All great prime ministers have one thing in common. They are called great because they lead the whole country.

Jawaharlal Nehru led the whole country because of his role in the freedom movement. Indira Gandhi led the whole country because of her promise to remove poverty at a time when the country had come out of a series of economic and political shocks of the 1960s.

Rajiv Gandhi led it for a much shorter time, just two and half years because after 1987 his leadership frayed away. But while he did, he did lead the whole country by infusing it with new hope after the despair of 1979-84.

And, until recently Narendra Modi, too, did the same. In the general elections of both 2014 and of 2019 he showed that he was indeed the leader of the entire country.

But that seems no longer to be the case. His handling of the second wave of the Corona virus has greatly diminished his stature and electoral appeal.

Indeed, even in Gujarat, his home State of which he was chief minister for 12 years, he is now on the defensive. In 2017, for example, the BJP went from 115 seats to just 99, a bare majority in the house of 182.

Even in UP, his adoptive State, and politically the most important, his name is no longer enough to attract the voter.

In 2017 it had won 306 of the 416 seats. In 2022 it could drop as many as a 100 of these seats.

Some people have argued that Modi’s electoral appeal had already begun to fade by the end of 2017 when the BJP did so badly in Gujarat. But in the 2019 general election he showed that he was still the most popular leader by far.

The BJP won 303 seats, up from 282 in 2014. Whatever the proximate reasons like Pulwama and Balakote, the fact remains that Modi retained his enormous popularity even though his party was failing to win Assembly elections decisively, and even losing many of them.

The slippery slope

However, as the tussle with the Chief Minister of UP, Adityanath over the last few months shows, the satrap has now started challenging him. The issue is how many seats will the BJP high command allot in the 2022 Assembly election and how many Adityanath. He wants half, it seems.

Such is the force of Adityanath’s appeal — in my view it is exaggerated — that Modi has had to reluctantly endorse him in the most fulsome manner. This suggests weakness which has been caused directly by the huge knock his image took between April and June this year during the devastating second wave of the virus.

Suddenly everyone was left wondering about his priorities. Was winning West Bengal so important to him that he abandoned the people to their fates against the virus?

Ditto the Kumbh which, dismayingly, was brought forward by a year. The truth is that there have been far too many deaths and, whether it is fair to him or not, Modi is being blamed for them. As a result, the electorate now sees him as being less competent than it had been led to believe.

This is not all. As the Assembly election in West Bengal showed, his presence on a ticket no longer guarantees victory.

Just how true this is will be tested in 16 Assembly elections — yes, 16 — between now and the general election of 2024. Seven of these are to be held next year and nine the year after.

One immediate side effect of this is the virtual end of any kind of reform. But there are two other side effects.

These happen to all prime ministers who start off as great leaders of the country as a whole. Indeed, it seems to be a natural progression.

Role diminished

Often prime ministers lose ground in the following manner. They go from being leaders of the whole country to being leaders of the party and then just leaders of just the government.

Had he not died of old age in 1964, it would have happened to Nehru because of the defeat in the war with China in 1962. The elections of 1967, when Lok Sabha and State Assembly elections used to be held together, the Congress — read Nehru — had lost its overwhelming appeal. The same thing happened to Indira Gandhi in 1973 and Rajiv Gandhi in 1987.

As you can see, the period when they hold massive sway has become shorter. In that sense, Modi has been more successful, winning two general elections with absolute majorities. But that appeal seems to have become nearly non-existent now.

Modi is currently in the phase where he leads the party but not the country. It will be interesting to see when he is reduced to leading the government alone. It could happen as early as March 2022 if the BJP loses between 75 and 100 seats in UP.

It should be added here that, should that happen, the BJP will find it hard to get its candidate elected as India’s President in the 2022 election.

This means having to make deals with smaller parties, mostly in the South. And that means the beginning of the end of the Modi era in Indian politics.