Millennium Post

Modi's battle cry for 2019 Lok Sabha poll

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's speech in Parliament, ridiculing his predecessor Dr Manmohan Singh, wasn't just for voters in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. He was setting the agenda for 2019. On February 19, the Modi government completes 1,000 days in office. The milestone may be only statistically symbolic but comes in a period of profound political significance. On March 11, the verdict in five state elections, particularly the large state of UP, will be known. Immediately after, the negotiations for next vice-president and the president will begin.

By the end of the year, with Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections, India will start a relentless 18-month steeplechase to the 2019 Lok Sabha contest. The budget of 2018 will be an election year budget. While Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley have been careful and principled in avoiding populist and profligate spending and adhering to a strict fiscal consolidation since 2014, to what degree and in what manner the fiscal discipline of four years will be deployed in an election year remains an intriguing question. It is important to see Modi's speech in Parliament on February 7 in this context rather than just limit to immediate concerns about addressing voters in UP and Uttarakhand for that matter. In a sense, he was setting the agenda or, testing the waters, for a phase beyond March 11.

It explained why, for instance, he referred to primarily the Congress, rather than other opposition parties. The Prime Minister mentioned to the Congress' Lok Sabha leader Mallikarjun Kharge, by name—as is appropriate in Parliamentary debate, where the head of the government responds to criticism by a leader of the opposition. He also had a dig at Rahul Gandhi and dynastic politics that is both the Congress' major vulnerability and ultimate calling card.

Why did Modi do this? Does it suggest that as Congress enthusiasts fantasise, a recognition that Rahul Gandhi and his party pose a massive political threat? The answer may be a trifle more nonsensical. If one moves from the current quintet of state elections, then every set of major Assembly polls coming up – Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh at the end of 2017, Karnataka in early summer of 2018 and Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh in winter 2018--posits the BJP against the Congress.

Second, Modi has long believed voters make rational choices that are rooted in real-life experiences, rather than abstraction. They tend to compare—or subliminally factor in—the record of an incumbent government against that of its immediate predecessor. This is not always the case, of course, and occasionally other motivations and emotions can sway a mandate. Nonetheless, the Prime Minister's political logic cannot be altogether dismissed.

As such, in the run up to the 2019 general election, Modi will need to emphasise not only his personal popularity and credence – and there is no doubt these remain high, as a variety of opinion polls and anecdotal evidence will suggest – but also how his government has done in comparison to the UPA administration, particularly UPA-II (2009-14).

In this regard, PM's speech was telling. Some of the comparisons were straightforward and numerical. The incremental growth has been in highway capacity, railway track upgrade, power sector, and building houses for poorest sections of the society. Some of it was also a response to those, among them BJP supporters, who contend his government has not done enough to take on the culture of corruption that marked UPA's decline.

Modi sought to place the battle against corruption in a broader and deeper context. He referred to demonetisation as one of the series of steps taken against tax avoidance and promised harsher measures in the days ahead. He stressed the attempts at cleaning up subsidy circus and mess that welfare spending has been reduced to, with the benefit not reaching those who need them and intermediaries enriching themselves.

(The writer is a political analyst. Views expressed are strictly personal.)
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