The pandemic’s second wave has shattered Narendra Modi’s formidable personality cult, which had withstood demonetisation, protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, last year’s strict lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19, farmers’ protests against new agricultural rules, and the border crisis with China.
Why has this happened, and how will it affect Modi’s and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s political prospects in the near future?
To answer the first question, we must examine the defining characteristics of Modi’s political brand and how they have come unstuck for the time being.
The intuitive confidence that Modi inspires among large segments of the population is at the heart of the Modi phenomenon. This faith stems from Modi’s messianic image as a self-described fakir who is not only here to lead India politically, but also socially, morally, and spiritually.
This confidence is crucial in the morality plays that frame any major issue: a good-hearted leader attempting to defend or rejuvenate a pure national culture while fighting a slew of internal and external saboteurs. This is the grand narrative of Modi’s leadership, which has helped him to fend off a variety of challenges while sustaining an unprecedented level of popularity over the last seven years.
For example, this author has argued that the protests against the citizenship measures, the migrant lockdown crisis, and the China crisis will likely have little political impact on Modi and his party. This pandemic-caused healthcare crisis, on the other hand, is unique for three reasons.
To begin with, the crisis has harmed the confidence that is central to Modi’s appeal. Unlike with demonetisation in 2016 or the introduction of the goods and services tax in 2017, public criticism has focused on Modi’s intentions rather than his competence. In the past, Indians have shown a willingness to absolve Modi of the bungled execution of his government policies or to blame his ministers or bureaucrats, judging him solely on the simplicity of his vision.
Images from the Bengal election campaign, on the other hand, show a cynical politician who prioritises control over the lives of his countrymen. Nothing could be more damaging to Modi’s messianic picture, which is based on the idea of a leader who is only interested in power when it serves the national interest.
— NDTV (@ndtv) April 17, 2021
A sombre Modi started his final address by invoking his status as a “friend of your family” in a belated attempt to exonerate himself. This was intended to emphasise his social leadership, as well as his appeals to his “bal mitras” (child friends), in an effort to restore faith. However, first impressions are crucial. It was the early lockdown that allowed the narrative to be won on the first wave and throughout the rest of the game. With the second wave, however, Modi would find it difficult to dispel the feeling that he abandoned Indians in their hour of need.
Second, the crisis’s existence has blocked all attempts to package it into a divisive or uplifting intellectual narrative. Although bigotry against members of the Tablighi Jamaat Muslim group was used to unite the Hindu community during the first wave, it is no longer possible to paint the pandemic in a communal light. If anything, the Hindu Kumbh mela festival has received a lot of blame in the media for the second wave.
Similarly, Modi was able to portray the first wave as a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the entire nation to unite behind him and help him create a “atmanirbhar Bharat,” or self-sufficient India. India has been reduced to a humble supplicant on the global stage, reliant on basic medical assistance from countries a fraction of its population, shattering the narrative.
There isn’t a big storey to tell.
Since there is no grand ideological narrative, mainstream misery now has political clout that it lacked during both demonetisation and last year’s lockdown. The agony of Indians during those events was turned into pious sacrifice for the country by the alchemy of Modi’s politics. This tapped into a historically resonant strain of Indian politics, dating back to Mahatma Gandhi’s declaration that no independence could be achieved without tyag (sacrifice).
During demonetisation, the populist “honest people vs the dishonest rich” argument meant that Indians were able to put up with some hardship in the expectation that the corrupt rich had it worse.
During the last few weeks, the Bharatiya Janata Party ecosystem has been scrambling for a compelling narrative. In fact, outside of hardcore online warriors, attempts to incite public outrage against a “vulture” international press have largely failed. If you ask someone in Meerut who is waiting for an oxygen cylinder what they think of the Washington Post or the BBC’s coverage of the pandemic, they will dismiss you with barely concealed disdain.
The queue to refill oxygen cylinders in Lucknow
— Piyush Rai (@Benarasiyaa) April 20, 2021
Modi had zealously made himself the face of the “good battle” against the first wave of the pandemic, so attempts to move the buck to Opposition-ruled states had little legitimacy. The pain is increasingly being converted into rage against the government in the absence of any ideological narrative or grand intent to ground it.
The second issue arises as a result of this. What would be the political ramifications of all of this? The Uttar Pradesh assembly elections early next year will certainly be the litmus test for what the political fallout of the second wave means for Modi and the BJP. The elections are shaping up to be the most important of Modi’s second term. The BJP is still not as dominant in Uttar Pradesh as previously thought, as evidenced by the recent panchayat elections. Since 1989, no incumbent government has returned to power in Uttar Pradesh, and the BJP will almost certainly need Modi’s appeal to get them across the finish line.
"When a patient goes to L3 hospital, he's told to get referral from the district hospital. So the patient keeps on running from one place to other even as his oxygen level continues to fall," Union minister Santosh Gangwar in an open letter to UP CM Yogi Adityanath said. pic.twitter.com/HYQPJ0PqjZ
— Piyush Rai (@Benarasiyaa) May 10, 2021
Send in your ‘sentiment.’
A recent Cvoter weekly tracker poll revealed some early signs of a shift in public opinion. According to pollster Yashwant Deshmukh, satisfaction with the central government has dropped for the first time in seven years, to 40% from 64% in July. At the same time, the percentage of respondents who said they were “not at all happy” increased to 32% from 15% last year.
It would be a grave mistake to write Modi’s political obituary, as he is a cunning politician who has refurbished and reinvented his political brand numerous times. In the absence of a strong opposition, and particularly a credible alternative face, as we have seen in many recent elections, even discontent with a government does not always translate into electoral reverses.
Modi’s national opposition is also weak and fragmented. In the same Cvoter poll, the number of people who said they “don’t know/can’t tell” about Rahul Gandhi as their preferred Prime Minister was higher.
The pandemic has brought India’s politics to a fork in the track. Much hinges on whether the opposition will seize this opportunity and transform it into a political watershed moment, or whether Modi restores his personality cult and the BJP summons the powers of history to further entrench its grip on Indian politics.
The only thing we can be certain of is that Modi’s hold on power does not seem to be unbreakable any longer.