With the crowds that once eagerly attended and cheered Narendra Modi’s every rally no longer so keen to turn up, the Indian Prime Minister’s battle for a second term in office may be in trouble.
Modi’s Sunday rally at Patna, the capital of the eastern Indian state of Bihar, seemed to draw a very thin crowd. The photographs of the rally, which went viral on social media, showed the Gandhi Maidan at only about 30% of its capacity of 500,000 people.
The political rally in preparation for the general elections saw Modi and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar share the stage for the first time in a decade.
It had been organized by the ruling coalition National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The three allies, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Janata Dal United (JD-U) headed by Kumar and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) led by federal minister Ram Vilas Paswan, made every effort and put in a lot of money to try and make the rally a resounding success.
The NDA employed all the usual tricks to attract crowds to the rally. As many as 18 trains were booked along with 8,000 luxury buses and over 15,000 sports utility vehicles to ferry villagers to the rally ground. Free food and bottled drinking water was provided and arrangements were made for participants’ accommodation and entertainment.
Yet still the crowd stayed away.
A major ‘flop’?
The opposition called the rally a “flop” and criticized the NDA for misusing government machinery to draw crowds to an election rally.
The leader of the opposition in the state assembly, Rashtriya Janata Dal’s (RJD), Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, mocked the NDA, saying that despite the misuse of government machinery, people still did not turn up.
RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav also took a dig, tweeting: “PM Modi, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan used the government machinery at their disposal to draw crowds to Gandhi Maidan, but managed to get only the numbers that come to meet me when I stop my vehicle at a paan (betal) shop. Go on then, put some more effort into zooming those cameras.”
BJP should worry
This was a grim reminder of how the Prime Minister, who was once known as a “crowd puller”, is slowly losing his hold over the masses.
Such a development has alarmed the Hindu nationalist BJP ahead of the upcoming general elections as Bihar is one of the key electoral states in the Hindi heartland.
The BJP did well in the state in the 2005 and 2010 Assembly elections with Kumar led-JD(U) as an ally. But the Modi-Nitish rivalry led to a split in the NDA in 2013. Kumar then went into a Grand Alliance with RJD and was able to defeat the BJP despite the Modi wave in later elections. But Kumar later returned to the NDA in 2017 by breaking the alliance with the RJD.
The BJP is now set to contest 25 of the 40 Parliamentary seats in Bihar at the 2019 general elections. The rest will go to its allies including the JD-U, the LJP and Rashtriya Lok Samta Party.
However the response to Modi’s Bihar rally may not bode well for the BJP in the upcoming general elections. The BJP has already lost three Hindi heartland states in the 2018 Assembly elections.
Political commentators describe the reason for a low turnout as one of “crowd fatigue”.
They say that Modi effectively launched his election campaign as soon as he came to power after the 2014 general elections. He has continued addressing rallies in all corners of India, eclipsing other leaders in his party.
He has also addressed the masses as many as 53 times through his program “Maan Ki Baat” (heart’s voice) through the radio. Apparently, the overdose of his speeches is now working against him.
“The crowd is now tired of listening him almost every day, but his speeches remain the same. They have mostly been of preaching nature or criticizing the opposition. No other Indian Prime Minister has addressed the masses so many times in the past. So, the masses don’t want to listen to him. Many of them have even switched off the TV sets once they notice him going live with his speeches,” political expert DM Diwakar told Asia Times.
According to Diwakar, many disagree with Modi’s recent speeches after the Balakot air strike. “They (people) have come to realize that the PM is making emotive speeches just to make electoral gains. The masses are more matured now and you can’t fool them,” Diwakar explains, adding the general people now want to see results, and not hear “preaching”.
Social scientist Sachindra Narayan, a former professor at Patna-based AN Sinha Institute of Social studies said: “The PM has been quite repetitive in his speeches and focused on criticizing either Pakistan or the Congress (especially the Nehru-Gandhi family). Initially, the people showed interest in them, but are not ready to hear him blaming the Congress or Pakistan for (everything) all the time. After all, he too has been in power for five years.”
He also said that the people are disillusioned over non-fulfillment of commitments made by Modi. “(The) majority of the commitments Modi made through his party manifesto remain unfulfilled even after five years,” Narayan adds.
The government claims that job opportunities increased in his tenure. But according to data compiled by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the unemployment rate in India rose to 7.2% in February 2019, the highest since September 2016.
The government recently withheld data regarding unemployment because officials said they needed to check its veracity. The figures that were withheld in December were leaked to a local newspaper that showed that India’s unemployment rate rose to its highest level in at least 45 years in 2017/18.
“Also, the PM made commitments to grant special category status and special financial package of 1,250 billion rupees to Bihar state, but now he doesn’t even talk about them. So, the people are not taking him seriously anymore,” Narayan said.
The general opinion is that the prime minister has been raising the issues of national security, terrorist attacks and Congress’ family rule just to divert attention from main issues which he has failed to address despite being in power for five years.