Electoral jolts in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and MP show that TINA is a comforting illusion on which BJP should not rely
The BJP went into the Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh with a strong leadership advantage at national and state levels alike
The BJP went into the Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh with a strong leadership advantage at national and state levels alike. There seemed to be a consensus within and outside the party that the There-Is-No-Alternative (TINA) factor was a shot in the arm for the BJP. It is under these circumstances that a 3-0 verdict against the BJP has provoked a debate. While the 3-0 scoreline was projected by the CVoter exit poll, it is the details of the verdict that are pregnant with learnings for future.
On the eve of 11 December, pollsters and pundits expected Rajasthan to be a washout for the BJP, while Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh were seemingly close fights. In the end, Madhya Pradesh stayed true to the script while Rajasthan witnessed a surprisingly close fight and Chhattisgarh ended up being the most surprising. Why Chhattisgarh one may ask? It's because Chhattisgarh carries many important lessons for BJP going into 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
The Congress was faceless, leaderless and rudderless going into the polls. On the other hand, the BJP was led by a charismatic chief minister in the form of Raman Singh, who had successfully implemented welfare policies at the grassroots level. Yet, he was routed in a waveless election by more than 10 percent of the votes. Anger against the local MLAs and MPs ended up subsuming his work and track record. So, what happened to 'Chawal Baba' (Singh's sobriquet) and his leadership advantage?
Simply put, Chhattisgarh witnessed its '1967 moment'. In 1967, a faceless and disjointed Opposition was able to defeat a towering Indira Gandhi in many states. It propped up unknown faces as chief ministerial candidates across many states. When people wanted to effect a change of power, they voted with verve for an amorphous political grouping. Pertinently, even well-executed welfare schemes acted as vote-catchers for two electoral cycles in the case of Chhattisgarh. Herein lies a lesson that the Telangana Rashtriya Samiti may do well to mull over in an hour of euphoria over its well-deserved win.
If Chhattisgarh had its '1967 moment', then Rajasthan had its 'Bhairon Singh Shekhawat' moment. The close fight in Rajasthan was a surprise given the amount of anti-incumbency against the state BJP. So, what accounted for the close result in terms of vote share? The late surge imparted by BJP's Sachin Tendulkar, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the internal saboteurs accounted for by Ashok Gehlot, who ensured that the Congress did not go beyond a certain seat threshold. The idea was that a weak majority government of the Congress will have to depend on the old guard to shepherd the requisite numbers in the Assembly, leaving little space for political experiments.
This was directly from the playbook of Shekhawat, who was knows to keep the BJP in the 90s, with two dozen loyal Independents popped up across the state, only to find their way back to the BJP only on the condition that Shekhawat would be sworn in as chief minister. Gehlot copied that model to dwarf Pilot. His bad luck was that the Congress just about touched the majority, making his 20-odd "others" practically useless. Thus, the BJP's better-than-expected performance in Rajasthan was helmed by the twin pillars of prime minister's appeal and internal sabotage.
Which brings us to Madhya Pradesh. This state gave a verdict that was split down to the last polling machine. A hung Assembly has thrown up a Congress-led coalition that is reminiscent of former prime minister VP Singh's ascension to the PMO. Back then, it was Chandrashekhar who was a force to reckon with in fostering a non-Congress government, who ended up a big zero with Devi Lal proposing Singh's name for the prime minister's post. Digvijaya Singh pulled a 'VP moment' on Jyotiraditya Scindia by putting his weight behind Kamal Nath. In this case, Scindia’s youth appeal benefited the party immensely but, as it turned out, Nath is set to be the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh. Whether he will have a 'Chandrashekhar moment' some time in the future with his supporters remains to be seen.
Despite a galaxy of leaders at state and national level, a cadre-based party like BJP was humbled at the hustings. The electoral losses become salient in the light of decent performance turned in by the governments on human development indices, basic infrastructure and welfare measures. In effect, there is no such thing as TINA factor in a vibrant democracy. For example, closer home, when Modi was in charge of the Gujarat BJP, the state BJP won the Assembly polls and catapulted Keshubhai Patel as the Chief Minister of Gujarat in 1995. The average Gujarati hardly knew much about Keshubhai then.
For for that matter, few even knew Modi's name back then. But that status of being "faceless" did not stop Gujarat from experimenting in 1995 and in effect, changing India's political landscape in the process forever. Modi did not stop his march anywhere just because the TINA factor favoured the Congress at that point of time. And the faceless Congress did not stop in Chhattisgarh either. This can work perfectly in other places as well, provided the Congress doesn't make it a Rahul Gandhi versus Modi match. But given the history of trademark Congress sycophancy, that is probably too much to ask for.
Nationally there is no comparison yet between Modi's popularity ratings and those of Congress president Rahul. However, the BJP also runs the risk of depending too much on its best asset. It is conventional knowledge that presence of Modi alone is enough to impart a bounce of a small percentage of votes to the BJP. However, there are two emerging points of discord that may queer the pitch for BJP in 2019:
1. Agrarian distress: The rural economy is facing doldrums countrywide. The landed and comparatively middle-class farmers have gone in a subsistence mode. This has cut off the lifeline for landless labour and other members of the rural poor who depend on the bigger farmers for their source of income. Thus, a rural crisis is in the offing and should be addressed at the earliest.
2. The middle class sat out this election in a repeat of 2004. While in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, the middle class did not have much to complain about, this time the middle class is feeling abandoned and economically hard-pressed. Since it is a traditional supporter of the BJP, it will be pertinent to investigate this group's grievances in a serious manner.
Finally, it pays to be humble in the business of politics, no party should think of itself as carrying the mandate of the heavens. The mandate in a democracy rests wholly and solely with the electorate, and the existence of TINA is a comforting illusion that none should rely on.
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