In August 2020, when a Mood of the Nation poll showed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity still rock solid, a senior Congress leader rang me up in anger: “Why are you running these farzi (false) polls? So much distress after the lockdown and you godi (pliant) media people are still trapped in Modi mania.” A few months later, when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won the Bihar elections, albeit with a reduced margin, the leader called back, this time in a more sheepish voice: “Guess the lockdown didn’t make that much of a difference to voter behaviour.”
In the last seven years, Narendra Modi has been a colossal figure in Indian politics. He is almost like the Pied Piper to whose tune millions would happily clap and bang utensils, light diyas, or even willingly lighten their pocket of ₹500 and ₹1,000 notes.
And yet, the cruel Covid summer of 2021 is perhaps a watershed moment for Modi’s leadership. As he completes seven years in office on May 26, there are visible signs that the halo is losing its glow. Call it the seven-year itch, or more appropriately the one-year virus, but the PM is not quite the indomitable presence of even nine months ago.
While a year ago, his serial televised addresses to the nation were similar to an all-powerful general leading the citizenry into a self-proclaimed Mahabharat-like war against Covid 19, his less assured public presence now betrays unease and uncertainty in the face of unimaginable grief. A year ago, the PM could demand obedience to his “stay at home” instruction; today, even his tears don’t seem to move those who have witnessed a brazen disregard for Covid protocols while seeking votes on the campaign trail.
The seven-year itch is an interesting prime ministerial syndrome to explore. Modi will be the fourth Indian PM to complete seven years in office. The first, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a much adored leader whose political graph took a significant dip in 1959, just a little over seven years after he won the first general elections. The dismissal of an elected Kerala government and the onset of a bloody boundary dispute with China tarred the Nehruvian age. By 1973-74, seven years into her prime ministership, Indira Gandhi was confronted with rising prices, a faltering economy and growing political unrest, culminating in the dark hour of the Emergency. Manmohan Singh too was fatally besieged by the anti-corruption Anna movement in 2011, seven years after becoming the “accidental” PM.
Modi too now faces his moment of truth. His initial appeal was drawn from his claim to be an anti-establishment folk hero, a man from humble origins who combined religio-nationalist zeal with the image of an anti-corruption crusader and a development icon. For seven years, this image has been artfully managed, a teflon-like coating ensuring that no blame ever stuck to it. The Covid-19 surge is the first time that the glossy protective veil around the PM’s persona is being lifted and a governance deficit lies exposed: the optics of a tika utsav for example cannot compensate for a floundering vaccine policy.
The government propaganda machine can blame the Covid crisis on the all-pervasive, unaccountable “system”; the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) can attempt to spread a positive spirit; the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s social media cell can focus on toolkit controversies. In normal times, these moves might even gain traction. But in extraordinary times, the blackened pyres and rising flames in crematoriums make public relations exercises look terribly jarring, insensitive distractions. And the misuse of agencies in West Bengal appears even more like a sore loser’s attempt to destabilise political rivals at a time when unity and consensus building is the need of the hour.
The PM still enjoys a considerable reservoir of goodwill. To believe that the Modi era is coming to an abrupt end would be foolhardy and akin to making the same mistake that the Congress leader made last August when questioning poll numbers. After all, the durability of Modi’s appeal is also dependent to a great extent on the disjointed state of the opposition.
But like in the Covid fight, complacency is a dangerous attitude in public life. The next year is decisive because in every state that goes to the polls within a year from now, the Covid shadow will loom large. Nowhere are the stakes higher than in Uttar Pradesh, the pivot to Modi and the BJP’s dominance of Indian politics in recent times. In 2014, Modi carved a national stature for himself when he decided to contest from Varanasi and famously claimed that he had been called by “Ma Ganga”. Today, as the dead wash up on the Ganga’s banks, the stench of unclaimed bodies is a reminder of a putrefying political system where the citizens were promised so much more than what was actually delivered. The headline-grabbing dream merchant of 2014 must now transform himself into a nuts and bolts crisis manager to ensure that his government too, like those led by other PMs in their seventh year, is not pushed into ventilator mode.
Post-script: In 2019, just ahead of the general elections, I met an astrologer on the campaign trail. “Modi will be PM for sure, the BJP will get more than 300 seats and the NDA will score more than 350,” he predicted. But there was a sting to his tale: “But Modi will have rough time mid way through his term, I can’t say how and why.” As an avowed rationalist, I walked away with a dismissive grin. Now, the words are proving uncannily prophetic.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal
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