The Bharatiya Janata Party’s election juggernaut has taken a beating. The party has lost the state Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, three states where it was the governing party. In two other states Telangana and Mizoram, it has been routed. Ten economic and political lessons can be learned from the defeat of the BJP, which until now seemed invincible:
1) The Congress is now the biggest party in five relatively large states; Karnataka, Punjab, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. So, Congress-mukt Bharat is no longer a reality. The one thing this will do is make raising money easier for the grand old party. In the Congress model of raising money, the chief minister of a state has always played an important part. Money has been a reason for worry for the party during a time when the BJP has managed to raise a huge amount to fight elections. In fact, in 2017-2018, the BJP got nearly 95 percent of the electoral bonds issued to finance political parties. Hopefully, with governments in three more states, the Congress will manage to raise enough money to take on the 2019 BJP election machine.
2) The Congress win will also make businessmen, typically large donors to political parties, loosen their purse strings. Political donations made by Indian businessmen are rarely ideological. Businessmen in India like parties which stand a good chance at winning and with this performance, the Congress is in a much better position to fight 2019 Lok Sabha elections than it was in 2014.
3) In fact, signs of a change are clearly visible with a few businessmen now openly coming out against demonetisation. These are clear signs of them trying to hedge their bets.
4) The rattled BJP leaders are now saying state government elections are not a referendum on the central government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Pre-2014, this logic would find some resonance with the public and pundits. However, now the BJP fights every election around Modi. Even in municipal elections, the BJP asks people to vote in Modi’s name. When the party wins elections, the leaders waste no time in attributing it to the magic of Modi. Hence, logically, when the BJP has lost three state Assembly elections, it is safe to say that some sheen has been taken off brand Modi.
5) The Congress has shown it still has very strong regional leaders, who can get their act together and take on the BJP. What this does at the national level will be very interesting. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) decided to go on its own and not align with the Congress in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Other than the CBI pressure, it is said that Mayawati, the leader of the BSP, did not have enough confidence in the ability of the Congress to win. The election results should clearly turn that logic around. While BSP going alone did not matter in Chhattisgarh, what happened in Madhya Pradesh is fascinating. The BJP got 41 percent of the votes and won 109 seats. The Congress received 40.9 percent and won 114 seats. The BSP netted only two seats. India follows a first-part-the-post election system. In this scenario, the concentration of votes becomes more important than the total votes. Clearly, in Madhya Pradesh, the Congress votes were more clustered than the BJP. Hence, the Congress won more seats. Now, add to this the fact that BSP got 5 percent of the votes, the dynamic gets even more interesting.
6) The results also clearly indicate that the problem of agriculture distress and unemployment is for real. It also states, clearly that demonetisation hit the people hard and even two years later, the informal sector and agriculture are still suffering. One theory going around is that many people in urban India working in informal sector lost their jobs in the aftermath of demonetisation and a badly-implemented Goods and Services Tax and went back to their villages. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme could not take the load of these additional workers. Hence, the elections results can also be said to be the people’s revenge for demonetisation. The sooner the Modi-led BJP comes around to these realities, the better. In fact, it should start with acknowledging that the problem of unemployment exists, instead of trying to tell the nation on almost every occasion that there is no unemployment problem.
7) The country will see more socialism in the months running up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Both the BJP and the Congress will try and promise loan waivers and a whole host of other freebies. This is a given. In the BJP’s case, what helps is the fact that it is currently governing the country. Also, the government has managed to install a friendly governor in Shaktikanta Das at the Reserve Bank of India and attempts will be made to get hold of the mammoth reserves of the central bank. It is worth remembering that Modi has never lost an election. A good reason for that lies in the fact that urban Gujarat continues to remain his bastion. Even in the last state Assembly elections in Gujarat, the urban areas came out in support of the BJP, when the party was clearly on a weak wicket. Nevertheless, the kind of polarisation that works in large parts of urban Gujarat and perhaps in Uttar Pradesh as well, doesn’t necessarily go down well with everyone else. While the mandir might be an issue for some, and hence, politically it makes sense for the BJP to keep raising it, it cannot be their main issue.
In 2014, Narendra Modi sold a dream. A message of hope. The problem is the promised acche din never really came because the government became more active in perception management than real management required to bring around the promised acche din. Given this, the BJP now seems to have no option but go back to selling fear. The party has kept the mandir issue alive for nearly three decades, but like pretty much everything else in life, the law of diminishing marginal utility seems to be catching up. The problem is that god comes into the equation only when there is enough to eat and something to do. Or as someone told Rajdeep Sardesai in Madhya Pradesh, pehle naashta phir aastha (first breakfast then comes faith). This is something the BJP leaders need to understand. They clearly need a new narrative.
Also, all the stuff about the prime minister working 18 hours a day now sounds quite tacky. If there is very little change on the ground, the question to be asked is this: What is the prime minister doing for 18 hours? It’s time the prime minister gets a little more sleep. India needs a well-rested prime minister, who realises that lowering the level of the discourse doesn’t help.
9) It is important that the Congress does not lose the plot, even though it has emerged as the single largest party in three states in the Hindi heartland. The party is more or less absent in the two states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which send 120 members to the Lok Sabha. While the party has a great equation with Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, the same cannot be said about its equation with the two main parties (other than the BJP) in Uttar Pradesh, which are the BSP and the Samajwadi Party. Tuesday's win will open the doors for an alliance in Uttar Pradesh slightly more.
10) The only way to take on the politics of Amit Shah and Modi is to be a politician 24x7. While Congress president Rahul Gandhi seems to be getting there, he is not yet fully there. The sooner he gets there, the better it will be for him, the Congress and the index of Opposition unity.
The column originally appeared on Vivek Kaul Publishing. Reproduced with permission of the author.
Updated Date: Dec 12, 2018 20:13:17 IST