India’s political current seems to be rushing towards a turbulent spring. The results of the five state elections have infused new energy in the long moribund opposition Congress. And, it has transformed Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, from a derided scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty into a credible challenger. Conversely, it has dispelled the aura of invincibility that surrounded the BJP and diminished the personal ‘charisma’ of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The implications of the voting pattern in the three states the BJP lost are more important for the general election.
The results of the recently concluded assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana and Mizoram, are a massive blow for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It has dispelled the aura of invincibility that surrounded the party and diminished the personal charisma, built up over the years of vigorous campaigning, of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Conversely, victory in the three BJP-ruled states in the Hindi heartland has transformed Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, from a derided scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty into a credible challenger. Gandhi not only halted the Congress’s decline, but infused new energy in the party cadres, since succeeding his mother Sonia Gandhi as the party’s president last year.
Out of the five states, Telangana and Mizoram are considered outliers and their polls were won by regional parties Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and Mizo National Front (MNF) respectively with little national influence. But the other three Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan together home to some 168 million people, form a giant chunk of the Hindi-speaking states, the very base of the BJP. Polls and pundits had seen just one of them, Rajasthan, as vulnerable to a Congress surge, but the grand old party of India grabbed all the three.
The BJP has governed Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh for 15 years and has enjoyed a huge majority in Rajasthan for the past five years. In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress won 114 seats (of 230) and has formed government with the help of allies. The BJP could win only 109 seats, seven short of the required simple majority (116).
The Congress’s performance in Chhattisgarh was even more remarkable, where it bagged 68 of the 90 assembly seats, thereby ensuring a thumping defeat for the BJP.
In Rajasthan, where the ruling BJP government of Vasundhara Raje Scindia was battling a strong anti-incumbency wave owing to a particularly lacklustre performance over the past five years, the Congress ended up with 99 seats of 199.
The implications of the voting pattern in the three states the BJP lost are more important for the national election. Of the 545 seats in the Lower House of the parliament the trio account for 65, of which the BJP holds 59. Given the typically close correlation between state and national results, that number will surely fall in the national vote. Moreover, the outcome in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan may give a sense of public sentiment in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh, which furnishes another 68 of the BJP’s 273 MPs. The electorate of UP is concerned by similar issues. If they perform in the national elections the way they did in the states, they stand no chance of winning.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” After coming into power in 2014, Prime Minister Modi and his cohorts, wielding the biggest majority in a generation, boasted about to rid India entirely of Congress, the party that had ruled it for most of the previous six decades. In state after state the BJP did indeed trounce its doddering rival, spreading a widening swathe of saffron across the political map of the country. With the general election due in less than six months, and Congress’s toehold having shrunk to just three of the country’s 29 states, Modi looked set to waltz into another five-year term.
Is hard-line Hindu politics failing Modi?
After the five state assembly election debacle, there was a great deal of introspection within and outside the party. And the main questions were: has the BJP’s recent pursuit of a hard-line Hindu agenda – known as Hindutva – backfired? Will a departure from an inclusive, development agenda to a polarising, communal one cost the BJP general election too?
These are legitimate questions because the party deployed the chief minister of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, widely considered a controversial figure because of his well-publicised anti-Muslim comments, as its star campaigner in the five states that went to polls.
Adityanath addressed 74 election rallies while Prime Minister Modi, who is usually his party’s star campaigner, addressed just 31.
The Yogi, who was seen as a ‘poster boy’ for the hardline Hindu agenda, also spent the past few months courting the Sangh Parivar – a ‘family’ of Hindu nationalist organisations including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu organisation with umbilical ties to the BJP.
The Sangh Parivar also includes the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which has been at the forefront of a movement demanding the construction of Ram temple on the site of a 16th Century mosque that was torn down by Hindu mobs in 1992, provoking widespread riots that left thousands dead.
Are Hindu nationalists a danger to other Indians?
Adityanath has announced the construction of a giant statue of Ram in the state, and changed the name of the historical city of Allahabad to the more ‘Hindu’ sounding Prayagraj ahead of the forthcoming Ardh Kumbh Mela, one of the world’s largest religious gatherings. But if Adityanath was hoping to prove to the VHP leadership that he is a more willing pursuer of the Hindutva agenda and, therefore, a potential alternative to Modi, the recent electoral defeats do not advance his case. Many observers believe that the BJP’s defeats are because the party deviated from the development agenda that swept them to power in 2014. The pursuit of Hindutva has backfired, they say.
“Just the way people feel disenchanted with the economic policies of the government, the people have also lost faith in this government’s commitment to build the Ram temple. If the VHP and RSS have to come to the street to warn the government about it, what does it tell you? What does it tell the electorate?” one of them said.
Last week, tens of thousands of Hindus gathered in Delhi to demand the expedited construction of the temple and criticised the government for failing to do so. They chanted a striking slogan directly targeting Modi’s stated development-first agenda: “Pehle Ram ko aasan do, phir humko sushasan do (First give Ram a throne, then give us good governance).”
While Modi has never openly supported these hardline elements, his silence on issues such as an increasing number of attacks on Muslims over various issues like eating beef – cows are considered sacred in Hinduism and their slaughter is banned in many Indian states is interpreted as a tacit approval for muscular Hindu politics.
There is also the fact that the RSS played a vital role in the BJP’s 2014 election victory by mobilising and galvanising voters. They are also credited for Modi’s rise from state chief minister to a national figure. Apart from spearheading a sophisticated online and digital campaign in his favour, cadres also held 600 district level meetings across the country to make Modi a familiar name among the rural population.
So even as the liberals suggest that Hindutva has backfired and demand that the government refocus on the economy, there are voices within the BJP which are demanding a more strident return to the party’s “core” agenda including the construction of the Ram temple and renewed focus on efforts to protect cows to reassure their base that the BJP has not abandoned them.
Popular sentiment is shifting against BJP
Considering the state election results, the BJP will struggle to win even one-third of these seats during the federal elections.
The results indicate there is a lot of resentment on the ground against the party and popular sentiment is shifting against it. These three states are predominantly agrarian, where the share of agriculture in GDP and total workforce in agriculture is higher than the national average.
Demonetisation and the haphazard rolling out of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) were massive shocks to the informal economy including agriculture, from which the small-scale entrepreneurs and farmers have not yet completely recovered. This perceived interference is bound to make both domestic and international financial investors circumspect about the workings of an autonomous financial institution and may lead to a crisis in the currency and capital markets. This would surely dent Modi’s image as a reformist Prime Minister, a plank on which he led his campaign in 2014.
Long moribund opposition shows signs of life
These state elections have given a new lease of life to the long moribund opposition party, the Congress. From a situation in which it was almost completely wiped out in the 2014 elections, this comeback in the Hindi heartland is a significant achievement. But that does not mean that the party can take the 2019 elections for granted.
Compared to the electoral machinery of the BJP, the Congress is far behind in the organisational sense. It has managed to tap into the disenchantment of farmers but has not articulated a progressive vision of its own going forward.
Even though Prime Minister Modi remains the most popular leader in India, these elections show he has lost the ability to single-handedly swing elections decisively in his party’s favour.
Another salient feature of these elections was the fact that, for the first-time, jobs were the central issue for the electorate; and farm distress was brought to the forefront during the campaign – something which had been missing in political narratives over the past four years.
The brutal majority with which the BJP came to power in 2014 and its subsequent willingness to destroy all public institutions was taking India down a dangerous path. These results have, to some extent, stemmed that tide. For that very reason alone they will go down as a crucial moment in India’s political history.
Is it a vote against PM Modi?
While conceding defeat in the assembly elections, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh caretaker chief ministers Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh respectively also owned up responsibility for the BJP’s below than expected show. Despite the two seeking to shield the BJP leadership, the assembly elections in five states appear to be a vote against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This is evident from the manner in which the BJP has fared in the five states polls. The mandate was against the BJP in the three Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh where it was in power. But even in the other two states of Telangana and Mizoram, where it was not in power, the BJP’s performance has not been up to its own claims and expectations.
As the elections were held in states ranging from Rajasthan in the west to MP in the centre to Chhattisgarh in east of centre to Telangana in the south and finally to Mizoram in the northeast, it may indicate that Modi’s appeal is fading among the voters.
Going by the admissions of Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh, there may have been anti-incumbency against their government and as also against that of Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan. However, several sitting MLAs were replaced with fresh faces.
Moreover, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah had put their heart and soul to ensure that the BJP retained the three states. They listed the achievements of the three governments and made promises for the next term. The Modi-Shah duo also talked about the double engine theory to woo the voters that with BJP governments both at the Centre and in the states, developmental works would get a major push.
Even if the three BJP governments lost because of anti-incumbency, the Modi-Shah duo could not offset it. The BJP had faced stronger anti-incumbency sentiments in their home state of Gujarat in the 2017 election. The BJP, till the last assembly election was held, had ruled for 22 years and had won five consecutive polls. But they managed to convince the people to vote for the BJP which won though it scraped through, winning just five seats more than the majority mark.
After emerging as the single largest party in the Karnataka assembly election held in May, though it did not form the government, the BJP has been attempting to make inroads into other southern states such as Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. However, a dismal performance in Telangana may have put paid to its larger aims.
The Modi government has been making immense efforts to bring about developmental activities in the North-East region which has remained comparatively ignored all these years from the national mainstream. But it has not translated into votes yet for the BJP in some states in the Northeast such as Meghalaya and Sikkim besides Mizoram.
These developments in the five states which faced polls in November and December may lead some observers to state that the Modi wave may be on the wane in the country. In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP has suffered a loss of 56 seats in this election, despite Modi and Shah holding several rallies, and the latter micro-managing the election. The party had set a target of crossing 200 seats with the slogan Abki baar, 200 paar. The BJP had won 165 seats in the 230-member house in the 2013 assembly election. The party’s tally went down to 109 in the November 28 election and the party also lost power to the Congress.
The Congress, on the other hand, had won 58 seats in 2013 and improved its tally to 114 just two short of the majority mark. After the results were declared, Shivraj Singh Chouhan held a press conference and announced his resignation. He also held himself responsible for the debacle.
In Rajasthan, the BJP had won a whopping 163 of the 200 assembly seats in 2013 while the Congress’s tally had reached 21. This year, the BJP’s strength came down to 73 seats, losing 90 seats. On the other hand, the Congress touched 99 seats, just one seat short of the majority figure as election was held in 199 constituencies. Here too, Shah claimed that the political pundits would be proven wrong because the BJP would win the election.
Chhattisgarh appeared the safest for the BJP among the three Hindi heartland states. The reasons were that the Congress’s position was the weakest here and Mayawati’s BSP had aligned with Ajit Jogi’s Janta Congress Chhattisgarh (JCC). It appeared that this alignment would eat into the votes of the Congress. However, among the three cow-belt states, the BJP suffered the worst drubbing in Chhattisgarh. In the 2013 assembly election in Chhattisgarh, there was a gap of just 10 seats between the BJP and the Congress. While the BJP had won 49 of the 90 seats, the Congress was marginally behind at 39. However, this gap has widened this year with the Congress registering victory in 68 constituencies while the BJP was limited to just 15 seats.
In Telangana, in the 2014 election held for the state, the BJP had won five seats in Telangana. However, in the first Telangana assembly election held this year, the BJP could win just one seat. It must have come as a major setback for the BJP because Shah had claimed that his party would play a major role in the formation of the government in this southern state.
Mizoram is the only state where the BJP’s tally improved as compared with its previous one in 2013. The BJP won one seat in this north-eastern state of Mizoram. It had drawn nil in 2013.
In democracy, the electorate and not the elected who decides whom should be elected to power. But in India, the people’s representatives wilfully forget that they are elected by the people. “Do not boast against the branches, but if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you.” Besides the shifting popularity ratings, the sudden rise in Congress’s fortunes augur a crucial levelling of the playing field for the forthcoming general election. Politics in India is expensive, and donors disproportionately reward perceived winners. The BJP’s declared income since 2014 has soared to many multiples of the Congress’s shrinking take. That equation also will now change, as funders see more potential in the underdogs for future policy pay-offs. The Congress should also not gloat, as its victory in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan was razor-thin. Rahul Gandhi still faces an uphill battle to impress voters as a statesman. The party seems to have benefited by emulating the BJP’s appeals to Hindu identity in place of its traditional secularism. But Gandhi’s much-hyped visits to temples and promises to protect cows have done nothing to give his party a clear ideological identity. It will still need to patch together a wide coalition, including regional strongmen, to challenge the BJP nationally. If the BJP’s recent state campaigns are an indicator, the party may amplify rhetoric intended to polarise the electorate along sectarian lines. A recent, controversial change of personnel at the top of the central bank, in which a compliant bureaucrat replaced a renowned economist who had resisted pressure to go easy on badly run banks, suggests that Modi may also plump for what Andy Mukherjee, a financial columnist, terms ‘a market-pleasing credit binge’.
American President Abraham Lincoln had rightly quoted, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Previously, the mix of Hindu nationalism and boons for business has served Modi well. But this is no longer enough. Minorities, people of tribal origin, lower-caste Hindus, jobless youths and farmers feel increasingly estranged. The party that promised ‘Achhe Din’ (the best day) has delivered a few jobs and no coherent national response to rising inequality. Business enthusiasm for Modi has waned as a result of tougher taxes, capricious rule-making. And people have a deepening impression that Modi is more committed to Hindu nationalism than to development or reform. It would be better for him to understand that the empire that built on lies would not last for long, as lies have no legs to stand on.
*The views expressed are his own