That aside, Vajpayee-led BJP “wanted to break away from its branding as a ‘temple party'” and by shunning the mandir, it managed to alienate its core voters and RSS, VHP cadres in working for its electoral cause.
Modi has no plans of becoming another Vajpayee. He has made the second term in 2019 his top priority. And he is working assiduously towards that end. The Prime Minister has taken important lessons from NDA’s 2004 debacle. In the short term, for an economy that is overwhelmingly still agrarian and hopelessly dependent on monsoon, rights-based entitlements cannot be done away with. Modi came to power riding a reform agenda and promised to do away with the various social schemes of the UPA such as the NREGA or the MNREGA, but has taken a stunning U-turn since assuming office. From a right-of-centre spectrum, the BJP — as the Budget showed — has moved to a more centrist position. Arun Jaitley’s budget had a clear socialist slant and the stamp of Modi on it was clear. It explicitly focused on improving the situation in rural India and providing relief to the agricultural sector. The social spendings increased manifold. It was evident that ‘suit-boot ki sarkar‘ jibe had struck the psyche of the ruling fraternity. A series of recent steps indicate that the PM is unwilling to woo his core vote bank, the middle class, anymore. No doubt, the BJP has a new slogan which has more underclass slant than middle-class appeasement- ‘Saaf niyat, sahi vikas‘ has replaced ‘Shining India’ and ‘Sabka saath, sabka vikas‘.
The middle class has felt the heat of changing dynamics and Modi’s government priorities. New taxes have piled on the middle and upper class. The service tax rate increased from 12.36% to 15%, a 21.3% increase in first two years and then many services came under 18% under the GST regime. This makes everything from telephone bills to broadband internet, watching movies to eating out with families costlier. The NDA government has refused to pass on the windfall benefits of a crash in oil prices in global markets with a variety of taxes and cesses. At least in the medium to short term, it is quite evident that Modi is focusing on the underclass and ramping up social spending. And in doing so, he is levying a plethora of taxes at the risk of antagonizing the middle class. Modi’s friction with the middle class has gone beyond ‘tax terrorism’.
As if attacking India’s institutions and appointing mediocre political stooges like Pahlaj Nihalani and Gajendra Chauhan wasn’t enough, Modi’s handling of l’affaire Raghuram Rajan has angered the middle class even further. In the run-up to 2014 election, Modi had branded himself as the champion of a neo-liberal middle class. But his policy directions over the last four years prove that he has no dogmatic belief in any ideology. He is rather a pragmatist, solely focussed on getting re-elected in 2019.
Modi was largely successful in creating an illusion that demonetisation will benefit the masses and reaped big windfall benefits in terms of a two-thirds majority in Uttar Pradesh Assembly poll. This was nothing but India Gandhi’s Garibi Hatao moment for Narendra Modi. Anti-black money narratives had definitely occupied the centrestage of the country’s political discourse, but it has petered out in last 20 months as the negatives of demonetisation is getting reflected in agrarian crisis and slow down in the economy. If Modi has to succeed in his Mission 360, the BJP needs to quickly search ‘demonetisation’/’Garibi hatao‘ type narrative, which can help the party in not only retaining what it got in 2014 but win new votes. The division of OBC may consolidate some votes in the lower strata of that group of castes, but it can’t be a big enough narrative.
Muslims have the second largest vote bank. No political party can ignore them. If the BJP has to win a two-thirds majority in 2019, it can’t ignore the vote-bank completely. The polarisation may benefit it in many parts of India and hardline Hindutva forces may rally behind Modi, but it will lose sizeable voters who support the BJP for being centrist in its approach. Shia Muslims had already started supporting the BJP even before the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Now, their support is paying dividends. Though Modi has been soft on the nuisances of ultra-right wing, he has focussed on the developmental issues in his speeches. This is definitely a big positive for the BJP media managers who will look to project him as a mascot of development. Modi can’t win the next elections with a comfortable majority without having a right narrative. BJP’s new slogan ‘Saaf niyat, sahi vikas‘ has that connotation.
Though Arun Jaitley will present his last Budget for a lame duck government in January 2019, he will have one more opportunity to assuage its middle class and business fraternities with future bonanzas in terms of tax concessions. The world is moving towards lower corporate taxes and this government can take a leaf out of the worldwide trend. The government should also think of simplifying IT and service taxes by reducing/removing slabs and exemptions which can help the government in lowering the rates. Simplified taxation will definitely have buoyancy and it may also bring back middle class in its fold with greater vigour.
While opposition also has no coherent narrative and remains stuck in its “secular” speechifying, the idea of the grand alliance is gaining currency. The coming together of the SP and BSP in the most crucial State of Uttar Pradesh may spell doom for the BJP’s Lutyen’s journey. The Congress-JDS may also give a dent to BJP in the swing State of Karnataka. However, the Modi-Shah combine is an election-winning machine and that machine can never be underestimated. They will definitely face a more united opposition in 2019 and they are also on a sticky wicket due to weaker growth metrics. The slogan of Achche Din has been dumped for now. However, a day is a long time in politics. Anything can happen in the next 365 days. The pendulum could swing either way.