Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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Modi’s Moment Of Truth

There are state polls in 2018... the road to Delhi in 2019 will thus pass through not only Lucknow but Ahmedabad, Bhopal, Raipur and Jaipur

Photo Credit : Shutterstock,

Punjab and Goa go to polls on 4 February. Both have single-phase voting. Attention will then turn to Uttar Pradesh, where voting extends over seven phases from 11 February to 8 March.

The cliché is that the path to Delhi passes through Lucknow. If the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) does not win Uttar Pradesh, according to conventional wisdom, the road to Delhi in 2019 will be blocked.

Like all nuggets of conventional wisdom, the truth is more complicated. Winning Uttar Pradesh is vital for Prime Minister Narendra Modi for two reasons.

First, it is a quasi-referendum on demonetisation. Uttar Pradesh is a microcosm of India with high levels of rural poverty. Victory in UP will be a vindication of demonetisation, which has been positioned as pro-poor and anti-corruption. Second, UP will test whether the Modi electoral tidal wave, which lifted the BJP to an unprecedented 71 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats in the State in 2014, has ebbed or not.

The alliance between Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Congress could coalesce minority votes around the two dynasts. 11 March, when votes in all five States are counted, will be a moment of truth not only for the Prime Minister but also for the Opposition. Opinion polls project the BJP winning in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Goa, and the Congress winning in Punjab. Manipur, battling a blockage and an unsettled voting environment, is too close to call. Defections in the Manipur Assembly are rife, even though the State Congress is unlikely to meet the fate of Arunachal Pradesh.

By projecting himself as a man of the masses, Modi has switched seamlessly from suit-boot sarkar to pro-poor messiah. The makeover has worked so far. Opinion polls show an average of 74 per cent of people across Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Goa in diverse age and income demographics back demonetisation.

There is an element of schadenfreude in this: if the rich are suffering, the poor conclude, Modi must be doing something right. This Robin Hood reaction is an indictment of decades of misgovernance that has made the inequality of incomes between rich and poor in India among the highest in the world.

In 1971 the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi coined the slogan ‘garibi hatao’ to project herself as pro-poor and anti-rich. It worked like a tonic. She won the March 1971 general election in a near-landslide with 352 seats, riding the wave of populism. India’s decisive victory over Pakistan in the Bangladesh war later that year enhanced her popularity.

What happened three years later, in 1974 should, however, interest Modi. He was then a 24-year-old pracharak in the RSS. Indira Gandhi, in the eighth year of her prime ministership, was seemingly invincible — but cracks had begun to show. Jayaprakash Narayan’s Sarvodaya movement had eroded her credibility. Within a year, it would be destroyed when she declared an Emergency that has historically diminished her stature as a leader.

Is there an analogy to be drawn with Modi? The short answer: no.

The non-Congress Opposition has tried to project a similarity between Modi of 2017 and Indira Gandhi of 1975. There is none. When Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister, there was little opposition in parliament or within the Congress. Modi in contrast has to deal with a vituperative Opposition that taunts him daily. Elements in his own party, and some even in RSS-affiliated groups, oppose him behind closed doors on a range of issues.

In Indira Gandhi’s time, especially during the Emergency, the media was a lapdog. Today a broad swathe of the media is (as indeed it should be) a watchdog. It misses no opportunity to mock or eviscerate Modi.

Indira Gandhi locked up thousands of Opposition leaders, journalists and activists in 1975. Modi has done little to even pursue strong cases of alleged corruption against the Gandhis, Robert Vadra, P. Chidambaram and a host of others in the UPA government, instead allowing the investigations and cases to grind their way through the tortuously slow judicial system.

However, Modi has proved himself to be the classical disrupter. He has disrupted the cosy consensus in New Delhi’s political establishment where leaders across party lines duelled theatrically in parliament during the day and networked collegially after dusk.

Modi is a loner. He often dines alone at his sprawling three-bungalow residence, briefed daily by a close group of advisors, some drawn from his days as Gujarat chief minister.

Modi spent the first half of his term resetting India’s foreign policy. He has strengthened defence and strategic cooperation with the United States, befriended the Arab world, used surgical strikes to increase the cost to Pakistan of terrorism and followed an act-East policy with Japan, Vietnam and littoral States in the South China Sea as both an economic strategy as well as a lever against an increasingly bellicose China.

Modi is set to spend the second half of his first term — and make no mistake, he does not wish to be a single-term Prime Minister — on domestic policy. Demonetisation is the first, disruptive step.

The election results in five States on 11 March will reveal how the Prime Minister will further reset policy. The Gujarat Assembly election looms in December 2017. There are three vital State elections in 2018: Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.

The road to Delhi in 2019 will thus pass through not only Lucknow but Ahmedabad, Bhopal, Raipur and Jaipur.

Indira Gandhi destroyed the powerful Congress syndicate in 1969, her third year as Prime Minister, and ended up wielding absolute power. Modi, in his third year as Prime Minister, confronts no internal party threat of the magnitude Indira Gandhi faced. Whatever the outcome in Uttar Pradesh, none is likely to emerge contrary to what gnarled Lutyens commentators, still co-opted by the old ecosystem, wishfully think.

The threat, if any, lies in economic reforms being derailed by lack of focus. After this Union Budget, the Prime Minister must take ownership of economic policy. It is his real pathway to victory in 2019.

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