Narendra Modi may have won encomiums during his recent three-nation West Asia tour but back home in India, as he enters the final year of his tenure as Prime Minister, his popularity is on the wane even as the clock has started ticking for the parliamentary elections next year.
If the twin ill-planned and disastrous decisions of demonetization and implementation of the goods and services tax (GST) were macroeconomic shocks that earned him public wrath, the recent electoral losses of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Gujarat and Rajasthan states controlled by the saffron party itself also proved that the 68-year-old Machiavellian glad-hander is no more the darling of the masses.
Finally, the federal budget offered the shrewd strategist a golden opportunity to address the burning issues like unemployment and spiraling prices of essential commodities but he failed to refurbish his image with a gift of the gab.
Modi’s popularity first took a beating in November, 2016, when, in one fell swoop, he declared 86.4 percent of the cash in circulation invalid, thereby destabilizing the economy with citizens running around ATMs, crowding before banks and begging for their own money.
Even as the people went through immense suffering, humiliation and death (about a hundred people died standing in queues), more than 99 percent of invalidated currency came back into the banking system, sparking allegations that the banning of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes has turned out to be somewhat of a state-sponsored money-laundering operation of Frankenstein proportions.
The Modi government introduced the GST regime on July 1, 2017 by subsuming dozens of state and central indirect taxes to transform India into a single market. However, complex filing procedures, delays in refund of input tax credits, etc. angered traders, exporters and small units as also sectors like aviation, real state and jewelry.
Indeed, India's economic growth in 2017-18 is estimated to drop to a four-year low of 6.5 percent against the 7.1 percent in 2016-17, thanks to the adverse impact of the GST and demonetization. The International Labor Organization has also said that the number of jobless in India will increase from 18.3 million in 2017 to 18.9 million by 2019.
The so-called Modi magic also failed to cast a spell on voters in his own home state Gujarat during the assembly polls in December, 2017 when the ruling BJP registered its worst performance, managing to win only seven more seats than the 92 required for forming a government.
And this despite the fact that Modi was BJP’s star campaigner who delivered his rabble-rousing speeches in 34 rallies in 43 days, but the ruling saffron party bit the dust in all the 12 constituencies where he spoke, making a mockery of BJP chief Amit Shah’s claim to win 150 seats and break the Congress’s 149-seat 1985 record.
Points out Congress leader Arjun Modhwadia: “Electors gave a thumbs-down to Modi again in last month’s by-elections in BJP-ruled Rajasthan where the party lost two Lok Sabha seats and one assembly constituency which the party had won riding on the Modi wave in 2014.”
The proposals in the federal budget 2018 – which also triggered a cataclysmic 840-point stock market crash – have also come as a big disappointment and let-down in the absence of any immediate benefits to the man on the street or relief in taxation to the middle class.
Coming as it did at a time when the country’s economy is facing its worst slowdown in recent times, this could tarnish Modi’s image what with the budget promises a rosy future for one and all only by 2022.
“The budget’s assurance of Rs 5 lakh cover per family per year for 10 crore poor families for their hospitalization under a flagship National Health Protection Scheme could turn out to be an empty rhetoric without adequate funds in the kitty,” says Rajiv Shah, editor of Counterview.net and consultant to NGOs for the downtrodden.
Finance minister Arun Jaitley did announce a budget with a string of populist giveaways – affordable housing, health plan for millions of poor, etc. – to woo voters but the resultant cut in the outlays on major schemes like Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, Swachh Bharat Mission, National Health Mission, Midday Meals Scheme, Interest Subsidy for Short-Term Farm Credit and Gram Jyoti Yojana will also turn many of Modi’s fans into foes.
That the disenchantment with the Modi government is rising became evident also from the Mood-Of-The-Nation (MOTN) survey conducted by the Centre for Study of Developing Societies for ABP News which revealed that Modi’s personal popularity had declined by seven percent in the past eight months.
In May, 2017 MOTN survey, 44 percent of the voters had wanted him to return as Prime Minister in the event of a snap election but now only 37 percent support him.
What's more, even dyed-in-the-wool saffronites like Jitendra Prajapati admit that Modi’s failure to crack the whip on perpetrators of hate crimes vis-a-vis cow vigilantism, love jihad, attack on journalists, etc. has brought a bad name to him having allowed the rowdy elements to get away with murder.
On February 6, the government itself came clean in Parliament disclosing to lawmakers that 111 people had been killed and 2,500 others injured in 822 communal incidents last year.
No wonder, countless luminaries have returned their national awards in the past two years to protest the growing intolerance in the country. As many as 67 retired bureaucrats also last week dashed off an open letter to Modi, asking for firm action against fanatics behind the hate crimes against minorities in the country.
What’s more, Modi has also blotted his copybook by annoying National Democratic Alliance (NDA) allies like Shiv Sena, Telugu Desam Party, Lok Janshakti Party, People’s Democratic Party, Shiromani Akali Dal, Rashtriya Lok Samata Party and Hindustani Awam Morcha Secular who could all break away from the NDA as the elections draw nearer.
In sum, with eight states – Nagaland, Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Karnataka – going to the polls later this year, it is time Modi delivers before his image is smashed to smithereens ahead of the crucial 2019 ballot box battle.