A Twitter poll I ran recently on the Narendra Modi government’s performance had interesting results (40,000 respondents, usual Twitter poll disclaimers). Around 42% of respondents found the performance above expectations (18% little above, 24% well above); 58% found the performance below expectations (19% little below, 39% well below.) Four in 10 respondents still felt the government performed better than expected. This is not bad, considering incumbent governments worldwide face a drop in ratings over the years. However, there is enough reason for concern.
On social media, the BJP usually rules every poll. For six out of 10 respondents to say they felt the government performed below par, and four out of those six saying well below par, should be cause for worry for the BJP. Even if it’s not a total rejection, the numbers seem to suggest this perception about the government: mazaa nahi aa raha.
Why has this happened? More importantly, will it affect 2019? Perceptions about a government depend on two factors — initial expectations and actual performance.
The initial expectations from this government were massive. In some ways, Modi was an experiment. For the first time, India voted a sitting CM into the PM’s office. Dynasty politics and the BJP’s internal hierarchy were cast aside. People backed Modi because a) they were sick of the corruption in the UPA government and b) they saw a ray of hope that someone might actually change things in India. There were many who voted for Modi simply because they wanted to experiment and had high expectations. To that extent, some disappointment was inevitable.
However, the second aspect — actual performance — is also reason for concern. Here’s the recent news cycle, which hasn’t made the BJP proud: Gorakhpur bypoll defeat, Nirav Modi, ICICI Bank scam, fake news order, SC/ST Act amendments, Unnao rape, Kathua rape, cash crunch at ATMs and questions on the judiciary. Each of these incidents has given a mini-blow to the BJP’s image. To its credit, the government did take steps to mitigate the negative fallout. The rape laws were made stricter, fugitive laws were amended, and the fake news order was withdrawn.
Apart from specific incidents, perhaps a bigger issue is the broader policy outlook of the government. Ever since this government took office, it has indeed tried change — to implement many new, sweeping, well-intentioned schemes and policies. In a country where nobody ever tried to change anything or rock the boat, this was welcome. However, none of the schemes or policies have really been hits. The two biggest ones, demonetisation and GST, had execution issues. GST is also a half-GST, because it is still not a single rate, and the rates are too high.
Taxation has become some sort of a government obsession. The question taxpayers are asking is this: If the government says corruption has dropped, it must be saving massive amounts of money compared to before. So why are taxes higher today than in previous, scam-ridden regimes?
Schemes like Aadhaar have become irksome. As a universal India ID, Aadhaar is a wonderful idea. However, shoving even wonderful ideas down people’s throats makes them unpalatable. Every Indian has been bombarded with threat messages about linking Aadhaar or losing their phone connections or savings. Hardly a way to remain popular, is it?
These examples suggest that the government essentially believes in a no-carrot, stick-only approach. The carrot — giving people incentives to change — doesn’t seem to be an option. While fear methods may work like they do for strict headmasters, they are hardly the way to people’s hearts in a country as complex as India.
There are also apprehensions on the social front. The BJP has always had saffron leanings, as that is their core support base. However, what shade of saffron it chooses to be is also important. For now, it seems to be veering towards Advani-saffron. It is a hard shade where Hindu fundamentalists are given tacit support while the party looks the other way. Many neo-BJP supporters who sanctioned the Modi experiment in 2014, expected him to make the BJP a lighter Vajpayee-saffron. It is a shade where Hindu pride is celebrated, but fundamentalism and impositions of religion/nationalism are shunned. That has not happened.
In London, Modi said he welcomes criticism of the government. Maybe it is time to reflect on it. Coalition arithmetic is already stacked against the BJP. If its vote share drops, say a mere 5%, and the opposition unites, it could decline from 275 to 200-225 seats. In that scenario, the ART trio (Akhilesh-Rahul-Tejaswi) could well engineer a non-BJP government. The Modi experiment is still on. The BJP would do well to course-correct, and retain not only its fans but also the discerning voter who is going to sanction the next round of this experiment in 2019.