MODI STILL THE MOST POPULAR LEADER

Election results in Gujarat and now in Rajasthan have spurred the Opposition, specially the Congress. Some observers have also been taken in by the results (see above story). But the BJP has fought back with two big ideas in the budget – the decision to pay farmers a minimum support price of 1.5 times the production cost and launch the Ayushman Bharat scheme (National Health Protection Scheme) by October 2. These two schemes have the potential to reinforce Modi’s existing popularity in rural India.

Addressing unease in the countryside

The unease in the countryside caused by the unremunerative returns from agriculture has worried the BJP. It was farmer disquiet that was the principal factor behind the Congress winning a large number of rural seats in the recent Gujarat assembly elections. This, despite the BJP winning nearly 49 per cent of the total popular vote – a decisively winning share under normal circumstances. With both Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh being largely rural states, as opposed to Gujarat, the BJP needs to fix this festering problem.

Instead of placating farmers with the usual loan write-offs, Swapan Dasgupta, senior journalist and Rajya Sabha MP writes, the Modi government “chose to address the problem in a very different way by accepting the M.S. Swaminathan Committee report, which recommended the minimum support price of both the rabi and kharif crop at 1.5 times the production costs. This has also been the recurring demand of most farmers’ organizations. According to the economist, Ashok Gulati, if the farmers’ demands are fully met by the committee made up of representatives of the Centre, states and the Niti Aayog, the minimum support price of paddy and soya bean will increase by 44 per cent, maize by 47 per cent, groundnut by 38 per cent and long-staple cotton by 52 per cent. It may be reassuring that this proposed accretion seems a step in the creation of a National Agriculture Market. Predictably, this is not going to happen overnight but the seeds have been sown and pressure from below could result in the gradual erosion of restrictive practices that have marred Indian agriculture.”

What the budget has, in effect, proposed, says Dasgupta “is a Farmers’ Pay Commission that will certainly add to rural liquidity and could even have inflationary consequences. More important, by trying to remove the issue of agricultural prices from day-to-day politics and create an institutional structure, there is a parallel attempt to derail the emergence of caste-based agitations by powerful rural communities such as Patidars, Jats, Marathas and Kapus. Naturally, to take the fullest political advantage of this proposed financial bonanza, the BJP will have to redefine its rural party structure quite considerably. Despite having strong rural support, the BJP is still not perceived by rural communities as a farmers’ party….”

The National Health Protection Scheme

The Ayushman Bharat scheme (National Health Protection Scheme) is far more ambitious according to Dasgupta. “In trying to create a government-financed health insurance scheme, backed by a network of upgraded public hospitals, that covers nearly 50 crore people, Modi has set the bar very high. On paper, a rupees five lakh health coverage for people who have taken a fatalistic view of medical treatment for serious ailments represents a heady dream. It is expected that by October 2, the basic scheme will be rolled out and the distribution of Ayushman Bharat cards will begin. Thus, it is conceivable that the BJP will be able to draw electoral mileage from the scheme by the early summer of 2019, even if the larger architecture of Modicare remains woefully incomplete. Most important, the image of Modi who has the best interests of India’s poor at heart could well be reinforced.”

In 2014, the Draft Modi campaign was steered by impulses stemming from traditional BJP supporters and a section of the middle classes and youth. In 2019,

Despite counter claims by the Opposition, Modi is still popular. “However, the social profile of the Modi voter appears to have undergone a change. The centre of gravity of the BJP has been pushed below the economic ladder much more….There is no evidence as yet that the BJP is either demoralized or in panic. There is concern over the Rajasthan by-election results and wariness over the manifestation of anti-incumbency in the winter assembly elections. Alongside this is also a belief that the Lok Sabha election will again be fought as a presidential-style race. In that event, Modi will start with a big advantage. As of now, the political obituaries of Modi are very premature.”