The political scene in India seems to be now totally attuned to the big electoral battle of 2019 with the opposition focusing on whatever it can find to criticise the Modi government — from the farmer’s suicides to the handling of Kashmir. Incidentally, the tragedy of farmers being compelled to take their lives on account of crop failure had touched its peak under the UPA regime. As regards Kashmir, Pakistan earlier also had a free run with infiltration of terrorists in the valley in its attempt to force its claim on the state but Modi government at least ended the ambiguity of the past Pakistan policy of India by declaring that ‘talks and terror could not go together’. Modi is sought to be cornered by the opposition on stray incidents of violence in public, off hand remarks of some political elements against those who openly sided with Pakistan against India and the perennial problems of unemployment and poverty.
But this has not cut much ice primarily because Modi’s image as an extremely hard working leader with personal integrity endures among the masses. His intentions are not in doubt even as some of the development and reform projects initiated in his regime may not have yet borne fruits to the extent expected, on account of their long gestation period.
It is in this backdrop that the public perceptions that may determine the voter’s inclinations at the time of the next general election, should be read and analysed. Judging from the ongoing trends — outside of a sudden and major development of national importance in future — it can be said that any anti-incumbency for the Modi government could at the most be merely incremental and that this could be evened out by the balance of popularity of Modi on the ground. Also, this would work for the ruling party on an all-India basis. The result of UP and Gujarat elections viewed in that order pretty much establish this point.
People in UP supported Modi overwhelmingly because of the promise he offered to the common man of pulling him out of the hold of successive corrupt and sectarian governments in the state. They even overcame the distress caused by demonetisation in the immediate run. In Gujarat where, like in UP, Modi was the BJP’s face in the assembly election, his credibility was able to override the caste appeal unleashed by the Congress as well as the dissatisfaction that was no doubt showing up in certain segments of the population. As a result the ruling party did succeed in securing a small but comfortable majority.
The events happening in the country since then have not influenced the masses in any significant way as far as their equation with the ruling party was concerned. Failure of the prosecution’s case in the court in 2G spectrum, surfacing of the PNG scam indicating a continuing neglect or connivance of senior levels of supervision and regulation in the country's financial sector and the sustained campaign of the opposition parties as well as the ‘secular lobby’ that the regime was being 'intolerant' and not ensuring ‘protection of the minorities’ — all these generated an episodical critique but did not alter the basic image of the present political executive at the Centre in regard to its commitment to the larger good of the people. Development projects and initiatives for economic growth launched by the present government have been appreciated by the people.
Thinking Indians however, do note that the Modi government has not been able to legally expose any higher ups of the last regime that had been voted out largely on the basis of the campaign against ‘corruption at the top’. In the current storm on the mismanagement of the banking sector symbolised by the PNB scam, the regime has finally taken cognisance of the failure of supervision and vigilance but if it wants to avert any impression of not pushing the envelope on the probability of connivance of people with political power, it should quickly get the top functionaries of PNB, Allahabad Bank and RBI into the ambit of legal accountability. The argument of a ‘system failure’ can not defend criminal negligence or collusion on the part of those who were at the highest levels of supervision and regulation for years. The scale and continuity of the scam amidst the backdrop of complaints from whistleblowers make it impossible to believe that there was no buzz about it in the banking circles — enough to draw the attention of banking bosses. Modi government should be demonstrative about cleaning up the mess-it is good that it is finally reaching out to the politically connected elements involved in it.
Modi need not bother too much about the rhetoric of the opposition about the alleged ‘intolerance’ and ‘sense of insecurity’ amongst the minorities as India is run as a democratic state. It is obvious that minority politics has become the major electoral weapon for the detractors of Modi whose logic of numbers — in a situation where the majority community was extremely divided on caste and regional lines — makes them believe that this is a good strategy. However, during the run up to the next general election the Modi regime must focus a little more on domestic governance — in the areas of law & order management of the states, public distribution system and help to M&SE. On the farmers’ front it should demonstrate its initiative in ensuring reasonable financial aid in time through district administration, to individuals facing crop failure. This would reduce the political exploitation of the agitation-prone issue of loan waivers. Rural India needs water for irrigation and this should be on top of the government projects.
Indian voters at the mass level want honesty in governance and an assurance about national security. Middle classes are free with their criticism of the government of the day and the government employees have the trait of demanding more. They both, however, have a shrewd idea of who can provide them stability. The average Indian wants peace at home and a firm and impartial system of governance. He or she is in front as a stake holder of India’s security against perceived enemies and is capable of even rising above personal and economic concerns to support the government in a situation of grave threat to national security.
Modi’s greatest asset is his image as a strong leader who would deal sternly with the adversaries outside as well as the saboteurs inside. All bilateral relations in his regime focus equally on economic and security concerns. The joint agreement on the recent visit of the Canadian prime minister in which all Islamic terror outfits as well as Khalistan groups have been named for the first time by that country, is a case in point. People appreciate Modi’s tough stance against a hostile Pakistan and want no compromise on the issue of Kashmir. They would like the Centre not to permit any ambiguities being created by the coalition government in the state on the issues of cross border terrorism and integration of J&K with the rest of the country. Administrative handling of Kashmir should be strengthened in keeping with the governance alliance’ that had provided the base for the PDP-BJP coalition.
(The writer is a former director, Intelligence Bureau)