What lessons Modi draws from the results of the by-elections will depend a lot on how he interprets them
The results of the UP and Bihar Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha by-elections are before us. Even Modi loyalists will acknowledge that these results are an indication that he has not lived up to people’s expectations substantially, esp after promising the moon. Opposition unity will only make things more difficult for BJP. In fact, many Modi Bhakts are happy about the by-poll results, as they hope this could help Modi make the necessary course corrections.
Let’s face it: the alternatives, whether Rahul Gandhi or any leader from a Third Front, will be very bad for India. All the alternative leaders are corrupt to the core and have no great national agenda. Modi at least has a good track record to show and the right intentions; he has no family to pamper with billions of dollars in foreign bank accounts and companies.
So, the best bet for India in 2019 elections is Modi. If UP and Bihar were to behave even somewhat like they did in the by-polls, BJP may not be able to hope for a huge majority for NDA like it did in 2014, with all the dissensions within NDA.
What lessons Modi draws from the results of the by-elections will depend a lot on how he interprets them. And how he interprets them will determine what course of action he will take in his march towards the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
In any case, by-polls are by-polls and one can’t attach too much importance to these results.
Broadly, there are 3 possible interpretations:
Interpretation 1: SP-BSP coming together to defeat BJP is a one-off event, and it won’t happen in UP nor across the country.
Interpretation 2: Coming together of some parties to defeat BJP may be possible on a limited scale, but not across the country.
Interpretation 3: All the parties are fighting for political survival, and so, it is possible for them to get together significantly to defeat BJP; in fact, it is likely.
In case of Interpretation 1, Modi may want to do nothing different, except for what he would be doing anyway in the interest of the nation, regardless of the by-poll results.
In any case, by-polls are by-polls and one can’t attach too much importance to these results. Maybe it’s just a rap on the knuckles, and people from these constituencies just want to send out a message that they expect a lot more from him.
Creating a parallel professional stream of top bureaucracy through direct recruitment, could also be possible initiatives.
When people have to decide in 2019, their decision is not just about who should win a constituency or two, but who should govern India for the next 5 years. The alternatives before them are only Rahul and someone from a hotch-potch disparate opposition. Even if there are possible alternative PM candidates (like KCR, Chandrababu Naidu or Naveen Patnaik), they are most unlikely to be acceptable to all the opposition together. So, with no credible united opposition candidate, people are more likely to give Modi another chance.
Add to these, the Modi factor – he’s an ace campaigner, and is likely to pull many rabbits out of the hat as he’s been doing so often. So, Modi need not be unduly worried about the by-poll results.
In my view, this is an over-simplistic interpretation and involves huge risk.
In case of Interpretation 2, Modi may try to do a few things differently from what he would have done had he not lost the by-elections. For example, he may do a few populist things in the available time, and reserve a few more for the 2019 Election Manifesto, like: Aggressive implementation of National Health Protection Scheme (i.e., Medical Insurance of Rs 5 Lakhs per family covering 50 crore people, extending this scheme on a low premium paid basis for the others, etc), 33% reservation for women in various elected bodies incl Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, addressing agrarian distress in some substantive way, etc. Wherever money is involved, it will not be easy. He may also do something substantive on the caste combination front.
Modi could also enhance Centre-State coordination so that projects by States are speeded up because one of the reasons for the failure of Modi to show results is the failure of States.
This is a likely interpretation and has a significant chance of success. The fact that there is no credible alternative to Modi will add to his comfort.
In case of Interpretation 3, Modi may do a few things radically differently from what he would have done had he not lost the by-elections. Apart from some of the populist initiatives listed above, he may try some of the following:
Shaking up the Union Cabinet could be one, with at least a few key changes: for example, he may bring in Dr Swamy as Minister for Finance or Law & Justice, shifting Arun Jaitley to, say Defence. This may upset some senior Ministers, but he could consider this situation as an opportunity to do just that, as many problems Modi faces are due to Arun Jaitley’s handling of his Ministry.
Shaking up of the bureaucracy could be another, with a few key changes to facilitate speeding up of court cases, esp of fugitives and politicians, and hastening implementation of reforms. Compulsorily retiring many bureaucrats, and creating a parallel professional stream of top bureaucracy through direct recruitment, could also be possible initiatives.
Being a maverick, Dr Swamy could say or do something that Modi may not like on some key issues.
Replacing some of the losing Chief Ministers by potentially more acceptable leaders is another possible option. To assuage the feelings of the outgoing CMs to avoid inner party rivalry, they could be taken into confidence about the need for this action and accommodated in the Central Ministry. This may be easier said than done, but if done through a democratic process, it could be made to work.
This interpretation (and consequential actions) has a very good chance of success because people will see this as a clear acknowledgement of their resentment; also, there is no point in continuing to do the same things and expect different results.
However, one issue Modi may be worried about in giving Dr Swamy a key Cabinet post is, being a maverick, Dr Swamy could say or do something that Modi may not like on some key issues. If some understanding could be reached between the two on this, it could become a workable proposition.
1. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.