Narendra Modi. So, what has changed?
Facts first. BJP lost 7 of the 9 Lok Sabha seats it won in 2014 in bypolls held in 2018. Of the nine states that went to polls this year, it lost three in the heartland and won two in the North-East. And of the 16 bypolls to various state assemblies, it won only two.
These elections spanned across India, make it representative of a national mandate. The most significant of these results also happened to be Congress’s first string of victories against BJP after its 2014 rout.
But sheer numbers can skew political reality. The truth is BJP emerged as the single-largest party in Karnataka but fell short of a majority by about 6 seats. It won Gujarat for the fourth time in a row, bagged the larger voteshare in Madhya Pradesh, and despite anti-incumbency recovered impressively to give Congress a close contest in Rajasthan.
By all accounts, Modi’s popular appeal is not on the wane, especially when you consider that the PM doesn’t campaign for bypolls. But what these Opposition wins have done is fade the air of invincibility around Modi and BJP. Especially for Congress, its principal rival.
* The BJP Test
BJP, today, stands at the crossroads. It has to choose between the Modi narrative on vikas (development) and the mandir narrative of communal polarisation. The second doesn’t literally stand just for the Ram temple in Ayodhya, but a range of issues deployed to ‘unify voters’ across caste groups in the name of Hindu assertion.
Theoretically, BJP may want to adopt a high-risk strategy of trying to reconcile these two narratives. But that looks difficult with Modi as an incumbent prime minister. Any untoward development will have a direct bearing on his profile and government’s image. In short, the Modi campaign of 2014 could be insulated from what happened in Muzaffarnagar, UP, something that will not be possible in 2019 with BJP in power in both Centre and state.
The coming year will also test BJP’s political expansion into the east and whether it can win enough seats from these states to compensate (presumably) reduced numbers in the heartland. This inability to ‘add new states’ during the Vajpayee years was a key reason why BJP narrowly missed being the single-largest party in 2004.
Modi will also have to establish fresh chemistry with potential allies and regional leaders. This may include tailoring priorities in a way that old and potential new allies feel they can exercise better influence over a Modi government and BJP. While that’s an external challenge, there’s an equally tricky terrain to negotiate within BJP, where the PM will have to coalesce more vocal rightwing elements under a new Modi agenda. How that will shape up will depend on the choice BJP makes now at the crossroads.
* The Congress Test BJP has tried to make the 2019 elections a NaMo vs RaGa face-off. It feels such a binary will decisively swing fence-sitting voters towards Modi. For the Congress though, the biggest challenge will be to keep its president ‘off this race’.
The Congress situation is similar to what BJP faced in the 1990s, largely due to a steady erosion of its base in many states. But it has enough committed voters to strike alliances with regional parties that feel threatened by BJP’s rise. Its ability to concede space and act peacemaker among regional satraps will determine the extent, and nature, of the challenge the Opposition can pose to BJP.
The victories in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have also shown that the principal relevance of the Nehru-Gandhi family will now be in keeping warring groups within Congress together. Rahul Gandhi executed this role well in all the three states. This will also hold the key to Congress’s ability to score well in 2019 in states where it’s in direct contest with BJP.
* The Regional Parties Test ‘Regional pride’ can a very persuasive political argument. Modi used it in the form of ‘Gujarati Asmita’ in his home state. The ‘mahagathbandhan’ in Bihar, which later broke up, was also built on the idea of Bihari pride. Even though the Odisha chief minister has won more elections than his father Biju Patnaik, it is the ‘Legend of Biju’ that makes the perception of Naveen Patnaik being ‘rooted to Odisha’ credible. So, regional pride will be asserted strongly in 2019 in the name of protecting India’s federal character.
The challenge for these regional parties, however, is that they are dynastic and now saddled by a second-generation leadership, which will be tested in 2019 – and keenly so, since a rebellion is usually a whisper away in these outfits. Akhilesh Yadav, Omar Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti, Tejaswi Prasad, Sukhbir Badal, Uddhav Thakre, M K Stalin and H D Kumaraswami are among the prominent next generation dynasts. Most of them had a good start thanks to initial hand-holding by their patriarchs. But they are now facing a credibility test and have to prove their individual political worth.
BJP will come at them with the ‘silver spoon in their mouth’ argument. Unlike Rahul Gandhi, there may not be many second chances for these leaders, given the size, structure and reach of their parties. The strategic alliances they make for survival will deeply inform the Opposition narrative in the days and weeks ahead.
The other set of regional parties are dominated by a single leader. Most of them are busy repositioning themselves to make the best out of the 2019 election outcome. This list includes Sharad Pawar, Mayawati, Mamata Bannerjee, Patnaik, K Chandrashekhar Rao, Chandrababu Naidu and Nitish Kumar. AIADMK is now an uncertain entity following the death of the J Jayalalithaa.
This second lot have been relatively more successful than the ‘dynasts’. They are, however, always vulnerable to charges of corruption – barring, perhaps, someone like Arvind Kejriwal. The question before these regional outfits is that while most of them trace their genesis to anti-Congress politics, they are today threatened in their own turfs by an expansionist BJP.
Will they transform into anti-BJP entities? Or stop somewhere ‘in the middle’ – the way BSP has started to show? Either way, the ability of these parties to forge a coalition against BJP can’t ever materialise unless Congress brings a solid block of MPs to the table at BJP’s expense. Until the just concluded assembly elections, Congress had not demonstrated the capacity to defeat BJP. That equation has now been rebalanced.
In 2019, many of these parties will have to decide whether they can trust Congress enough to project a national grand alliance. The other option would be to leave it to a post-poll scenario. However, exercising that alternative may split votes in high-value states like UP, Bihar and Maharasthra, which alone account for over 160 seats, where pre-poll alliances would have to be worked out.
The political theatre has come alive for 2019 with all parties, regardless of which camp they are in, staring at tough decisions and difficult choices in a high-stakes situation. What’s clear, though, is that 2019 will be the year of political churn – which, in many ways, has already begun and is unlikely to stop with the Lok Sabha elections.