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Bugle for 2019 battle sounded

By Ajaz Ashraf

The slide in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s fortunes in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh makes it so much harder for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to realise his dream of governing the country until 2024. Regardless of the spin the BJP will give its defeat, electoral history shows the Assembly election results of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh tend to get reflected in the Lok Sabha elections held in these states three to four months later.

It is very likely that Modi and the BJP will draw inspiration from the exceptional triumph of Chief Minister KC Rao in Telangana, where his Telangana RashtraSamithi faced the combined onslaught of the grand alliance or Mahakutami of the Congress, Telugu Desam Party, Communist Party of India and Telangana Jana Samiti. Just as the Telangana RashtraSamithi trounced the Mahakutami, it will be argued that Modi can also trump an Opposition alliance at the national level.

But Modi will know there are significant differences between the politics of the Telangana RashtraSamithi and the BJP. In 2014, the Telangana RashtraSamithi won just three more seats than the majority mark of 60 in the House of 119 members. However, its strength in the Assembly grew to 90 because of defections of MLAs from the Opposition. Some of these MLAs would have augmented the party’s vote share of 34.3% in 2014, as against the Mahakutami’s 40.8%.

Rao also introduced a slew of welfare measures, including 24X7 power supply to rural Telangana, enhanced pension, and expansion of the irrigation network. Not only did he not alienate significant social groups, his welfare measures enabled him to cut across caste and religious loyalties.

Unlike Telangana, though, the BJP in North India enters the electoral arena without counting on the support of Muslims, whom its footsoldiers have viciously targetted during Modi’s reign. The BJP has also increasingly alienated large sections of Dalits, particularly the Jatavs, many of whom had in fact voted for the party in 2014 and in the 2017 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh.

This means that the BJP will begin with a huge deficit in the electorally crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, where the party and its allies won 73 out of 80 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The BJP will find it difficult to offset the deficit because of the growing possibility of the Samajwadi Party and BahujanSamaj Party forming an alliance, with or without the Congress, in Uttar Pradesh.

It is against this backdrop that the Assembly election results of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh constitute bad news for Modi. It can be safely assumed that the BJP will lose some of the seats it had won in these states in 2014.

In 2013, while the BJP won 163 of Rajasthan’s 200 seats and polled 45.2% of the votes, the Congress bagged 21 seats on a vote share of 33.1 %. Months later, in the 2014 general elections, the BJP won all of Rajasthan’s 25 Lok Sabha seats. In the 2008 state elections, the BJP won 78 seats and the Congress 96, with a vote share of just 2.6% separating the two. Yet, in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress won 20 seats.

The year 2004 provides the best indicator of how state elections seem to influence the outcome in national elections. That year, the AB Vajpayee government was voted out of power at the Centre, but his party, the BJP, bagged 21 Lok Sabha seats in Rajasthan. It mirrored the Assembly results of 2003, when the BJP had won 120 seats and the Congress just 56 seats. The BJP had just a 3.5 percentage advantage over the Congress.

Madhya Pradesh, too, provides proof of a correlation between the vote share of a party in the Assembly elections and its subsequent performance there in the Lok Sabha polls. In 2009, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance won a second consecutive term at the Centre, the party won 12 Lok Sabha seats in the state against the BJP’s 16. The BJP had won the 2008 Assembly elections but, unlike 2003 and 2013, bagged just 5.2% more votes than the Congress. In 2013, the BJP had led the Congress by 8.5% in the Assembly elections, and in 2003 by 10.9%.

Chhattisgarh’s significance in the national electoral competition is limited because it accounts for just 11 seats in the Lok Sabha. Since 2003, the BJP has won the Assembly elections and has consistently taken 10 Lok Sabha seats from 2004 onwards. The difference between the vote share of the BJP and the Congress ranged from 2.06% in 2003 to 0.7% in 2013.

The 2018 results should shock Modi’s BJP: the Congress leads it by a margin of over 10% votes. Rich in minerals, Chhattisgarh is important because the party ruling the state has access to huge financial resources. For a resource-strapped Congress, the victory in Chhattisgarh should come as a relief.

Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh together account for 65 Lok Sabha seats, of which the BJP won 61 in 2014. Tuesday’s results suggest this tally will dip, although it will be perilous to put a number to it. The BJP’s sweep of North India was the principal factor behind it crossing the majority mark on its own in the Lok Sabha in 2014. Modi will find the going tough north of the Vindhayas, not only in Uttar Pradesh if the Samajwadi Party and BahujanSamaj Party tie up, but also in Bihar, where the incarceration of Lalu Prasad Yadav has generated sympathy for his party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

The BJP cannot offset its losses in the north through gains in the south. Telangana, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu account for 129 Lok Sabha seats, out of which the BJP had won 21 in 2014. Seventeen of its 21 seats here came from Karnataka, where the Janata Dal (Secular)-Congress alliance will disable the BJP from retaining its 2014 tally, let alone improve upon it.

Worse for Modi, the Telugu Desam Party has broken away from the BJP, its ally in Tamil Nadu, the All India Anna DravidaMunnetraKazhagam, is on the backfoot, and the Sabarimala controversy cannot be squeezed in Kerala, which has just 20 Lok Sabha seats, to recoup the likely losses in Karnataka and in North India. The BJP cannot bank on the bigger of the eastern states – West Bengal and Odisha – to notch spectacular victories there, although it will seek to subject the region to intense communal polarisation. In Assam, since the BJP won seven out of 14 Lok Sabha seats, it cannot substantially augment its electoral harvest here.

Modi is an electoral warrior who will scrutinise the Assembly results to replenish his arsenal. His top priority will be to tackle the agrarian distress, touted as the most important factor behind the BJP’s reversals in the Assembly elections. Given that there are three to four months left for the Lok Sabha elections, Modi will likely opt for a quick fix, such as loan waivers for farmers, or introduce the idea of universal basic income, as is the buzz in Delhi. But he will have to implement such schemes now, not merely announce them. Otherwise, the Opposition will remind people how he belied his 2014 promise of bringing back black money stashed abroad and crediting Rs 15 lakh in every person’s bank account.

Modi and the SanghParivar, in an orchestrated move, will raise the pitch on the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, as has already started to happen. He will also polarise the Other Backward Classes, pitting the more socially and educationally backward groups among them against the relatively better-off groups.

Modi will seek to discredit the Gandhis, citing their alleged venality as the principal factor behind India’s woes. Charges of corruption and conflict of interest have already been flung at them. The government has in its custody Christian Michel, the alleged middleman in the AgustaWestland VVIP helicopter deal, who is expected to sing against Congress stalwarts.

Modi will portray an Opposition alliance as a conglomeration of dynasts and corrupt leaders who have come together only to dislodge him, an honest son of a chaiwalla. He will say the Opposition, unlike him, has no vision for India, a point that many political pundits too have pointed out. In India, though, power tends to shift from one party to another because of anti-incumbency. There is a reason for it – most people want their today to be the same as, if not better than, their yesterday.

Occasionally, though, a staid yesterday appears preferable to a traumatic present. This might seem to be the case in Modi’s new India, which does not seem a better India, increasingly angry, alienated and violent as it has become.