Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation on 31 December 2016 has left a big section of the BJP’s core support base — the middle class — disillusioned. This was not the first time he or his party invoked the names of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Rammanohar Lohia or Jayaprakash Narayan, though. On several occasions in the past, BJP MPs have fallen over each other on the issue of socialism to establish in parliamentary debates that they are no less in awe of the Indian socialist giants than their rivals in the SP, JD(U) or RJD. The difference yesterday was that this government has finally run out of time. For two-and-a-half years, the middle class that had voted for him overwhelmingly in 2014 had been waiting patiently for something to come their way. But all that they heard in every speech by Modi was tributes to the holy cow called “ghareeb aadmi” (the poor).
It is not that the middle class has any problems with the rise of the poor. In fact, it’s the only class that thinks beyond itself and wishes to see riches all around the country, especially with its poor citizens uplifted from penury. But they never had the wherewithal to reach out to the poor to explain to them how socialism, doles and freebies have taken them for a ride all these 70 years of independence. If there was one man who could have communicated this essential message to the poor, it was Narendra Damodardas Modi.
Modi was fortunate to inherit an India as its prime minister that was ready to eat out of his hands. In a marked departure from the convention of prime minister’s address to the nation from the ramparts of Red Fort, Modi delivered extempore speeches — sometimes exhorting the people to treat their daughters fairly and sometimes telling them they must keep their neighbourhoods clean. His followers listened to him with rapt attention, lapped up all that he said as gospel and appreciated the fact that here was a premier who sufficed as a social reformer. He could have used the opportunity to impart to the poor the essential education of economics that there is no such thing as a free lunch.
A great opportunity arrived when, as a continuation of the ‘Modi wave’, more than 11 crore Indians joined the BJP as primary members. There were thousands among them who could have been funded by the rich party, trained and divided into small groups of economic educators, and sent to villages and urban slums. There, the educators could tell the poor that their best chance lay in a business environment without barriers where they would raise themselves rather than expect the state to send them benefits on the one hand and, to finance the welfare schemes, raise the cost of commodities and services through taxation on the other.
But after the stupendous failure of the ‘Make in India’ programme — where the Ambanis, Kochhars, Godrejes, Birlas, Premjis, etc made the hollow promise of generating jobs in lakhs in September 2014, which they couldn’t deliver upon till 2016-end — Modi chose to turn Keynesian. He forgot his statement of 2013 that “the government has no business to be in business”. More glaringly, he brushed aside his 2014 poll promise of “minimum government, maximum governance”. He poured in crores of crores worth public investment, only to leave people wondering when they would finally realise the fruits thereof.
Three Budget proposals by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley passed in the meantime, from which all we have got is further funding of failed UPA schemes, P Chidambaram-like cess and service tax and some pittance in the name of relief in income tax. And now Modi announces Arvind Kejriwal-like subsidies for housing! Did the prime minister hit upon the AAP idea that the best way of wiping out the opposition was an appropriation of their agenda — the way Kejriwal did in Delhi to obliterate the Indian National Congress?
That would be a gross miscalculation for Uttar Pradesh — if that was the thinking that fashioned his speech yesterday. Unlike the poor of Delhi, who are slum-based, the poor of Uttar Pradesh are mostly villagers and inhabitants of small towns; they also cohabit with the middle class in cities like Lucknow, Allahabad, Kanpur, Ghaziabad, Varanasi, etc. They are not a monolith unlike the dwellers of Delhi’s slums. The Congress is hardly the party they vote. They have been switching their votes from the SP to the BSP and back — not necessarily for socialistic reasons.
Modi should have learnt this lesson from Bihar where his announcements of Rs 50,000 crore to Rs 1 lakh crore worth of central “package” failed to impress the average Bihari. If he is trying more of the same failed plan, it can mean only one thing: He has run out of ideas. There is nothing beyond socialistic taxation and communistic compliance by the proletariat he knows of. But that was not the Modi Gujarat knew for 13 odd years. Gujarat is, however, the State whose memory is misleading him as much as it was once his greatest claim to fame.
After singing paeans to the ghareeb aadmi ad nauseam, of late Modi has started giving the madhyam varg (middle class) a passing mention in his speeches. But who comprise the middle class according to him? It’s not the salaried people. Immediately after spelling out “madhyam varg”, Modi gives examples of small-time traders. This is the Gujarat hangover. He has forgotten that this is not what the rest of India understands of the term “middle class”.
So, here we are, with a 4% waiver on home loans of up to Rs 9 lakh, 3% off on home loans of up to Rs 12 lakh, Rs 6,000 maternity assistance to pregnant women, 8% lock on interest for deposits of up to Rs 7.5 lakh by senior citizens and a Rs 20,000 crore hike in the NABARD fund. The neglected middle class promptly made a joke out of it on social media: that the only person who would be happy with this speech was a 65-year-old, homeless, woman farmer who happened to be pregnant! Even known supporters of Modi-led BJP relished the joke, posted it on Facebook and Twitter and forwarded it to friends via WhatsApp in gay abandon — so put off the entire middle class is by Modi’s latest announcements.
They are frustrated also for the reason that any economic policy initiative takes years to bear fruits. If Modi missed the opportunity yesterday, the track record of caution that Jaitley has betrayed for 3 years does not inspire the confidence that there is a package waiting for the middle class in the Budget speech to be delivered after a month. This implies that by 2019, this section of the electorate will hit the polling booths having seen no palpable change in their struggling lives. Of course, the Seventh Pay Commission has arrived. But the government sector is just a minuscule section of the salaried population.
How impressed the poor will be by Modi’s offer of affordable housing is another important question. The low cost of living in slums and commuting from there to the respective workplaces keep their daily wages low. As and when a poor man has moved to a well-built house, he has had to leave his daily-wage profession as the cost-benefit analysis did not work out to his favour. This is why many of them return to the slums soon. And this is why they have turned into vote-banks of parties whose governments assured them that their slums would not be demolished.
Finally, if Modi has turned an avowed socialist, how politically disastrous this could turn out to be must be explained to him through mathematics. He perhaps wouldn’t appreciate the awful economics of deficit financing that entails robbing Ram to pay Shyam. Modi had won 282 seats, enjoying a 31-odd percentage of vote-share in 2014. In pockets that witnessed a sweep, Delhi for example, the percentage was as high as 43. Swayamsevaks of the RSS constituted a big fraction of it; they do not vote other parties anyway. The second largest fraction was an upbeat middle class that had been bowled over by the Gujarat model. The third and smallest part comprised fence-sitters, turncoats, disgruntled supporters of other parties and the poor — let down by socialists — who were in a mood to experiment with capitalism. It is this last section that Modi is apparently trying to woo and swell.
Any activist who has worked in the grime and dust of slums and villages can tell that the poor are forever anti-incumbent. Live in their midst and tell them, “The government has done nothing for you,” whatever be the government you are referring to. The whole audience will lap it up. It is not their fault. They have been brought up with the notion that benefits must reach their doorsteps free of costs and they have never been told that the costs are all hidden and indirect. This temperament and misleading education make them experiment with a different party in successive elections. While this musical chair-like approach to elections makes Indian democracy dynamic, it pushes all parties to populism.
Now, neither the Sangh nor the middle class needs to turn anti-Modi to ensure his fall in 2019. The 2004 poll is lesson enough to know that all that these two electoral groups need to do is turn indifferent. The Parivar had by and large got the impression that Atal Bihari Vajpayee was another Muslim appeaser. In the middle class, every other voter believed his or her neighbour would ensure that Vajpayee would continue in power. They took the day off in the sweltering heat of that crucial date of April. The Congress got a mere 6 seats more than the BJP, and yet it managed to form the next government.
Modi cannot seek solace from the fact that 2004 is too far back in history. In 2015, Bihar saw a turnout of less than 60% and the BJP fell flat on its face. In its entire history, this party has seldom won when the voter turnout was low.
A rough estimate suggests that 20% of Hindus are affiliated to the Sangh. Even in the humiliating defeat in Delhi’s Assembly elections, the BJP ensured that its vote-share did not go below 33%, which has roughly been its constant tally through the 5 unsuccessful bids at office — 1998, 2003, 2008, 2013 and 2015. This means that the middle class that has stayed loyal to it gave it 13% additional votes, as the poor earlier voted for the Congress and now vote for the AAP. If 10% of the votes had come from the poor in the Lok Sabha elections, their anti-incumbent attitude has already been explained. Modi must, therefore, be asked if the Sangh has seen him do nothing for Hindutva, if he has done nothing for the larger middle class that works in offices rather than run shops, and if the additional votes he got in 2014 are fickle in nature, on whose votes is he winning 2019? What kind of a wisdom is it to ignore 20% plus 13% assured votes and chase an elusive 10% in a bid to inflate it?
Maybe the Congress is set to be led by a middle-aged ‘youth icon’ whom nobody takes seriously; maybe the Yadav family of the SP, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her Delhi counterpart Kejriwal have lost the gravitas required to be a prime ministerial candidate by indulging in mindless theatrics, and so Modi gets a walkover. But andhon men kana raja (a one-eyed hero among the blind) is an unenviable compliment.
The rank and file of the BJP realise the mistake for sure. But the duo of Modi and Amit Shah has been so domineering that they fear registering a dissent note. Here is an anecdote by some of the several pro-BJP journalists who joined the government after it swore into office in 2014. A meeting of the party’s thinking heads is normally a noisy affair as every leader is highly opinionated. On different occasions, these journalists say, as they passed by a hall where such a meeting was being held, they found all the leaders sitting uneasily but quietly as Shah, the party president, spoke.
These uncomfortable leaders start murmuring their protests when the BJP fails in an election. That is when Modi asks Shah to withdraw a bit. Roughly a year ago, I had explained how it happened in the case of selection of State heads post-Bihar fiasco. Such a scenario stares in the face of the BJP again as winning Uttar Pradesh is an uphill task. With a lot of effort to entice Dalits and OBCs, its mediocre tally in previous elections may move up to 100 — more so because Mayawati’s BSP looks badly hit by demonetisation. Yet, because Uttar Pradesh follows an alternate cycle, she has got a chance. If the intra-Yadav feud costs the SP government dear, the clean image of Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav may salvage the situation to a great extent. Notably, he has silenced the media by, in effect, bribing the owners with crores worth of State government advertisements and thus maintained his ‘Mr Clean’ image to blunt Modi’s anti-corruption campaign.
Let’s, therefore, give both the SP and BSP 100 seats each. How the remaining 100 odd seats get distributed would obviously decide the next government in the State. Can the BJP get all of it? Slim chance! And it is not even trying its luck for a continuation of the coalition government with the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab.
After the Delhi rout, a frustrated BJP leader had confided in me in the guest room of a television studio, “Party ke liye bura hua, par desh ke liye achchha hua; inko bahut ahankar ho gaya tha (this defeat was bad for the party but good for the country; our leaders had turned too egotistical).” With the impossibility of winning over the varied and self-respecting poor of Uttar Pradesh using doles, the BJP may well not be able to make it in the State. It is then that the dissenters will erupt. The party’s defeat in Uttar Pradesh will be good for the country if Modi abandons socialism by taking the right lesson from the drubbing.