Shortly after the Gujarat state election, Swaminomics argued that Narendra Modi would not be able to make this a launching pad for the prime ministership. I need to qualify that judgement heavily after a recent tour of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan to cover the state Assembly campaigns.
When asked what the main issues were in the state elections, people in small towns and rural areas mentioned inflation, corruption, unemployment, neglect of roads and water, and other local issues. They did not list Modi as a major issue. But when asked whether Modi’s emergence as the BJP spearhead had made a difference, almost everyone replied “yes.”
In other words, while there is no Modi wave (as some BJP leaders claim), there is definitely a Modi effect. Is this electorally significant? Well, if it shifts just two or three per cent of the popular vote to the BJP, that could translate into an additional gain of 30-50 seats in the 2014 general election, and catapult Modi to the prime ministership. This is far from guaranteed. But can no longer be ruled out.
New Delhi’s intellectuals cannot forgive Modi for the 2002 mass killings of Muslims. But for most voters in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, that is a forgotten event of the distant past, irrelevant for the state or general elections.
What do they expect Modi can achieve as prime minister? Most say “Woh logon ko seedha kar dega” (he will straighten people out). This suggests a popular longing for decisive and purposeful governance, something Manmohan Singh has clearly not provided. People want a strong leader who can discipline all the rascals in politics and the bureaucracy.
I asked voters whether Modi as PM would really be able to straighten out all the rascals. Most grouses of people (like roads in disrepair and clogged drains) relate to areas controlled by chief ministers. Do voters really think that Modi as PM will be able to order chief ministers to fix all roads and drains, something they have never done before? At this voters laugh: they know it is folly to expect too much. But they still hope that Modi can make a difference.
After Modi won the Gujarat election, Swaminomics pointed out that he faced three major hurdles in his prime ministerial ambitions. First, he needed to overcome rivals and naysayers within the BJP (including Lal Advani and sections of the RSS). Second, he needed to capture the imagination of voters outside Gujarat, who in general elections focus mainly on local issues, not national ones. Third, he needed to overcome resistance from allies (like Nitish Kumar) without whom the BJP would not be able to form a coalition government after the 2014 election.
Modi has had some success in tackling all three hurdles, but still has some way to go. He has conclusively won the battle within the BJP, and become PM-designate of the BJP. This has greatly enthused the party’s cadres.
The second hurdle — enthusing voters outside Gujarat — has only partly been overcome. When TV channels pit Modi versus Rahul Gandhi, Modi wins easily. But India doesn’t have a presidential system with voters voting directly for the top job. Rather, voters elect only Members of Parliament, and in such contests local issues dominate. State-level issues also matter, which is why some chief ministers can carry an entire state. But national issues can look very distant.
The third hurdle — resistance to Modi from potential BJP allies — remains significant. In Bihar, Nitish Kumar’s JDU has broken decisively with the BJP, arguing that Modi is completely unacceptable. Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal is also strongly opposed. Orissa’s Naveen Patnaik dislikes Modi, but has not ruled out a post-electoral alliance. However, Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu and Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh will happily join hands with Modi.
Everything depends on how many seats the BJP gets. For all their claims to high principles, regional parties are opportunists wanting a share of power in New Delhi. If the BJP wins 160 seats in 2014, Modi may not garner enough allies to become prime minister. But if the BJP wins 200 seats, Modi’s road to the top will be clear. For this, he needs a strong Modi electoral effect.
Will the state elections reveal the size of the Modi effect? Not really. High inflation and corruption have savaged the Congress image, giving the BJP an edge that owes nothing to Modi. If the party wins in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, chief ministers Chouhan and Raman Singh will say they deserve credit for the victory, not Modi. The size of the Modi effect will remain hotly contested. We will know the truth only in 2014.