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“Modi won 2014 on an anti-incumbency vote, anger against the ruling congress government at that time. I think he won 2019 on a pro-incumbency vote. Then he inspired hope, now there was an element of trust.”
“There will be a slow tripping up and we can see the signs of it. We are seeing that politics cannot be always played on the emotional rollercoaster: All India NRC, Citizenship Amendment Bill, Triple Talaq, Mandir-Masjid. Real issues of agrarian distress, jobs, economic slowdown, at some stage these things will catch up.”
Veteran journalist and a self-proclaimed election junkie Rajdeep Sardesai tells me. It is a joy to hear him speak about Indian elections: his energy is contagious. Love him or hate him, you can’t ignore his passion for following the minutiae of democratic processes in the country.
In this exclusive interview around his latest book (2019: How Modi Won India), Rajdeep talks about the Modi phenomenon, its red flags, and his own anger, among other things.
Following is an excerpt:
Five things that brought Modi back into power:
I think what worked for the Government was Modi’s remarkable communication skills. The ability to constantly communicate and engage, almost giving a face to the project this Government had. So, I think that worked for Modi. The identification of all these beneficiary schemes with the persona of the Prime Minister gave us a sense that this was a government in perpetual motion, always doing something.
I think the second, Balakot, in the context of the 2019 election had an enormous impact because it gave Mr. Modi, crucially, momentum; foregrounded the issue of leadership; gave the impression of a risk-taking decisive leader.
Number three, I think Modi was able to successfully transition from a rich serving government to a poor serving government. In a strange way, the demonetisation also played a role in that.
Fourth, the fact that he had Amit Shah in his BJP machine with him and I think BJP just ran a much more organized campaign then the opposition did and that makes a huge difference.
The fifth is that I think the state of the opposition in the country. So, when it becomes Modi vs Who, it becomes a bit of a no contest.
Economic slowdown and Modi
Will the state of economy hurt Modi?
I meet people in Mumbai who are cribbing about the economy, about the steps taken, so I asked them ‘Who did you vote for?’. And I think this has been one of the successes of Modi as he has been able to convince a lot of people that I am a long-term bank deposit. Even if you are having temporary troubles, those troubles are only temporary. In the long run, all will be well.
There will be a slow tripping up and we can see the signs of it. We are seeing that politics cannot be always played on the emotional rollercoaster. All India NRC, Citizenship Bill, Triple Talaq, Mandir-Masjid, let’s keep the pot boiling so that people are distracted in a way from the so-called real issues of agrarian distress, jobs, economic slowdown. At some stage, these things will catch up. You have got to start going beyond seemingly emotional and divisive issues.
BJP’s core is extremely comfortable with this kind of hype over emotional and divisive issues.
It’s the additional voters that Modi has brought into BJP over the years and taken it from a party of 17-18% to a party of 30-35%, 37% in this election. That incremental voter at some stage will start asking questions about the economy as he/she is seeing that happening.
State of State Elections
Is Modi Magic fading in the sates?
In state elections or by-elections, PM Modi is not a factor. The opposition has more than half a chance. Where it is a national election and you can make a referendum on leadership, then it becomes Modi vs Who. There is a feeling that the government being given by the BJP government is spotty, its not great and they don’t have effective state leaders. So, I think the BJP at the state level is very vulnerable. And that explains the changing map of India. From 71% of the landmass in 2017 to around 40%. This shows that we have a clear dualism: national elections and state elections and they will be fought on very different templates.
Should Gandhis gloat over the state election successes?
I think Congress won in Rajasthan not because of Rahul Gandhi but because of anti-incumbency votes against Vasundhra Raje. I don’t think Madhya Pradesh was won because of Rahul Gandhi, it was won because of fatigue and infighting within the BJP and a few wrong decisions. Chhattisgarh was won because of a strong campaign run by the Congress on the ground to which Rahul Gandhi to some measure did contribute by in some ways empowering the state leadership.
Maharashtra, as I said, is a post-poll hack. To be fair the BJP alliance won the election. It was a pre-poll alliance that got a majority. But I would say, that’s because they had an effective leader in the form of Devendra Fadnavis. It’s very simple, I think Indian elections are presidential at both the national and state level. In the state, people look for who is the Chief Minister, who might most effectively address our concerns and needs.
Secular Politics: What’s That?
What’s the fate of religion-driven politics in India?
I think this secular vs communal bogey has debilitated our Indian politics because we don’t have genuine secular politics and perhaps, we never had it because of the nature of vote bank politics. I mean Shiv Sena was created by Congress in the late 1960s or suddenly propped up to destroy the Left Trade Union. I had Jairam Ramesh at my book release admit that.
Rajiv Gandhi opened the locks of Babri Masjid, Indira Gandhi played footsie with communalists of all hues. What has happened in Maharashtra is interesting as it was an admission by our political class that there is only one ism: pragmatism or opportunism. One thing is very clear, in recent times every mainstream political party in this country is competing for Hindu votes. The Congress now gives fewer tickets to Muslims than ever before, taking the Muslim vote almost for granted in that sense. So, over the years we have fewer and fewer Muslim MPs in the parliament, fewer MLAs even in states like UP than ever before. I think Muslim in a political sense has become a pariah.
Rajdeep Ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai?
What explains an increasingly angry Rajdeep these days?
Look, I am who I am. I see the media of which I have been a part of for more than three decades. Acting as a surrogate for the ruling party, am I not to say it? And if that makes me sound angry and bitter so be it. I think I sound angrier and bitter sometimes in my TV and digital appearances than in my book. I don’t think the book will give you a sense of someone being angry or bitter.
One of the things I have written in the book is a chapter called “Prime Time Prime Minister” and it’s about the media. And I wasn’t sure to what extent should I go in taking on my own in a way. And maybe at times, I have been a little careful there, I have said a lot, but I could have even possibly said more. It is true I have never seen such a craven media in the 30 years I have been a journalist as I have seen in the last 5 years.
I am very clear, and I say it in the book as well that I don’t approve of the intolerance of the left or the right. You know let’s be honest that the media practitioners who believe that the sole purpose is to demonize Narendra Modi, there are other practitioners who believe their sole purpose is to be cheerleaders for Modi, I don’t want to be either. And yes, dissent is fine, but dissent doesn’t mean demonisation. Similarly, you can appreciate elements of what Modi has done or not done but that does not have to lead to sycophancy or cheerleading.
I think when you are entering a dangerous age of elected autocracy, democracy is then in recession. We could have lots of elections but elections on their own are not the only attribute of a democratic system. Democratic system allows questioning and transparency.
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