Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

The NDA’s perception problem

The NDA has racked up a lot of credits so far, and rewritten India's political handbook, but the perception on the ground is very different

In less than two months from now, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) will complete its first year in office under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In the normal course, this should be still within the honeymoon phase for any government. Not for the NDA.

An opinion poll conducted by the weekly magazine India Today claims that if elections were held today, the BJP would fall short of a majority on its own (though as part of the NDA, it would still form a government). Though another general election is four years away, this is unfortunately the only metric with which an incumbent regime is assessed in the interim.

Frankly, the results are surprising. In its first 10 months in office, the NDA has, especially in comparison with its predecessor, racked up a lot of credits—broadly, the push for ease of doing business (including shaking up the bureaucracy), restoring credibility in governance (like conducting a transparent auction for coal mining and creating a credible template for monetizing scarce natural resources), reviving the growth momentum of the economy and brave efforts to push politically incorrect policy initiatives (like signalling sunset to the open-ended nature of subsidies and diluting land acquisition norms), stiff opposition notwithstanding.

This aside, the BJP has, since the last general election, rewritten the country’s political handbook; it is the party in form. Not only has it replaced the Congress as the principal pole of Indian politics, it has managed to forge a grand alliance with the Peoples Democratic Party to claim political power in Jammu and Kashmir (not only does this expand the BJP’s political footprint to uncharted territory, it has served up an opportunity to bridge the divide between the Kashmir valley and Jammu on the one hand and Kashmir and the rest of India on the other).

Yet, as the India Today poll showed, the perception on the ground is very different. Outlandish actions of fringe saffron groups seem to be getting more media traction and the positives are being passed over. Clearly, viewed thus, the NDA has a perception problem. Why? Several reasons can be surmised.

One, Modi has promised far more than he can deliver. Nothing wrong with this, especially if you have to raise the bar; but managing the politics of expectations can be tricky.

On the campaign trail, he caught everyone’s imagination by promising acche din. Once in office, the prime minister did not retreat on his rhetoric, despite recognizing that he had inherited a broken delivery system (in contrast, during the campaign, Modi had access to vast quality non-government resources).

Consequently, expectations from his regime have continued to be very high and opinion makers have tended to exhibit a semblance of zero tolerance.

Secondly, the kind of policy change that the NDA has been pushing is structural in nature. They are not short-term fixes and hence, tangible results will take time to come through.

For example, its solution for fixing governance concerns has been to bring about transparency in decision-making. This will definitely end wholesale corruption, but addressing retail corruption is a different ball game (something similar is challenging the Aam Aadmi Party as it goes about trying to put in place a corruption-free regime in Delhi).

Similarly, fixing the economy may revive growth, but it will be some time before jobs are generated in equal measure. This is because generating jobs is linked to fixing the skill deficit, skewing the structure of the economy towards manufacturing and, of course, fixing the broken education system; and none of this can be managed in a jiffy.

Third, the BJP is yet to acquire the gravitas of a party in governance. Consequently, it is missing the trick on backing up its government. The mindset is understandable, given that it has had to contest several key assembly elections immediately after the general election and has to now ready for the big battle in Bihar.

A consequence of this is that the party is not fielding its A-team in media interactions (unlike in the run-up to the general election, when the party fielded articulate people such as Nirmala Sitharaman, Piyush Goyal and Ravi Shankar Prasad).

And in an era where the electronic medium is setting the agenda, this is really hurting its messaging—especially since at times, they are speaking in different voices. Part of the problem is that the party does not have bench strength. Again, understandable, given that it has not been in political power for long periods like, say, the Congress.

In the final analysis, it is then clear that the NDA in general and the BJP in particular have a perception problem. That is the bad news.

The good news, from its point of view, is that it can be fixed.

Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at capitalcalculus@livemint.com. His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus

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