By Vidya Subrahmaniam
If celebrations have broken out in Congress offices across the country, few will grudge it considering that its success in the Hindi heartland comes after four years of defeats, self-doubt and a feeling of being under siege by a perennially turbo-charged Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Yet the Congress’s victory is not without caveats. It swept only Chhattisgarh, was stretched to win Rajasthan, and it sweated to be able to be in a position to lay claim to forming the government in Madhya Pradesh. It was routed in Telangana and Mizoram.
For the BJP, there may not even be a consolation prize, in its biggest electoral set-back since capturing power in 2014. For both the national parties there are also discomfiting portents in the verdict.
The one winner without a shadow of doubt is K. Chandrashekar Rao of the Telangana RashtraSamithi, who decimated the Mahakutumi, or the mega alliance formed by the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) as a possible model for future Opposition strategy. A return to power for Mr. Rao, who had played a stupendous role in the birth of Telangana, is remarkable, and all the more for coming against a combined Opposition.
If there is a second man with a stand-out performance, it is Shivraj Singh Chouhan, of the BJP but in many ways more than the BJP — at least in Madhya Pradesh where his writ ran for three terms, unchallenged by the Opposition and, most unusually, almost autonomous of the power duo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. Mr. Chouhan came within a whisker of winning outright in M.P., which under him had taken on the characteristics of an incumbency-advantage State. The longer he was in power, the more entrenched he seemed to have become. One of the reasons for this is Mr. Chouhan’s invaluable contribution to agriculture in a State where 70% of people depend on it. Even so, the near-miracle story had turned sour in the last year thanks to the Centre’s intervention to stop bonus for farmers, and a demonetisation-induced cash crunch that delayed payments down the line. Hours into the counting in M.P., the suspense lingered, highlighting that Mr. Chouhan was fighting every inch of the way.
The bigger story of this election may well flow from the outcomes in Telangana and M.P. The defeat of the Mahakutumi, if not an irretrievable set-back for the Mahagathbandhan efforts nationally, certainly means that Rahul Gandhi and N. Chandrababu Naidu, the TDP leader, will have to go back to the drawing board to rework alliance strategy for 2019. M.P., on the other hand, is an example of a popular Chief Minister — Mr. Chouhan dominated the posters where he was compared to Lord Shiva — paying the price for decisions that were not of his making but were imposed from above by a government that had unconscionably pushed through measures like demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax (GST) without thinking through the double whammy of depriving people of liquidity while simultaneously subjecting them to an arbitrary and ever-changing tax regime.
The Congress has won in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the latter by a landslide. In Rajasthan, Chief Minister VasundharaRaje, written off by most people, held her ground before caving in. The Congress’s near loss in M.P. was brought about by a refusal to acknowledge that it needs partners, in this case the BahujanSamaj Party. The party will have to introspect on its behaviour of seeking alliances where it is too weak to contest by itself and rejecting them in places where it feels it is in a commanding position.
The latest round of elections reinforces the trend of the BJP losing ground, which started with its narrow victory in the Gujarat election. In the Karnataka election that followed, the BJP not only stopped short of an absolute majority but its patented government formation manoeuvres, successful in many earlier instances, too bombed. The party also lost a string of by-polls across the country.
The BJP’s last big victory in an Assembly election was in Uttar Pradesh in early 2017. In that election, the BJP exceeded the most optimistic projections to win 312 of 403 seats. The U.P. election provided an insight into the party’s changed strategy under Prime Minister Modi. In the 2014 general election, which Mr. Modi single-handedly won for the BJP, his image was of a capitalist-reformer. He spoke of prosperity and jobs. However, the Modi campaign’s stress on ‘development’ notwithstanding, it made overt and covert attempts to polarise, as for example in Muzaffarnagar in western U.P, the scene of a horrific communal conflagration in 2013. Indeed, even as Mr. Modi sweet-talked the electorate with lofty promises, Mr. Shah stoked Hindu passions in that sensitive area, which earned him a police case as well as a ban by the Election Commission of India.
In the 2017 U.P. Assembly election, Mr. Modi cast himself as a friend and saviour of the poor to runaway success. He portrayed demonetisation as an effort to downsize the rich in favour of the poor. But as the campaign drew to a close, the old chestnuts came out and the Prime Minister began to talk the language of minority appeasement and Hindu deprivation.
This has since become the BJP’s formula to win elections: a pro-poor approach combined with an unhidden agenda of communal polarisation. In Gujarat Mr. Modi spoke of Pakistan’s interest in promoting a Muslim Congress Chief Minister. He also insinuated that respected Congress leaders, including the former Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, were in league with Pakistan to destabilise the country. The strategy worked only partially. The BJP barely touched the half-way mark. In Karnataka, the formula was even less of a success.
In the current round of elections, Mr. Modi and Mr. Shah went a step further and unleashed U.P. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath with the express intention of dividing the electorate. Mr. Adityanath, whose single claim to fame is his anti-Muslim approach in all things, did exactly that. In M.P., he said the fight was between the Congress’s Ali and the BJP’s Bajrangbali (Hanuman). In Hyderabad, he promised to drive out AsaduddinOwaisi of the All India Majlis-e-IttehadulMuslimeen should the BJP get a majority. It didn’t matter to Mr. Modi or Mr. Shah that Mr. Adityanath had failed the electoral test in his own State and had lost a critical by-election in his home turf of Gorakhpur.
The bad news doesn’t end here for the BJP. In a majority of Assembly elections held since 2014, the BJP’s vote share has dropped well below what it polled in the Lok Sabha election, a pattern seen in the current elections — whether in Rajasthan, M.P. or Chhattisgarh, the BJP’s vote share is nowhere near what it polled in the Lok Sabha.
Assuming the vote shares repeat themselves in the Lok Sabha election, the BJP would lose over 40 seats in these States alone. In north India, the BJP had reached saturation levels in 2014, a feat it will be hard put to replicate. In the south, where the BJP has historically been weak, it looks increasingly like a washout for the party: the TDP has broken with it while the TRS, with a solid Muslim vote to draw upon, is clearly unwilling to play ball. In Karnataka, the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Congress are going steady.
The disenchantment of the poor is hard to miss, as also the ferment among Dalits and farmers. There’s been an exodus of institutional heads, all of whom have given the thumbs down to Mr. Modi’s disastrous economic policies. But the silver lining for the BJP is Mr. Modi himself. He continues to be popular through the wavering fortunes of his party.