How will BJP and Narendra Modi deploy their social capital?
Over the weekend M. Venkaiah Naidu was elected as the country’s next vice-president; for the first time a representative of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will be in charge of the upper house of Parliament—as the VP sits in the chair. Together with its electoral gains over the last three years both nationally and at the state level, BJP, inspired by Narendra Modi, has formally taken over the pole position in Indian politics from the Congress.
Keep in mind that for most of the last 70 years the Congress has dominated Indian politics. A graphic conceived by HowIndiaLives and published in Mint last week, captures this watershed moment. Including Bihar, it is for the first time that a single party has been in power in 18 states across the country—either on its own or as a coalition (in this case the National Democratic Alliance or NDA). There is every reason to believe, going by the present momentum, that by the end of this year, when the next round of assembly elections take place, the BJP will extend its sway further south to Karnataka and add Himachal Pradesh to its political portfolio.
Enviable while the situation is for the BJP, the bigger question is how will it deploy this hard earned social capital? Modi is yet to reveal his hand, but there are clear signs that his tenure is a work in progress. Yes, while the Prime Minister is pushing the envelope on the policy front, incrementally as some critics will claim, and grappling with compelling legacy challenges at the same time, there is a clear indication that the bulk of the social capital is being deployed to win a re-election in 2019—implicitly the thinking is that a constant connect with the electorate is now a precondition to governance.
Presumably etched in memory is the debacle with the land acquisition bill that the BJP had sought to pilot through Parliament in its first year in office. Along with the incisive jibe of suit-boot ki sarkar (a government for the privileged) delivered by Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, the two reversals forced a recalibration of Modi’s strategy.
Besides relentlessly pursuing black money (including more lately benami properties), the Modi-led NDA has with its move on demonetisation of high-value currencies established an enviable trust quotient with the Indian electorate. While many may not be buying into its economic logic, there is no doubt—especially after the sweep of the assembly election in Uttar Pradesh—that politically everyone is convinced of the good intent of the regime to go after the corrupt.
It is on the basis of this trust quotient that Modi is now gradually wading into politically sensitive territory. The embracing of the goods and services tax, despite deep reservations among a section of traders (a traditional vote bank of the BJP) and textile sector (apparent from the notes of defiance emerging from Surat), is a good example. Once again, the bigger sell of this path-breaking reform is that it restores the premium on honesty (through an audit trail) even while it has rung down the prices of several items of daily consumption.
And then last week, petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan conveyed to Parliament that the government was ending subsidies on LPG or cooking gas—oil marketing companies have been allowed to raise prices by about Rs4 per month till the price difference with unsubsidized LPG is eliminated by March next year. Most may recall that after asking the well-off to voluntarily give up LPG subsidy, Pradhan later made it mandatory for everyone above an income threshold to be excluded from the scheme. Interestingly, this has not met with the predictable backlash of political smear campaign—presumably Modi’s social capital is working to the NDA’s advantage yet again.
Similarly, the NDA has broached the idea of privatization of Air India, the fiscally bleeding national carrier. In normal circumstances there would have been a push back against the idea of handing over “family jewels” to a private entity. But this time there is barely a whimper.
How does all this stack up eventually for the BJP? A clue to connecting these dots is provided by Amit Shah, the party president who coincidentally concluded three incredible years at the helm over the weekend.
In an interview with Mint two years ago, he said, “When we go to the people again, it will be on politics of performance. It will be a big change in the political history of India because it is for the first time that a government will ask for public mandate on the basis of politics of performance.”
Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus.
Respond to this column at email@example.com