Modi's sitting pretty with opposition in disarray
The main reason for the surge in Modi's popularity, particularly in north India, is the terrorist bombing and his retaliation to it with an airstrike.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi today looks comfortably perched to return to power after the next parliamentary election, expected to be announced on March 8 (Modi reportedly likes the number and important decisions like demonetisation were announced on the eighth). His popularity has grown after the terrorist attack in Pulwama, Kashmir, on February 14. It grew despite the economy's continued slowdown, as evidenced by the recently-released GDP quarterly growth figures that showed a sub-seven per cent growth in October-December 2018; despite the fact that the job crisis is not abating (economists agree that India needs double-digit growth to accommodate the million job-seekers entering the market each month); and despite continuing agrarian distress, shown at 2.8 per cent for the last quarter of 2018, in nominal terms the lowest since 2004.
The main reason for the surge in Modi's popularity, particularly in north India, is the terrorist bombing and his retaliation to it with an airstrike. Even during the 12-day gap between the two, support for Modi had palpably grown due to the siege mentality that enveloped the country, especially the Hindi-speaking states. And despite the confusion over the airstrike's actual achievement, the fact that he took the step of ordering it has given him the image of being a decisive and strong leader - an image he has always sought to project. If before February 14 Modi looked as if his party might lose 100 Lok Sabha seats (from its 2014 tally of 283) and as if he might be replaced by transport minister Nitin Gadkari if the BJP needed to cobble up an actual coalition to retain power, it appears that Modi has swung the vote towards himself by a few percentage points. This translates to an additional 20-30 seats, pushing his party comfortably over the 200-seat mark, and giving Modi enough space to lead the next government even if he is forced to run a real coalition.
Modi also benefits from the fact that the biggest casualties of both the bombing and the airstrike appear to be the opposition parties. The grand alliance (mahagathbandhan) seems to be going nowhere. The Congress party appears aloof. To be sure, there is reason for the Congress shell-shock: the new party general secretary, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, from whom there is great expectation of reviving the party in the country's largest state, UP, has been displaced from the public mind by national security concerns. She was to give her first press conference on the very day that the bombing took place and she naturally cancelled the meet. It has yet to be rescheduled.
Then there was the announcement by UP's big non-BJP parties, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, that in addition to UP they would also contest the parliamentary election in alliance in Uttrakhand and in Madhya Pradesh. They had already excluded Congress from the UP alliance, and this would seem to shut the door on future seat adjustments with India's Grand Old Party. It is partly because of the Congress party's own arrogance - in Delhi, for instance, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal repeatedly publicly asked the Congress for an alliance to contest the capital's seven seats; former CM Sheila Dikshit, dragged out from a bygone era, has repeatedly spurned him. Kejriwal has gone ahead and announced most of his Aam Aadmi Party's candidates from Delhi.
The Congress also seems blasé about an alliance in UP, since it figures that the rise of national security as the dominant political issue hurts the BSP-SP anyway. While the BSP's core voters are loyal and will vote as its leader Mayawati tells them to, the SP's core voter would rather vote "Hindu" than vote for her, particularly after the recent bombing and airstrike. If the government can keep voter focus on national security, then Modi will reap great rewards from UP's 80 Lok Sabha seats.
Similarly, the Congress is still haggling with its alliance partner (since 2004), the Rashtriya Janata Dal, over the last three seats to be sorted out in Bihar. Though that might get sorted out - and the alliance's prospects are rosier in Bihar's 40 seats than in UP - the other worry for the Congress is Maharashtra, India's second largest state with 48 parliamentary seats. Despite its alliance sealed with Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party, the national security fever has led to informal projections that the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance will win two-thirds of the seats.
Beyond the Congress, the mahagathbandhan has gone silent. West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee did demand that the PM brief her and other CMs on the recent bombing and airstrike, but no one joined her in chorus. Opposition meetings have happened but there hasn't been much of an impact - perhaps because the media is hostile to everyone other than Modi, and perhaps because they are keeping their cards close to their chest till the election is actually announced. Perhaps issues of livelihood can re-emerge during the campaign - it will be a long, drawn-out election - and things can always change overnight. At the moment, however, Modi undoubtedly holds pole position.
Aditya Sinha is a senior journalist based in India, and author, most recently, of India Unmade: How the Modi government broke the economy