COVID-19 or no, India's Narendra Modi may be back in 2024 elections

India is in the middle of fighting the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The last two months have been a complete nightmare as hospitals and doctors have struggled with the sheer number of cases and fatalities.

As this wave spreads to large swathes of rural India, bodies have been piling up with many not even recorded as COVID deaths. The real extent of this disaster in India may never be known.

No one blames the government for the pandemic. After all, the entire world has been struggling with this crisis. However the government of India is facing massive anger over its handling of the situation.

Warnings about a second wave were ignored, health infrastructure was not prepared, premature victories over COVID were declared starting with the Prime Minister, which lead to the entire system lowering its guard.

As politicians campaigned for elections without masks, the message that went out to the people was that it is business as usual. In April, however, it all hit home as people struggled for oxygen and hospital beds and literally dropped dead.

But will all this anger and fury have a political impact on the BJP’s electoral fortunes and specifically on the Prime Minister? I am sceptical.

An angry country

There is no doubt people are furious with the government, that the middle class that has so resoundingly supported the BJP in poll after poll, is today angry with the government as they struggle to breathe and find oxygen.

This outrage is more visible precisely because the more affluent were among the worst hit. But there is a long, long way to go for the next general election. 2024 is three years away and three years are a very long time in politics.

Modi’s image as a strongman and efficient administrator may have been badly dented at the moment, but he still commands huge support for a variety of reasons. One, he has been deified by a large section of BJP supporters who see him as a messiah and the country’s patriarch.

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It is an image the Prime Minister has also carefully cultivated, such as meditating in a cave after the 2019 election campaign, while the long, flowing beard and long hair that has come to be his signature look now, only further enhances the myth of the sage. For millions of India’s poor and underprivileged, he is the hero who overcame his humble background to become India’s leader, without privilege or dynasty.

And for many more, he is the Hindutva mascot, the ultimate Hindu strongman who protects the interests of the Hindu community. These are the people who cheered when a Muslim majority state like Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of its semi autonomy and downgraded to a union territory.

No alternative to Modi?

These are the people who believe the Congress “appeased” India’s minorities for decades at the cost of the majority community so “it is good that Muslims are being shown their place”. Then there are those who simply don’t see an alternative to Modi.

However history shows us that if people are angry enough, they can vote out governments, and prime ministers, face or no face. Indira Gandhi paid the price after the Emergency and there was no opposition face when Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost the 2004 general elections in a shock defeat. The question is: are people angry enough the vote out the BJP?

The jury is still out on whether the mishandling of the pandemic hurt the BJP in Bengal, where the last few phases coincided with the rising graph of cases. It forced the election campaign to be cut short as well. There is no doubt that if the BJP had won Bengal, the party would have spun that win into a massive PR tool to claim that people were satisfied with the government’s response.

The fact that the party lost this very high stakes election is significant for many reasons. One, it disproves the “infallibility” of the BJP and the Prime Minister. They have lost elections before but Bengal was a different kind of prestige battle, one where the BJP played every trick in the book, even boldly declaring on more than one occasion that they would win over 200 seats. Mamata Banerjee’s landslide win is therefore important.

A national battle

It also shows that it is regional forces who have a real shot at taking on the might of Modi. But will that be enough when this becomes a national battle? Will these regional leaders be able to put aside their inherent contradictions and prime ministerial ambitions to take on the BJP?

Media reports over the last couple of weeks have suggested a deep discomfort in the ranks of the BJP and RSS over the perception that the government dropped the ball on COVID.

In the recent UP panchayat polls, the BJP faced major losses in its bastions like Ayodhya while Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party made big gains. Ahead of next year’s assembly polls in the state, the results were another set back to the BJP soon after Bengal.

Many party leaders have openly criticised the lack of health care infrastructure in the state where Chief Minister Adityanath is presiding over a massive health care crisis.

Yes, the criticism the Prime Minister and the government are facing today is unprecedented. But the BJP is counting on memories being short and the teflon image of Modi to see them through. It just might.

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