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After a year of big shifts

By Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

The year 2018 will be remembered as the period when the people handed out successive verdicts against the Narendra Modi government. The electorate voted against the BJP in several byelections across states and the wave of rising resentment culminated in the defeat of the party in three states where it had been in power — and in two of them for 15 long years. Over the year, the image of Narendra Modi being an invincible leader has collapsed.

In the last few days, the allies of the BJP, who once ate humble pie and remained in the coalition despite confessing in private that humiliation was a constant element in their relationship with the saffron party, have forced its leadership to come to the negotiating table and agree to the partners’ terms. Recent events within the ruling National Democratic Alliance indicate the changed equations within the saffron fold in comparison to 2014, when almost every party not in ideological opposition to the BJP was eager to be part of the bandwagon, and on the BJP’s terms.

In contrast, two allies, albeit smaller ones, Jitan Ram Manjhi and Upendra Kushwaha, have quit and crossed over to the Mahagathbandhan. Given the way the BJP leadership had accommodated the Lok Janshakti Party and a possible repeat appears on the cards vis-a-vis the Apna Dal in Uttar Pradesh, it is evident that the BJP is no longer the dominant force it was in 2014. Back in 2012, when the BJP had few allies and Narendra Modi was asked how he intended to overcome this deficiency in its arsenal, he ascribed the downturn to the party’s winnability declining. “Once we increase our strike rate, the allies will automatically come because of the benefits in being partners with us,” Mr Modi had then said. It is evident that the argument has now turned on its head.

The year which slips into the past has witnessed the emergence of Rahul Gandhi as a credible leader. He may not yet be a challenger to Mr Modi in terms of popularity, charisma and capacity to keep the audience spellbound with rhetorical oratory. But he has emerged as the only Opposition leader with a pan-India public presence. He may not yet be a potential Prime Minister in the waiting, but has surely begun to be taken more seriously. This transformation has been aided in no small measure by Mr Modi and his party. By heaping scorn and ridicule on the Congress president all the time, the BJP has repeated the mistake of the Sonia Gandhi-led party which had constantly targeted Mr Modi, contributing greatly in his rise.

It is not just the Congress Party which has found new energy in 2018. After months of dithering, N. Chandrababu Naidu broke ranks with the NDA and aligned with the Congress. For a party formed with anti-Congressism as its primary driver, this development, although with disastrous results in Telangana, indicates the willingness of regional parties to team up with the Grand Old Party. The BJP may seek comfort that such a development cements its position as the dominant pole in politics. But such arguments will come to a naught if it becomes electorally counterproductive.

The defeat of the BJP in the Lok Sabha byelection in Kairana convinced the Opposition parties that alliance formation was the way ahead. This sentiment has got buttressed after the Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan results, where alliances with smaller parties could have made a significant difference in the Congress tally. What eventually went down to the wire may have been a settled matter by midday on counting day.

There is no clarity yet whether in Uttar Pradesh there would be an all-encompassing Mahagathbandhan-style anti-BJP front or the Congress would eventually be kept out. In recent weeks it has been argued that Mr Modi would benefit by all parties joining forces in the most populous state because it can tap on reverse polarisation. There also the argument that the Congress on its own would cut into upper caste votes, which normally has been the BJP’s preserve in recent years. However, any division in the anti-BJP vote in Uttar Pradesh would send a negative message to voters in other states as it would give strength to the BJP’s argument that if voters do not return it to office, they would Equally important is the success or failure of the emerging BJP strategy. It is evident that the party is going to project the achievements of this government as the secondary facet of its electoral campaign. The primary facet of the party’s plank, it is more or less evident now, would consist of three issues — the Ram temple, other Hindutva campaigns with the ultra-nationalist theme interwoven, and third, a Modi-centric theme, with voters being asked if they wanted him back as PM, or not!

Without a doubt, the next few months will be the most momentous in determining if India remains on the path prescribed in the Constitution or would it move to chalking a different course, where majoritarianism is an acceptable premise. Over the course of the past year, people have reinforced the theory that Indian democracy has an inherent corrective mechanism. But it is premature to say if the trend will continue in the parliamentary elections, or whether people will accept the BJP’s argument that national interests and those of the community are more important than issues related to personal well-being and advancement.

The BJP still had an advantage — despite its reduced dominance, disenchantment with the party remains mostly localised. There is as yet little evidence that the anti-incumbent sentiment against the Centre has converted into anger and dislike for Mr Modi personally. The task for both the BJP and the Opposition parties, especially the Congress, is cut out. It is certain that the verdict of 2014 is unlikely to be repeated. Unless the political narrative alters dramatically, a decline in the BJP’s tally is certain. Where the score settles finally will depend how various parties play the game.