FEW observers of Indian politics even some weeks back would have predicted this sudden shift in mood. The last State of the Nation survey had reconfirmed the continued popularity of the Narendra Modi-led regime three years plus into its rule. Simultaneously, the approval ratings of the prime minister continued to far outstrip that of his competitors. Much to the surprise of critics harping on the disruption and distress caused by first, the decision to impose a ban on cattle trade, soon followed by a drastic demonetization and subsequently, the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax regime seemed to have no impact on regime popularity, ref. the UP elections.
No longer does this understanding, and predictions about a BJP sweep in the next general election, appear as robust. The festive season, rather than bring cheer to the ruling party, has been marked by a growing spate of criticism, not merely from the political opposition but also from individuals and organizations which so far had been in the forefront of supporting the regime and its various policies, including the RSS sarsanghchalak, and the BJP affiliated mazdoor sangh and kisan union, together advising the government to urgently engage in course correction and address the suffering of vast sections in the informal sector, farmers, traders and small and medium enterprises.
The latest Reserve Bank of India report, confirming a significant slowdown in growth, sluggish business environment, the poor offtake of bank credit resulting from the inability of banks to trim unsustainable levels of non-performing assets and a deepening unemployment crisis came as another major blow. Suddenly, it is difficult for government spokespersons or their acolytes in the media to convincingly claim that all is well, or that the continuing infirmities are transient problems inherited from past Congress regimes.
Nothing captures this shift in mood better than the enthusiastic coverage of the criticism of the performance of the government by Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie. Mainstream media, both print and television, which earlier would have been reluctant to give space to these notables, played up their trenchant criticism of both ill-thought government policy and authoritarian operating style. Even more marked is the commentary on social media with Facebook posts, Twitter and WhatsApp flooded with jokes on the Modi-Shah duo. Evidently, fear about being singled out as a critic and subjected to vicious trolling if not official action has, at least for the moment, lost its sting. When the BJP president is forced to appeal to the faithful to not believe in social media, ironic since it was the use of this medium which helped the BJP win the perception battle, it does appear that the party has been forced on the back-foot.
There are other straws in the wind. In the past few months, the BJP affiliated students body, the ABVP, has lost student union elections in universities across the country, a clear signal that the youth, distressed by the non-creation of jobs and dysfunctional universities, is increasingly getting disenchanted, no longer willing to swallow promises of achche din. Suddenly, the Congress, so far down in the dumps and seemingly afflicted by a leadership crisis, is even winning elections. The margin of its victory in the Gurdaspur poll, a seat which the BJP had comfortably won in 2014, can no longer be dismissed as a one-off. More likely, it is signalling a shift in the electorate mood which might easily extend elsewhere. So too does the Congress victory in the Nanded municipal elections or in the Gujarat panchayat polls. Finally, note the cautiously warm reception accorded to Rahul Gandhi, so far dismissed as a pappu and a failed dynast, not merely on the Berkeley campus in the US but to his two Gujarat yatras in the run-up to the forthcoming elections to the state assembly.
None of the above imply that the BJP under the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah leadership is on the mat. Far too often they have shown the ability to wriggle out of a difficult situation. Both the formidable party organization and the leadership’s single-minded pursuit of power, willing to employ all strategies to ensure victory, demand that the opposition will need to work cohesively and deploy all its resources strategically if the battle is to be convincingly joined. Merely hoping that public anger and a shift in mood will prove sufficient would be a grave error of judgement. Nevertheless, for the first time, the regime appears somewhat vulnerable and that its hubris may cost it dearly.
How the Modi regime intends to confront the challenge is at the moment unclear. Expectation that Narendra Modi will re-invent himself and reach out to critics, both within and outside the fold, in order to cool tempers and forge a consensus seems unlikely. The greater fear is that the regime will more forcefully decide to pursue its current course in an effort to re-establish its dominance.
That indeed would be a tragedy.