By Ashok Malik
In its sheer magnitude as well as potential consequences, the BJP’s and Narendra Modi’s victory in Uttar Pradesh is without parallel. The previous victory of similar size in an assembly election in India’s most populous state was that of the Congress in 1985, shortly after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Modi has won a good 50 seats more in 2017 than the Congress did back then.
Unlike Rajiv Gandhi, he has done this alone, without able state-level leaders and in a much more competitive polity. The Congress in the 1980s had ND Tiwari as the Brahmin chieftain, VP Singh as the Thakur face, with a gamut of sub-regional vote mobilisers. In contrast, Modi is a oneman army. He has won this huge mandate not at the beginning of his prime ministerial term – as was the case with Rajiv – but at past the half-way mark. The next general election is just over two years away.
What then are the implications of Modi’s victory and enhancement of political capital at a stage when prime ministers are usually struggling with discontent and reelection concerns? For a start, he will escape the sort of pressure that usually weighs down a government in its closing 18-24 months. Victory in 2019 is far from guaranteed and will still require hard work, but Modi will not need to make political and policy compromises in the months ahead.
Take an example. The goods and services tax (GST) is due to be implemented from July 1, 2017. In its first year or two, GST will inevitably cause confusion. In the short run, it may even push up prices for certain items and commodities in certain geographies. That is why any government would ideally want to roll out GST at the beginning of a five-year term.
If Uttar Pradesh had gone badly, there would have been murmurs in the BJP that Modi should postpone GST and not risk it just before 2019. Now, with this mandate and these numbers in the heartland state, Modi can go ahead confident that his voter trusts him. Even when the voter does not fully grasp the long-term fallout of a single move – such as demonetisation – he or she retains faith in Modi and in the prime minister’s resolve to do the right thing.
This trust, this covenant between citizen and political leader, is an intangible. It is easy to dismiss it in the cynicism of drawing-room analysis and television-studio bombast. Yet, this trust is a powerful political force multiplier. It gives Modi room for not just GST but to restructure his government in any manner he wants.
Is a restructuring likely? To some degree, yes. When Modi came to office in 2014, he had spent the preceding months battling in-house rivals and being convulsed in an exhausting election campaign. He had little time to think about cabinet positions and who to place where in his government.
The Uttar Pradesh victory has allowed him – and allowed India – the chance of seven years of stability, if one accepts he is a clear favourite for re-election. As such, this will give him the opportunity to put in place a team for the post-2019 period.
With presidential and vice-presidential elections due, with new chief ministers to be appointed, it is possible Modi may have to sacrifice some ministers for these roles. He will need to fill those gaps by shuffling his pack or bringing in new talent.
He will also have to worry less about mollifying the disgruntled MPs, recognising that his decisions are not going be challenged and nobody in his camp is in a position to bargain hard, much less resort to blackmail.
For stakeholders in the economy, the prospect of seven years of stability and continuity is a relief. It more than makes up for any complaints that may exist about individual policy moves or reforms not being undertaken. In a turbulent and uncertain world order, marked by disruption and flux, India post-March 11 offers the opportunity of a significant period of calm.
In the civil services too, a message will hit home. If Modi had lost Uttar Pradesh, the bureaucracy would have been wary about his final years and the sustainabilityof his policy actions under a future, post-2019 dispensation.
Now, that lull and “pen down” instinct that periodically takes over the bureaucracy will be curbed. In strengthening Modi’s hands, Uttar Pradesh has helped India land on its feet.