Opinion: The Modi Factor Overrides All Campaign Issues

My neighbour, a senior engineer, said Prime Minister Narendra Modi has the special blessings of Lord Shiva, and he would not stop until he has destroyed the Opposition.

This sort of wholehearted applause was heard over and over as millions watched the BJP go beyond the fondest expectations of its supporters in elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh.

Despite the euphoria, the BJP will definitely examine the election results with a cool head. The election results may be seen as an endorsement of the style of governance adopted by the BJP in Delhi and in the states ruled by the party. It will be tempted to do more of the same thing instead of tweaking its style ahead of the parliamentary elections in 2024.

We need to delve into whether the BJP scored a stupendous victory in three states because of its style of governance or the perception that the Prime Minister is a strong and trustworthy leader. The Modi factor and overall governance are different, though they may seem like two sides of the same coin. The distinction is important.

The fact is, Modi dominated the state election like a colossus. Efforts by the Congress to puncture the goodwill towards the Prime Minister did not yield results.

Modi is more than a leader. He is a factor competing with other election-related issues like the influence of caste and the people's satisfaction or dissatisfaction with local governments. The BJP won in Rajasthan as the incumbency factor restricted the Congress, while it gained ground in Madhya Pradesh despite anti-incumbency.

Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi won elections for nearly two decades until her assassination in 1984 due to something described as the "Indira factor". Ardent believers even called it the "Durga syndrome".

Congressmen under her were corrupt and arrogant. This did not affect her popularity or diminish her magnetism. Congress leaders fawned over her as Gandhi rose to become the primary vote-getter, rendering many leading politicians useless at the hustings.

The BJP is in a similar position today with Modi as the primary vote-getter. Though Yogi Adityanath has built some kind of mini-cult among a section of people in Uttar Pradesh and Shivraj Singh Chouhan has a strong following of his own in Madhya Pradesh, they are satellites of planet Modi. Yogi and Chouhan would be powerless without the Modi factor backing them.

After the latest elections, the BJP does not need props like the Ram temple issue or the Sanatan Dharma debate, as long as Modi is available to make whirlwind campaign tours in 2024. This one factor is enough. The election results are a confirmation that this factor continues to hold sway.

This is the time when the Prime Minister and his government should raise their attention on governance and improve the delivery of welfare schemes. Many issues are crying for attention. The lack of sufficient doctors and medical equipment in rural areas is one such.

The recent crisis when 41 workers were trapped in a highway construction tunnel for 17 days is an example. The episode raised serious questions, not just about the design and construction work but also about how the government and supervisory agencies had allowed such lopsided construction without an escape route for the workers.

The tunnel crisis shows that the bureaucracy, particularly those involved in supervising government projects, have a mind of their own. These self-serving officials need to be identified and punished before another breaks out.

The Modi factor supersedes all other issues in the Hindi-speaking belt barring Bihar, which is yet to be tested. Most of the BJP's issue-based campaigns, like the temple issue, are focused on the Hindi belt. These campaigns may not be required. Instead, BJP leaders should be seen by the public as directing welfare schemes by physically being present at the points of delivery.

The ruling party, which sent ministers and MPs to different states to campaign for elections, should now ask them to closely monitor and supervise the implementation of projects and government schemes.

The poll results have spurred an important question: are freebies enough to sway voters against something like the Modi factor? The freebies offered by Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot did not stop the Congress from losing a large number of seats it was holding.

Freebies like the popular cheap rice distribution schemes in Tamil Nadu refashioned to meet urban needs by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, have now come to stay. Politicians of all parties would be forced to offer it not merely to sway voters but to stay in competition with rival parties making tall promises.

But the question still remains about the extent to which it is useful in a scenario where all parties offer more of the same. Being a ruling party at the centre, the BJP needs to worry about the strain that freebies will impose on the national exchequer and how it would reduce the amount of funds needed for infrastructure development and other programmes.

As a leader who is admired at home and abroad, the Prime Minister has reasons to be concerned about his legacy as an effective administrator and statesman, which is much weightier than the image of an election winner.

This is why the BJP should use the opportunity offered by the election results and the confirmation of the power of the Modi image to concentrate on performance and delivery.

(Saibal Dasgupta is a journalist, author, and China expert)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.