Political situation

Falling stock

Print edition : March 02, 2018

Union Ministers Ravishankar Prasad, Nitin Gadkari, Rajnath Singh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah, senior BJP leader L.K. Advani and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley at the BJP Parliamentary Party meeting during the Budget session of Parliament on February 1. Photo: Atul Yadav/PTI

Telugu Desam Party Member of Parliament N. Sivaprasad (foreground) along with other party MPs from Andhra Pradesh staging a protest in front of Parliament House on February 8 demanding a special package for the State. Photo: PTI

Elections in recent times have shown that the BJP is losing ground steadily, and Sangh Parivar constituents believe that Budget 2018 will help advance the Narendra Modi government’s political cause.

The talk of early general elections had come up from the beginning of 2018 among sections of the political class in New Delhi. This emanated from the echelons of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as well as its associates in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar. Several nuanced arguments were put forth in these deliberations, but almost all of them centred around “clear indications of a decline in the popular appeal of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the past few months”. Developments towards the end of 2017, including the party’s “pyrrhic victory” in the Gujarat Assembly elections, were cited to argue that the best possible option for the BJP leadership would be to stem the rot by going for “before-time” elections that would take the opposition by surprise. The manner in which the 2018 Budget session unfolded in early February added grist to these discussions. The presentation of the last “full Budget” of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was expectedly election-oriented. But that was not all. Modi’s vehement response to the debate on the motion of thanks to the President’s address, which followed a few days after the Budget, was so overtly election-driven that political observers and even politicians belonging to the BJP and the other NDA constituents wondered whether a blatantly partisan speech so full of aggression was appropriate for a platform such as Parliament. Evidently, the context of the Modi government’s last full Budget is dominated by a political stream focussing on early Lok Sabha elections.

Ground reality

This “thinking aloud” was going on at different levels of the Sangh Parivar but was articulated concretely by Rajesh Jain, entrepreneur and founder of Niti Digital, an enterprise that played a significant role in Modi’s 2014 election campaign. In an article in the portal “Nayi Disha”, which was first published on January 23, 2018, and updated the next day, Jain presented six primary reasons and six inferences to argue that Modi might not only advance the elections, which were due in April-May 2019, but even dramatically hold it as early as May 2018. Jain’s reasoning is in keeping with the “decline in popularity” theme, which others in the BJP and the Sangh Parivar have referred to, but he supplemented his reasoning with data analysis on voting trends in the period following the 2014 elections. He points out that the results of the Assembly elections held in 15 States between 2014 and 2018 underscore the drop in the electoral support of the BJP. The BJP won 191 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 in the 15 States, but an extrapolation of the Assembly election trends to the Lok Sabha seats reveals a drop of 45 seats. In other words, the BJP’s lead in the Lok Sabha seats in these States will go down from 191 to 146 seats. He has also highlighted a 10 per cent drop in the vote share from 39 per cent in 2014 to 29 per cent in the subsequent elections. Jain is of the view that the electoral decline will continue in the next Assembly elections and accentuate with the passage of time. His hypothesis is that, being aware of this, Modi will think in terms of cutting the losses by advancing the election.

According to a senior RSS functionary based in Lucknow, Jain’s data analysis and projections based on it have been corroborated by the Sangh Parivar’s ground-level reports from the States going to polls in 2018. He says the situation is stark for the ruling BJP in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where Assembly elections will be held later this year. In Karnataka and Chhattisgarh, two other States that will go to the polls around the same time, the BJP is apparently trying to put up a good fight. “But overall,” he says, “there is little doubt that the party and the government are increasingly being denounced by a growing number of people.”

The electoral ramifications of this denunciation was reflected in the byelection results that were announced even as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was presenting the Union Budget on February 1. In Rajasthan, the BJP lost the Ajmer and Alwar Lok Sabha seats and the Mandalgarh Assembly seat to the Congress. The Congress won Alwar by over 1.96 lakh votes, Ajmer by over 84,000 votes and Mandalgarh by approximately 13,000 votes.

In West Bengal, too, the BJP performed below expectations. The ruling Trinamool Congress wrested the Noapara Assembly seat from the Congress and retained the Uluberia Lok Sabha seat with a huge margin.

TDP protest

These signals of popular disaffection, a senior RSS functionary told Frontline, had made bold several NDA constituents to come out openly against the BJP and its leadership. The Shiv Sena, the BJP’s ally in Maharashtra, announced in the third week of January that it would fight the 2019 elections independently. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP), an NDA constituent, complained about the “neglect of Andhra Pradesh by the Union government” and announced the parting of ways with the BJP. But the party retracted its statement following the intervention of BJP president Amit Shah, who spoke to TDP president and State Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu. It remains to be seen for how long this tenuous rapprochement will hold, especially in the context of several short- and medium-term factors impacting the relationship between these parties. The short-term factor is related to the Budget itself. Although Jaitley’s Budget presentation was credited as one with high political value and craft, it did not score much in terms of satisfying the BJP’s allies. A large number of TDP leaders minced no words in castigating it and even organised a protest outside the Parliament building.

N. Sivaprasad, TDP Member of Parliament, said that the TDP would continue its opposition to the Budget despite the leadership’s decision to remain in the NDA fold. “We have consistently demanded a special package for Andhra Pradesh. Don’t know what political equations the Chief Minister has discussed with BJP leaders and the Union government. But our demand and the opposition to the current thrust of the Budget will remain,” Prasad said. The medium-term issues between the parties have manifested themselves time and again essentially on account of the BJP’s efforts to build an alternative support base for itself, including through manoeuvres aimed at forging ties with the opposition YSR Congress in the State.

Although BJP and Sangh Parivar leaders do not see the TDP’s opposition to the Budget as a big political issue, there is widespread agreement that one of the major triggers of the regional party’s open show of dissent is the dissatisfaction of the people with the Modi government on various counts.

The RSS functionary from Lucknow was of the view that while Jaitley’s performance during the Budget presentation was a politically savvy exercise, its efficacy in political terms would have to be in changing the perceptions about the government. He said: “There is indeed tremendous resentment against the government on account of its failures in addressing farm distress and the problems of the socially marginalised. And changing this will be no easy task. There is also the problem that the so-called benefits of Modinomics initiatives such as fixing the bad debt problem by setting up of an institutional framework and the implementation of Goods and Services Tax [GST], are by and large intangible to common people. Of course, Jaitley has accorded considerable space and time in the Budget to come up with programmes to address these and other issues such as affordable health care, promote the small-scale sector and enhance educational facilities. The Prime Minister took this exercise forward through his intervention on the motion of thanks. He sought to make the anti-corruption agenda and drive a prerequisite for the success of the Budget programmes. This anti-corruption drive was cleverly targeted at the Congress.” The functionary also said that the Sangh Parivar was hopeful that the cumulative effect of these manoeuvres would be positive for the BJP.

Farmers’ reaction

However, early reactions from the agricultural community of western Uttar Pradesh underscore the RSS functionary’s thinking that the Budget statements alone cannot change the perception on the government and its track record. Farmer Harpal Singh of Khedi village in Shamli district told Frontline that there was nothing in the Budget speech to indicate that this would not become another “jumla” (sleight of hand) for elections. He said there were similar proclamations about ending farmers’ distress in the 2016-17 Budget. “Jaitley even sought to characterise the Budget as one with a left-of-centre tilt while the Prime Minister termed it as pro-village, pro-poor and pro-farmer. Such proclamations helped the BJP win several elections, including the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections [in 2017]. But the plight of the farmers has not improved. Farmers need to see much more than Budget proclamations to believe that the BJP will do something really good for the agricultural community and the marginalised sections of society,” Harpal Singh said, adding that this was the perception among farmers in the region.

Notwithstanding the sceptical response visible in some parts of rural north India, the majority of the leaders of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are confident that the NDA’s last full Budget will help advance the government’s political cause and inflict electoral setbacks on the opposition. “This coupled with a potential surprise strike through early elections should do us good,” a BJP leader from Delhi, not wishing to be named, said. He was also of the view that the Prime Minister’s intervention in Parliament pointed in this direction.

“The biggest advantage in pursuing the surprise strike course is that the opposition, especially the principal opposition, the Congress, is yet to initiate any concrete efforts to build opposition unity. This state of disarray is also beneficial for us, and interventions like the one made by Prime Minister will help in this path,” the BJP leader said.

Political observers, opposition parties and social activist groups are of the view that Modi’s impassioned and aggressive intervention in Parliament was essentially done to divert attention from the controversy over the Rafale aircraft deal. The controversy erupted following Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s refusal to divulge the details of the deal citing confidentiality clauses. Prashant Bhushan, advocate and president of Swaraj Abhiyan, is of the view that the tactics employed by the Prime Minister in Parliament will not be enough to cover up the wrongdoings in the Rafale deal. “Modi ji referred to Bofors in his speech and there is little doubt that this [Rafale] is set to become the Bofors of the BJP. The national security breaches this deal has inflicted on the country will get thoroughly exposed in due course.”

However, there is also a stream of opinion that such potential exposes could force the government’s hand to conduct early general election.

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