On May 30, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi completed seven years in office and two years of his second term. As it happened, that was when the deadly second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic was at its height in India.
May was the cruellest month. The death toll was close to 120,000, with some 10 million new infections added in this month alone.
On the political front, after Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) bagged 77 seats in West Bengal to All India Trinamool Congress’s 213, all eyes are now on India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh (UP).
In the 2017 assembly polls, out of 403 seats at stake, the BJP, led by current Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, captured 312, defying all opinion polls. The state is slated to go to polls again in February 2022.
With a population of over 200 million, UP alone sends 80 out of 552 members to India’s Lok Sabha. It is the party with the majority in the Lok Sabha which rules India. Right now, out of these 80 seats, the BJP won 62. One-sixth of the members of the Lok Sabha come from UP and of the 303 MP’s that sit in the house from the BJP, one-fifth are from UP.
Electoral significance of Uttar Pradesh
Thus, UP’s contribution to the BJP’s victory at the centre exceeds its actual share of MPs. It is more than obvious, therefore, that retaining UP with healthy margins in the state elections is crucial to the BJP’s success in the 2024 general parliamentary elections.
Given these challenges, Modi@7 marks a watershed moment for the Prime Minister and his party.
The parameters by which the Modi administration will be judged by the people of India, not to mention the rest of the world, can be summed up in terms of four “Ps” — politics, pragmatics, performance, and perception. These parameters are mutually influencing.
Thus, perceptions will influence performance, which in turn will affect the pragmatics, leading the way of politics. On the other hand, politics will determine the pragmatics, which in turn will influence performance, which is bound to alter perceptions.
Politics is the art and craft of gaining power and retaining it. In the world’s largest democracy, it boils down to winning elections. Pragmatics includes all the thoughts and actions that go into this. But it also indicates necessary course corrections and practical steps needed to stay on top of the game.
Performance, very simply, is good governance. Yet, as the word suggests, how this governance is staged and communicated are equally important. Which takes us to perception, how all the previous factors impact the person on the ground, who will ultimately decide the fate of the government by casting his or her vote.
How has the Modi government fared on these four parameters while facing its most difficult challenge so far? The once-in-a-century pandemic, with its loss of lives and livelihoods, but the yet unresolved farmers’ agitation and other niggling trials such as the Central Vista controversy, not to mention the kerfuffle over big tech regulation in India, all threaten to dent the reputation and stature not only of the BJP, but of PM Modi himself.
First, let us consider perceptions. The international press has come out staunchly against the ruling regime. An analysis of the headlines and India reportage in the international media proves this.
The prejudice against India and Modi are well-known, but one might argue that better communication and media outreach could have made a difference. This ought to have been undertaken right from the start of the Modi 2.0, after being re-elected in 2019.
Modi, the communicator
To be fair, Modi has found a way to communicate directly with the people as no other Indian leader after Mahatma Gandhi. Not only with “Mann ki Baat,” his frequent address to the nation, but through a variety of other avenues, including social media, Modi has bypassed, if not broken the media stranglehold, on Indian politics. This is a good thing. But it has also led to consider resentment and negative reporting.
A better way might be to show greater accessibility and media outreach, even if not by Modi himself, then at least by his ministers. This is actually in evidence more recently, with Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union Minister for Law and Justice, Electronics and Information Technology, and Communications, forcefully conveying the government’s point of view to the mainstream press. But, arguably, much more is needed to repair the damage.
When it comes to governance, the Modi administration has always fared well. It met the challenge of the second wave head on. During the worst phase of the pandemic, the Prime Minister himself as well as his government, showed unprecedented resolve and action on all fronts.
Both testing and vaccinations were ramped up, with many new supply lines opening up for procuring vaccines. Oxygen shortage has also been practically overcome.
Modi also announced that the central government would procure vaccines, supplying them free of charge to the states. This put an end to the centre-state confusion and tussle over how vaccines would be procured and at what cost they would be sold to the states or private entities.
A food subsidy and direct cash transfer was announced for the worst affected. This is in addition to relief measures already in place.
This brings us to pragmatics and politics. Taken together, they require leaders to learn, adapt, and change in order to stay in power. The BJP is already expected to broad-base its leadership by expanding its central cabinet. Defections from, and alliances with, other parties have been managed.
This is happening with the induction of Jitin Prasada from the Congress into the BJP and renewing ties with Anupriya Patel of Apna Dal. Both may have an impact on the coming UP elections.
Great leaders in democracies not only centralise power, but they also redistribute or delegate it as and when required.
In a diverse, complex, decentralised society such as India, Modi would do well to build bipartisanship on select matters of national interest and also improve the media outreach of his government.
Politics and performance are already his forte. By paying more attention to pragmatics and perception, all four “Ps” might be covered. The result? Modi@7 can turn the tide.