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2021 was Narendra Modi’s most challenging year as Prime Minister. The second Covid-19 wave hit India with all its ferocity, the BJP lost in West Bengal in a high-stakes fight, fuel prices burnt a hole in the pocket of citizens, five BJP Chief Ministers were changed and Modi had to rollback one of his boldest decisions, the farm laws.

“It was a challenging year for the country… PM Modi led from the front,” a senior functionary in the government contended.

One steps into 2022 with an impending third wave in sight amidst the globally exploding situation over the Omicron variant. The scenario may not look so optimistic to some, but Modi clearly remains the ‘Numero Uno’ bet to counter the country’s challenges. A leader to whom there seems no threat politically even after over seven years in the chair with the opposition having little to challenge him in terms of an acceptable face or a credible narrative. “Modi’s political capital remains tremendous,” the senior functionary said.

It is important to understand why this is so. A senior Union Minister explained to News18.com that the Opposition often mistakes an ongoing crisis for an opportunity against Modi without realising that the popular public support remains behind him.

It is this public sentiment of backing a leader with a strong nationalistic streak — who is further delivering to the poor a ‘complete package’ of benefits like drinking water, houses, cylinders, toilets, medical insurance, free rations and vaccines — that stands Modi in good stead, the minister argued.

Attacking him on alleged corruption or ‘Hindutva vs Hindu’ — the two approaches taken by Rahul Gandhi so far — have not shown much resonance among the electorate. The first one failed spectacularly in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and the second one will be put to test in the upcoming Assembly elections in five states.

“So they are questioning if Modi is a true Hindu? The man who is behind building the Ram Temple in Ayodhya and the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor in Varanasi is not a true Hindu? Modi does not need to even answer such inane charges. His simple action like taking a dip in the Ganga in Kashi gave the answer to Rahul Gandhi,” a senior BJP leader said.

The move to withdraw the farm laws was seen by some as sign of a ‘weakened Modi’ but the PM has been able to impress that it was done keeping nationalist concern at the forefront and with the foresight to not let a border state succumb to radical designs.

His act of seeking forgiveness blunted the narrative of the ‘Sikh identity’ issue turning against him. Subsequent incidents like the sacrilege attempt at the Golden Temple in Amritsar and a blast in Ludhiana proved Modi’s assessment correct that anti-India forces had been trying to stir trouble in Punjab.

Two recent statements made by Home Minister Amit Shah encapsulated the ‘Modi factor’ in challenging times. Shah first said a few wrong decisions may have been taken by the Modi government but the intention was never mala-fide.

He elaborated further on December 25 that Modi has never taken decisions which people would like but took decisions which are good for the people. He said due to this, Modi has, at times, suffered political damage and bitterness but never wavered from the path. That brings us to Modi, the consummate politician.

The Political Opportunity

The ‘pain’ of not winning in West Bengal after a hopeful Lok Sabha performance in the state would rank as a significant political disappointment for Modi. Elections are fought to be won, at all costs and going all hog — this mantra of the BJP since 2014 under Modi was the most pronounced in 2021, most in West Bengal where the party pulled all stops.

Also, from not announcing sitting CM Sarbananda Sonowal as the face in Assam and replacing him with Himanta Biswa Sarma after the poll win, changing two CMs in Uttarakhand, replacing veteran CM BS Yediyurappa in Karnataka and ultimately removing Vijay Rupani as the CM of his home state Gujarat, Modi chose the option of doing ‘damage control before damage was actually done’ during impending elections in these states.

Modi’s message was clear – a leader’s popularity and governance record remain the paramount factors.

This got further reinforced with pictures that emerged this year of PM Modi walking with his hand on the shoulder of Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath, his surprise hand-picked choice for the biggest state in 2017. Modi’s opponents cite that he is no longer that big a vote-puller in state elections but those close to the PM claim that debate may get settled in the all-important Uttar Pradesh elections. The BJP is confident of returning to power in the state with a big margin.

Uttar Pradesh could be the highlight for BJP and PM Modi in 2022 with a win there possibly paving the course for the return of Modi as the PM for the third time in 2024. Modi is a far bigger factor in UP too, having a big stake in the state as the MP from Varanasi. He has toured UP a dozen times in the last two months, and has more plans.

If the party is able to retain Uttarakhand, too, in March and continue its winning run in Gujarat later this year during elections, Modi’s decision of replacing the incumbent Chief Ministers would prove to be a masterstroke. Also poll-bound in 2022, Goa, Manipur and Himachal Pradesh are states where the BJP did not go for a change of CMs.

In Goa, the BJP is also fighting a spirited charge from AAP and latest entrant TMC. But the BJP feels the state Assembly results in 2022 will take the steam out of the Opposition camp and unity.

The Unknown Factor

Amidst all this, the Covid-19 pandemic remains an unknown factor for Modi and the country. How the Omicron or future variants of Covid-19 will play out in India, will the ramped up infrastructure in terms of hospital beds and oxygen plants be enough to not have a repeat of the second wave will continue to be a test for the Prime Minister.

A start has been made by opening additional dose vaccination for healthcare and frontline workers as well as co-morbid seniors. Vaccination is also being rolled out for teenagers between 15 and 18 years of age. India has done the biggest vaccination drive in the world under Modi’s leadership with 62% of the eligible population being fully vaccinated.

Opinions may vary but Modi remains a calming factor for many in distressing times.

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