Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) narrowly escaped a defeat in the recently concluded Gujarat state election. The election result on Modi’s home turf assumes significance, as Indian National Congress president Rahul Gandhi challenged Modi in his home state and provided Congress its best performance in 25 years.
Gandhi’s political narrative has also started appealing to people across the country, as he rolled out a decent campaign without making any personal attacks on his opponent and ensured that the election discourse should be based on a development agenda.
However, Modi took just the opposite stand in his election rallies. He has been criticized by opposition leaders for polarizing voters, for example by asking, “Do you want mandir or masjid” – temple or mosque – implying that Pakistan was trying to influence the Gujarat election, and accusing former prime minister Manmohan Singh of colluding with Islamabad.
Many analysts feel that Modi’s choice of words against his opponent in the Gujarat election has severely damaged the image of the office of the prime minister and his own image as a leader.
On the other hand, the young Gandhi is slowly building his image as a development-focused political leader. With this image makeover, he is making himself ready as a serious contender for the country’s top political position.
Gandhi’s effort to democratize the grand old Congress party from top to bottom with a focus on merit is attracting young talent to join with him. But Modi is trying to portray an image of himself as a one-man show in both government and his party.
Rahul Gandhi’s effort to democratize the grand old Congress party from top to bottom with a focus on merit is attracting young talent to join with him. But Narendra Modi is trying to portray an image of himself as a one-man show in both government and his party
For example, Modi is concentrating all executive power of the government in the Prime Minister’s Office and at the same time trying to capture absolute power in the BJP by strategically sidelining powerful leaders. This over-concentration of power is having a negative impact on Modi’s image as a leader.
Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi is now only in his late 40s, while Narendra Modi will turn 70 in 2019. This age factor will also be a disadvantage to Modi in the 2019 national election.
India is now a young country, with more than half of voters below the age of 35. The number of first-time voters eligible to participate in the 2019 national election will cross 133 million. These 133 million new voters will play a major role in deciding the political fates of both Modi and young Gandhi.
In the last national election in 2014, there were about 150 million new voters, and many analysts presumed that these young people voted Modi into power because of a massive media campaign run by his party portraying him as the leader young voters could trust.
By now, those 150 million Indians who voted for the first time in 2014 and the 133 million new young voters in the 2019 election have analyzed Modi’s performance as a prime minister and his governance track record. He has to be worried, as the discontent of these young voters with both him personally and with his government is now reflected in social media.
Whether it is the massive unemployment situation in the country, or job cuts in the information-technology and manufacturing sectors, or rural distress and slow agriculture growth at the national level, or the BJP’s narrative and focus on a religion-based agenda, or high fuel prices, the Modi government is on the back foot and facing the wrath of young people all over the country.
Most of these young voters are not finding any good reason to support the Modi government’s efforts to help them in their education or employment transition in the last 43 months. The recent 2G judgment, with the Supreme Court saying there was no scam, and the failure to appoint a Lokpal, or anti-corruption watchdog, again made Modi’s appeal on the anti-corruption narrative weak.
Modi and his party workers pursuing an aggressive religion-based agenda and the recent attempt to impose and defend a strange, rigid nationalism are creating uneasiness among educated young voters and voters-to-be. This new young-voter class is slowly starting to look for an alternative development model and is no longer ready to buy Modi’s way of politics and nationalism.
The middle-age group, who thought that Modi’s policies would help them their businesses and entrepreneurship flourish, are also adopting an anti-Modi narrative partly because of the imposition of a regressive tax system. On the other hand, Rahul Gandhi, with his clean image, is winning the narrative of countering Modi on a development agenda and speaking the language of young people on jobs, education, and small business.
Gandhi is trying to give an impression that he believes in the idea of a nation where a billion people can choose their destiny and live in harmony together and work hard to preserve a country that is secular and tolerant.
Gandhi is also trying hard to sell to young people the concept that everyone is entitled to his or her own viewpoints, and it is important to provide space to every view as every perspective is unique.
In his speeches, Gandhi is trying to showcase that Congress believes in inclusion and compassion, not force and violence. He is also voraciously advocating inclusion and compassion and battling to keep the secular spirit of the country in a true sense.
The recent image makeover of the Congress party and Modi’s disconnect with young voters may give Rahul Gandhi an edge over Modi in the 2019 general election. Apart from the new-young-voter sector, which is slowly switching and looking for a young leader, the poor governance in almost all BJP-ruled states may play against Modi and help Gandhi challenge him in 2019.