Three years in office often takes its toll on the popularity of a leader, as expectations from an incumbent remain high. Rajiv Gandhi won the biggest mandate in Indian electoral history, but midway through his term the Bofors scandal took the halo away. VP Singh lost middle class support with his cynical manoeuvre of deciding to implement the Mandal Commission report on backward caste job quotas.
P.V. Narasimha Rao was done in by the Babri Masjid destruction and attempts to split Hindutva supporters through shady godmen. Bharatiya Janata Party helmsman Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost focus mid-term due to an inability to carry with him the support of the wider support base—the Sangh Parivar. Manmohan Singh’s lack of political acumen and pressures of coalition politics made him lose his reputation as he failed to check rampant corruption in the government.
Barring Nehru there has been no Indian prime minister to have a smooth sailing during his or her third year in office. Indira Gandhi had faced severe challenges both within the party and outside during her two tenures in office.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who became the first leader in three decades to get a majority in the Lower House of Parliament, is emerging as an exception to the long list of predecessors who lost momentum midway in office and were relegated to history. Modi’s popularity as the tallest leader remains unchallenged. The recent sweeping mandate in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly and Delhi civic elections has reinforced Modi’s standing.
The biggest advantage Modi enjoys is he has no challenges within and outside the government. The Congress’ prospective candidate, Rahul Gandhi, continues to be viewed as a lightweight and a reluctant challenger. An impending election of the President and the Vice-President this summer will further strengthen the Prime Minister’s position as BJP candidates are expected to romp home.
A Cabinet reshuffle is also expected to reinforce Modi’s standing and would be precursor to the Prime Minister outlining his strategy to drum up popular support for the next general elections, still two years away.
A favourable monsoon would provide an opportunity for the government to celebrate on the economic front as well, even if lack of fresh jobs has prevented the government from fully meeting the aspirations of the youth. Many of the government’s pro-poor schemes – Jan Dhan, Mudra, Pahal, Fasal Bima Yojana, Soil Health Card and Krishi Sinchai Yojana—have started bearing fruits.
Many attribute the BJP’s decisive win in the UP Assembly elections to Ujala LPG scheme, which enabled the government to provide free LPG to women living below the poverty line. Low global crude oil prices for the past three years has helped in keeping the trade deficit at manageable level and enabled the government to experiment boldly on social welfare scheme.
The biggest achievement of Modi has been the ability to get Parliamentary approval for the much debated Goods and Services Tax, billed as the biggest indirect tax reform measure since independence. The Constitution amendment bill had been locked in logjam for over a decade as no party in office had the requisite two-thirds majority in Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of Parliament. By all indications, GST, which is expected to subsume all local taxes, will be implemented from July 1 this year.
However, there are areas of concern as job creation remains very low. Rising protectionism across the world may create problem in navigating the swings in domestic and global economy. Cross border terrorism abetted by Pakistan and strained relations with China since Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh remains troubled. Deft moves to counter Pakistan and improvement in ties with China will be initiatives that will be watched in coming months. Herein lays the test of Modi’s diplomacy and ability to overcome tough times.