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Why Modi swept while Vajpayee wept

Voters did not hold the PM to his promise of ‘Achhe Din’ in 2019. But in 2024, they will

May 23, 2019, 11.52 PM IST
While Modi delivered the macro wave, Shah delivered the tailwind and last mile.
R Jagannathan

The right place to begin an assessment of the return of Modi Sarkar to power in 2019 with a bang is 2004. Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost the 2004 elections by delivering more than he promised. Narendra Modi also delivered a lot, but a lot less than what he promised. Why did the voter not hold him to the promise of ‘Achhe din?’

The vital difference, the probable X factor that led to defeat in 2004 and victory in 2019, is clearly not the economy, stupid. It was the silent consolidation of the Hindu vote in many northern, western and eastern states, a kind of protest vote against the Hinduphobic narrative building against Modi and BJP during the last five years. This is why nobody saw — or didn’t want to see — the wave.

But there were two other factors, call then M and S: under the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah dispensation, the party has developed a take-no-prisoners attitude to politics, leading to an insatiable will to win. From Modi’s oratory and propoor schemes to Shah’s ability to convert every possible potential voter into a committed finger pressing the lotus symbol on the EVM button, they leave nothing to chance. This is why despite the economic chinks in their armour, they were able to prod the voter into thinking about the other reasons to vote for Modi.

While Modi delivered the macro wave, Shah delivered the tailwind and last mile. It is an established rule in Indian politics that the voter is not unidimensional in her decision-making process. Development and freebies are good to have, but a party has to get many more things right — from candidate selection to caste and religion — before he gets the voter into the booth. This implies that failure or success on any one parameter — including development — is not good enough to lose or win you an election, as long as you get several other boxes ticked in your favour.

If the economy does not work for you, try Balakot, nationalism, caste or community consolidation techniques. The third reason why Modi and Shah romped home was the Opposition’s death wish. The Opposition’s best hope was to shift focus to issues like jobs and local pain points, thus converting the election into 543 mini contests and not one national one. But by repeatedly stating that their only goal was to get rid of Modi, they effectively played to the latter’s strength.

Modi could, thus, neatly categorise the mahagathbandhan as mahamilavat, devoid of any positive goal beyond removing him from power. The mahagathbandhan’s efforts to ride to victory on the shoulders of the minorities gave enough reason for Modi partisans to polarise and create a counter-consolidation of votes.

So why didn’t the faltering economy matter to voters? Why didn’t the hullabaloo over the Rafale deal not swing any votes in favour of Modi’s rivals? Why did farm distress and jobs not matter enough to tilt the vote against NDA?

The answer lies in two things Modi did: one was to spread his anti-poor benefits far and wide, where almost every household was touched by at least one of his schemes. From Jan Dhan to Ujjwala to Ayushman Bharat to Swachh Bharat to Saubhagya to PM-Kisan Samman Nidhi and his tax breaks for the middle-class in the interim budget, Modi’s schemes were impossible to miss.

The actual benefits may have been minuscule at the individual level, and many schemes actually may have looked better on paper than on the ground, but they were noticed. Modi and Shah understood that a small benefit that you can verify yourself is better than a large macro reform that sends economists into ecstasies but leaves the average person cold. The micro matters as much as the macro in politics, for if you think some good has been done to you or someone near you, you are less likely to judge a government solely on its macro failures.

The Opposition had nothing more than bile for Modi and his party to offer. As for Rafale, it is doubtful how many voters who enthusiastically shouted ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ at rallies actually believed it, or thought Rafale as some kind of major black mark against Modi.

On corruption, Modi came with a teflon coating. In one line: Modi chose the right things to do so that the voter gave him the benefit of the doubt while comparing promise with performance; the Opposition played to his themes by making this election about him rather than the issues that truly matter.

Over the last five years, Modi shifted perceptions about his party and himself to the Centre-Left. BJP may be a right-wing outfit culturally and in terms of its identity politics, but its economics has leaned towards the poor under Modi. This has left business in limbo, as collateral damage caused by Modi’s policies.

This is what he has to fix to put his party in pole position in 2024. An economy limping along for years will finally begin to matter to the average voter, never mind how much he loves the man presiding over it.

The focus of Modi 2.0, or NDA 3.0, should be the economy, stupid. And under the broader head of economy, the focus has to be jobs, jobs, jobs. In 2024, no one will forgive Modi if they don’t experience ‘achhe din’ directly.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of
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