Writing on the wall

The elections in the three Hindi heartland States of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh not only put the Congress back in power but also smash the aura of invincibility built around Narendra Modi.

Published : Dec 19, 2018 12:30 IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah at the parliamentary party meeting in New Delhi on December 13.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah at the parliamentary party meeting in New Delhi on December 13.

THE December 11 electoral verdict is a watershed event with multiple impacts on the national polity. The results of the Assembly elections held in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram in November/December have hit diverse aspects of politics and society in one fell swoop. The impact ranges from the organisational dynamics of the two mainstream political parties—the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the principal opposition Congress—to concerns and questions of policy orientation and overall ideological direction that the country will have in the days to come.

The Congress has been elected to power in the three big Hindi heartland States—Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh—while regional parties convincingly won in the southern State of Telangana (going to the polls for the second time since its formation) and in the north-eastern State of Mizoram. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) in Telangana and the Mizo National Front (MNF) in Mizoram fought on an anti-BJP, anti-Congress plank. The voting statistics have tremendous significance on their own in electoral terms, but other qualitative aspects of the verdict have greater relevance for the national polity.

The election results, for one, have practically smashed the aura of invincibility that the BJP, the party that leads the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre, had built around itself in the past few years, particularly in the Hindi heartland. This aura was founded on the personalities of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, and as such the verdict has come as a huge challenge to their individual leadership. Modi was always touted as a campaigner with no match and Amit Shah’s political management skills, including his skill at roping in non-BJP legislators into the party fold, had been promoted as legendary. The verdict disproved these much-hyped skills of the duo.

On the other side, the Congress, which had been written off as a non-starter, has bounced back with gusto, emphasising that the oldest party of the country has its political roots intact and has the potential to rediscover itself and come back into prominence. This revival, too, has an individual leadership dimension, since it has been driven essentially by its president Rahul Gandhi—who took over the reins of the party exactly a year before the announcement of the election results, on December 11, 2017. He had been consistently lampooned as “Pappu” (ignoramus, or imbecile) by the BJP leadership as well as a clutch of media outfits. By marshalling his party’s organisational machinery to muster these electoral triumphs, Rahul Gandhi has practically demolished the “Pappu” tag and the propagandists of that epithet.

The policy orientation aspects of the verdict are more nuanced than the realpolitik elements of the verdict. Both the BJP and the Congress had resorted to various shades of Hindu appeasement policy positions, especially in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. This was against the background of the BJP’s rampant advancement of its Hindutva communal polarisation politics as it was facing anti-incumbency sentiments in the Hindi heartland States, essentially caused by the failures and shortfalls of both the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government in Madhya Pradesh and the Vasundhara Raje government in Rajasthan and the BJP government at the Centre. Despite this, the questions that dominated the election scene were issues relating to the economy, particularly the agrarian crisis characterised by economic distress of farmers and agricultural labourers. This led to a series of suicides in many States and farmers and agricultural labourers launched nationwide agitations parallel to the election campaign. This, too, impacted the elections and contributed to the anti-BJP verdict. Over and above all this, the BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar had sought to communally polarise the elections through some high-voltage Hindutva campaign, but large segments of the population appear to have rejected their sectarian ideology.

Many of these aspects of the verdict were evident in the developments that took place in Parliament on the morning of December 11, when the results began coming in. Both Houses of Parliament met briefly in the morning and closed proceedings for the day as a mark of respect for former and incumbent members who had passed away recently. It paid homage to, among others, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, former Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, Union Minister H.N. Ananth Kumar and Congress leaders M.I. Shanavas and C.K. Jaffer Sharief. There was little doubt that on this “free day” the “biggest business” for Members of Parliament would be monitoring the election results. Even as the early trends began to be aired, a sense of disquiet was palpable among BJP leaders and activists gathered inside Parliament, including at the Central Hall.

It was at this time that the news spread that Modi was closeted in his office in Parliament with Amit Shah. Almost immediately, a clutch of BJP leaders and activists analysed the special meeting of the “top two” in the party as an attempt at possible recoupment, at least in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where the difference in the number of seats won by the Congress and the BJP was narrow. “Congress has run away with Chhattisgarh, there is no point in chasing it. But some ‘management’ of smaller parties and ‘amenable’ MLAs may be possible in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and I would think that Amit Shah ji must be applying his mind and energies in this direction,” said a BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh.

As the day progressed, however, those who were “hopeful” of the BJP’s turnaround gave up on Rajasthan, too, as the Congress crossed the halfway mark in that State. However, expectations about a “rearguard action” from the Modi-Amit Shah duo to help the BJP return to power for another term in Madhya Pradesh persisted late into the night. By December 12 morning, that hope also receded with the Congress emerging as the single largest party and managing to get the support of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and a few independent Members of the Legislative Assembly, enabling it to stake its claim to form the government in the State.

Later, some BJP MPs who were among the “hopefuls” were heard admitting that the main thrust of the December 11 results was unambiguously against the BJP. “The Hindi heartland has given a decisive 0-3 verdict against us,” they said. The Lok Sabha member from Uttar Pradesh went on to state that beyond the 0-5 arithmetic, the verdict would have to be rated as a watershed moment in the contemporary political history of India. “Undoubtedly, the writing is on the wall. When the Modi era in national politics started four and half years ago with the BJP’s march to power scoring an overwhelming majority in the Lok Sabha, the overall sense was that this would be an enduring period of social and political dominance for the BJP and Hindutva forces. Amit Shah ji ’s proclamation about a 50-year uninterrupted regime was not mere rhetoric for a lot of us. We believed it. We were also convinced that Congress-mukt Bharat would be a reality when the BJP won 14 of the 22 Assembly elections held since 2014. But with the just-concluded elections, the narrative has changed. The Congress has bounced back, that too in the Hindi heartland where our Hindutva politics and social agenda had dominated for the last four and a half years.”

This assessment found echo within the echelons of the BJP and other Sangh Parivar organisations, too. The very same people who had expected a miracle from the Modi-Amit Shah duo’s deliberations to effect a surprise turnaround, at least in Madhya Pradesh, did not hesitate to state that the “top two” did not have a magic wand when it came to managing the people’s mandate. This change in perception may have been building up over many months, but manifested itself concretely in the 24-hour period since the marathon counting of votes began on December 11. Of course, all the formal statements from BJP spokespersons sought to assert, on record, the invincibility of the Modi-Shah duo.

The spokespersons as well as two of the three defeated BJP Chief Ministers, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh (Chhattisgarh), blamed anti-incumbency sentiment and local factors for the party’s defeat in the respective States. They reasoned that this could not be seen as a referendum against the Modi government at the Centre. But beyond these formal proclamations, more and more people within the BJP and other Sangh Parivar organisations were seen to be making off-the-record comments that had a completely different tone and tenor.

An octogenarian BJP leader told Frontline: “Modi and Amit Shah have held victory marches to the party headquarters after every Assembly election triumph, but have now adopted a protection mechanism very similar to the one employed by the Nehru-Gandhi family in the Congress and sought to downplay their role in this resounding defeat. If they were holding victory marches after Assembly election successes, they should be ready to accept moral responsibility for the defeat, too. At the least, they are expected to share the blame.”

Younger MPs from Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan were more forthcoming and squarely blamed the policies of the Modi government for the party’s defeat. Frontline interacted with about a dozen of these MPs and they all were of the opinion that the policies of the Centre were a big factor in the defeat. Some BJP MPs of Rajasthan admitted that the Vasundhara Raje government had a higher anti-incumbency quotient than the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government in Madhya Pradesh and the Raman Singh government in Chhattisgarh, but even so, what ultimately led to the party’s defeat in all the three Hindi heartland States was the impact of the Centre’s policies and style of functioning.

While the senior leader and the young MPs spoke off the record, the BJP Rajya Sabha member Sanjay Kakade openly stated that the party’s defeat was not surprising because it had lost its focus on the development promises made in 2014 and was relying increasingly on issues such as Ram temple and name change of towns and districts. In his view, the attempt of the party leadership was to cover up the failures and shortfalls on the development front by resorting to a sectarian agenda. Kakade’s observation was visible during the election campaign, when the Ram temple issue and the name change agenda were taken up repeatedly by BJP leaders, including the Hindutva poster boy, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

Yogi Adityanath addressed 74 election meetings in four States—Rajasthan (26), Chhattisgarh (23), Madhya Pradesh (17) and Telengana (8)—but the BJP came a cropper in as many as 45 of the constituencies he visited. Clearly, the Hindutva hype did not find favour with the electorate.

Interestingly, in terms of specifics, the reasons for the defeat highlighted by the young MPs were in accordance with what several independent observers and some sections of the opposition had cited. Five points had come up identically in all these assessments. Summing up the cumulative impact of these five factors, the political analyst Shaji M. Joseph pointed out that while the defeat of the BJP in the Hindi heartland States was essentially on account of a double anti-incumbency sentiment against the State and Central governments, the principal responsibility should lie with the Centre and its ultimate leader, Narendra Modi. “Both the State and the Centre were found wanting in addressing the economic concerns of the people, most importantly of the rural and agrarian population, but greater blame should rest with the Union government.

For, every major economic step taken by the Centre, starting from demonetisation to the implementation of GST [goods and services tax], further messed up the rural sector. That it was the Prime Minister who directly led both these programmes has heightened the popular anger against his individual leadership, too. Ultimately, the State governments and their political leaderships were left with no alternative but to bear the brunt of these ill-thought-out and badly implemented programmes.”

Agrarian crisis

First and foremost among the five points highlighted by the young BJP MPs as well as political observers and opposition politicians was the unprecedented agrarian crisis marked by plummeting prices of agricultural produce, widespread economic distress in the agricultural sector, and farmer suicides. Nationwide agitations by farmers and agricultural labourers in response to this situation, including the holding of long marches, had captured the attention of large segments of the population. One of the biggest rallies of farmers and agricultural labourers was held in New Delhi just about a week before voting in Rajasthan. The second common reason in all the assessments from diverse points of view was the persisting negative impact of the demonetisation drive. Pointing to the manner in which the whole drive has proved to be a Himalayan blunder, a young MP from Chhattisgarh told Frontline that this was the primary reason for the decline in Modi’s popularity. “If we are still trying to say that there has been no fall in the Prime Minister’s popularity, we all must be living in a fool’s paradise. We need to get out of this mindset at the earliest,” he said.

The third common point related to the impact of GST. The BJP MPs, independent observers and opposition leaders maintained that this factor had impacted all major States, particularly their trading community. BJP leaders in charge of the party’s front organisations in the trade sector, such as Kanpur-based Shyam Bihari Mishra, have openly said that the Centre will have to come up with many more steps aimed at the rationalisation and course correction of GST implementation if it wants to win back people’s confidence. While these three points dominated the electoral discourse in the Hindi heartland, the systematic attack on institutions of governance, such as the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), by the Modi government as well as the corruption charges that came up against the government, including the ones involving the Rafale deal, contributed to the strengthening of the anti-BJP sentiment.

This growing sentiment gathered momentum during the course of the campaign and in the run-up to the elections following a couple of developments not directly linked to politics. Former Chief Election Commissioner O.P. Rawat’s comments on the impact of demonetisation was one of these. Interacting with journalists of a New Delhi newspaper after retirement, in the first week of December, Rawat made bold to state that demonetisation had “absolutely” no impact on the use of black money in elections. He stated that after demonetisation, the Election Commission seized a record amount of money. He also pointed out that money during elections was coming from sources that were influential and were not affected by measures such as demonetisation. The public impression on the futility of demonetisation and the government’s propaganda about its gains was once again exposed by his statements on the eve of the Rajasthan elections. In the last week of November, Arvind Subramanian, former Chief Economic Adviser to the Modi government, described demonetisation as a “massive, draconian monetary shock that accelerated economic downslide”. This, too, impacted the election climate. The next development of a similar genre was the happenings that led to the resignation of RBI Governor Urjit Patel. Though the resignation itself happened after polling was over in all the States, the face-off between the Modi government and the RBI was building up through the campaign period, once again indicating how the political leadership of the BJP was trying to bear down constitutional and autonomous institutions (see separate story). The series of desertions of senior officials in the ruling establishment questioning the policy orientation of the government culminated in the resignation of Surjit Bhalla from the Economic Advisory Board even as the Assembly election results were unfolding.

Depressing trend

Shaji M. Joseph is also of the view that the anti-Centre feeling that got reflected in the Assembly elections is bound to extend over the next few months into the Lok Sabha election due in May 2019. The projection of the voting trends and the seat gains in the current Assembly elections to Lok Sabha seats has already presented a depressing picture for the BJP. As per these, the BJP’s Lok Sabha tally would come down by half if the current trends persist.

In 2014, the BJP won 62 of the 65 seats from Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. If the current mood persists, its tally is bound to come down to 31 in these three States. In comparison, the Congress would sweep Chhattisgarh, winning 10 of the 11 Lok Sabha seats. In Rajasthan, it would once again open its account and win 12 seats (it did not win a single seat in 2014); the BJP would win 13 seats compared to 25 in 2014. In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP’s tally would come down from 27 to 17.

This decline of the BJP’s seat share in the Hindi heartland underscores the fact that the Congress, despite suffering a series of electoral defeats since the 2014 Lok Sabha election, has retained its capacity to hold on and fight back. Apart from winning a larger number of seats and being elected to power in the three Hindi heartland States, the Congress has registered a noteworthy increase in its vote share. The party has gained 1.24 crore votes in the three States since 2014, whereas the BJP has lost over 61 lakh votes. In other words, this trend shows a growth in opposition votes and a slide in BJP votes across the region.

This factor acquires added significance in the context of the political realignment that is happening in other major States such as Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. In Uttar Pradesh, the S.P. and the BSP are set to come together, while in Andhra Pradesh, the Congress is in alliance with the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), and with the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka.

A calculation on the basis of the votes polled by the opposition parties in the last Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka—held in 2017 and 2018 respectively—shows that the BJP would lose as many 61 seats in these two big States. In Uttar Pradesh it would lose 50 seats and in Karnataka 11. In 2014, the BJP won 71 and 17 seats respectively in these States. The official reaction of the BJP leadership to all this hinges on the close fight in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Its argument is that in spite of the anti-incumbency factor the party held on to a sizable vote share and a respectable number of seats. Party general secretary P. Muralidhar Rao pointed out that the BJP’s vote share in Madhya Pradesh, at 41 per cent, was more than the Congress’ 40.9 per cent. He added that the defeat had strengthened the BJP’s resolve and its preparation for the next battle, the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

Muralidhar Rao also contended that despite the gains in the current elections and the new stature that Rahul Gandhi had acquired, the Congress president was still no match for the charismatic and popular Modi. There was also the argument that the general election would be fought on national questions and here again Modi would score over leaders of the opposition. Another argument is that Rahul Gandhi would be at the head of an opposition collective that would have many leaders such as Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who would not accept his leadership, and this too would prove beneficial for the BJP.

The argument extends to the projection that despite earlier losses in the 2015 Assembly elections in Delhi and Bihar, Modi’s popularity had not eroded. On its part, the Congress leadership pointed out that since the Congress made its gains in the Hindi heartland States without entering into electoral alliances, smaller/ regional parties would realise the spread and reach of the Congress.

Notwithstanding the arguments put forward by the BJP leadership to underscore Modi’s significance, the fact remains that the aura of invincibility that was built around Modi since 2014, especially in the Hindi heartland, has been smashed, just ahead of the 2019 election. There is little doubt that in spite of official justifications, this factor is getting embedded into the political and organisational structure of the BJP. But, as Rahul Gandhi himself observed after the results, this is only the beginning of a long fight that the opposition, and the Congress as its principal force, will have to take up in the days to come.

It will indeed be a daunting task managing the various alliances in different States and building a strong anti-BJP front, without which even the Congress will not be able to enhance its reach and influence at the national level. This will be all the more trying since the defeat in the Hindi heartland States is bound to goad the BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar into more aggressive and sectarian Hindutva communal expeditions. Equally importantly, the Congress will need to nuance its policy orientation to real concerns of the people, especially the marginalised and distressed sections. An objective reading of the current watershed verdict should help the resurgent and newly confident Congress president to address this larger social and political message.

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