Prime Minister Narendra Modi chairs a high-level meeting
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi chairs a high-level meeting to assess the progress of the Gaganyaan Mission and to outline the future of India’s space exploration endeavours, in New Delhi on Tuesday. Image Credit: ANI

When the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a second consecutive term to run India’s national government in 2019, it went for the Hindu nationalist agenda with gusto.

The removal of Article 370 in Kashmir and clearing the decks for the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhaya came in quick succession. A big move, the Citizenship Amendment Act, had to be put in abeyance after protests.

What was the hurry to do these things one after the other? With the benefit of hindsight it is clear they wanted to get the ideological agenda out of the way to focus on economy, nationalism and welfare.

The Covid pandemic did not really derail this plan, as it provided the perfect opportunity to focus on much-needed economic reforms as the public discourse was busy with Covid.

These reforms included reducing the corporate tax rate, abolishing a regressive retrospective tax law, and liberalising labour laws in BJP-ruled states.

A long-desired privatisation of national carrier Air India was achieved. However, one bold move, privatisation of agricultural procurement, had to be withdrawn after protests.

These boxes ticked, attention was drawn to nationalism, with G20 posters across India giving it a sense of public participation.

PM Modi’s keen interest in foreign policy has been cleverly used for a domestic political narrative that he is raising India’s stature on the global stage. Managing to steer the G20 summit to issue a bare minimum consensus declaration was a massive achievement in light of the Ukraine war.

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The Covid interlude

Apart from the personal charisma and the powerful oratory, Modi’s popularity rests on three substantial narratives: Hindu nationalism, Indian nationalism and welfare delivery.

The last of these has been missing so far. There was very little relief given to the masses in the hardship of Covid, with the fear that putting money directly in people’s hands would make inflation unmanageable. In retrospect, the calculation has been borne out as Covid has receded.

Inflation has been hovering around the upper tolerance limit of 6% — and is no doubt a matter of concern for the masses in the way that it wasn’t in Modi’s first term (2014-19). Inflation in the first world tells us how bad it could have been in India if the government had been more generous with cash transfers in 2020-21.

That said, the time for welfare is now, with the Lok Sabha elections just about 4-5 months away.

Since public memory is short, welfare schemes are best done just before elections. This helps only if the general political sentiment is managed well for 5 years, between ups and downs.

That the BJP takes care of, at least at the national level, even if it doesn’t always succeed in doing so at the state level (like Karnataka for example). If you don’t let anti-incumbency set in, welfarism at the fag end does the trick.

First day of February

Credit for the BJP’s stupendous victory in 2019 Lok Sabha elections is given usually to the Balakot skirmish with Pakistan (which raised the nationalist pitch), but the BJP also addressed headwinds such as the disenchantment of small farmers.

The election-year “interim” budget on 1 February 2019 introduced the “PM-Kisan” scheme that would transfer Rs6,000 a year into the bank accounts of small farmers. The amount would be given out in three annual instalments, the first of which reached people before the elections itself.

It would be surprising if similar welfare measures are not announced in the interim budget on 1 February 2024. That would complete the Modi campaign trifecta of Hindutva, nationalism and welfare.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi offers prayers at Parvati Kund in Pithoragarh earlier this month

However, the welfare pitch has already started, with an eye on specific communities. The government has already enacted a historic women’s reservations law to reserve 33% seats for women in Parliament and state legislatures. Even if it will come into force only in 2029 or much later, the move is bound to impress women voters, who are emerging as an independent interest group.

In his Independence Day speech on 15 August this year, PM Modi announced a new scheme, PM Vishwakarma. It is mostly a scheme to give easy loans to artisans and craftsmen. The scheme will impress landless, poor OBCs who are part of the key swing voter group for the BJP.

These are communities most likely to shift electoral allegiance due to economic reasons. Whether or not artisans avail it, the scheme may impress them that the government is thinking about them.

Central government advertising across India has shifted from G20 to women’s reservation and PM Vishwakarma. The transition of campaign imperatives from nationalism to welfare can be seen visually in India’s cities.

Pre-empting December in November

There is the issue of the state election results in December first week. The BJP is likely to lose Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh in the Hindi heartland, and is unlikely to displace the Congress as the main opposition party in Telangana. In Mizoram the ruling party is keeping its distance from the BJP.

While the December results have been historically proven not have any direct co-relation with Lok Sabha elections, they do affect the overall political sentiment. Winning only Rajasthan out of the 5 states that poll in December may affect the BJP’s perception of invincibility.

The anxieties of December are being addressed in advance in November. The government is launching an all-India publicity campaign to showcase 9 years of Modi government’s achievements.

Called the “Viksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra”, its dates are quite strategic. The campaign begins 20 November, after polling in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh but before Rajasthan. The campaign will end on 25 January 2024, one day before Republic Day and about a week before the interim budget.

This Yatra will consolidate the BJP’s political gains and shift focus from state politics to national. The 1 February budget will neatly complete Modi’s agenda for his second term. Like all good storytelling, the sense of a neat ending will be important.