Three potential challengers in UP – Akhilesh Yadav, Rahul Gandhi and Mayawati – proved no match for Narendra Modi’s relentless campaigning.
Several conclusions can be drawn from the stupendous performance of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, the most crucial of the five states that went to the polls, but the most important one is that there is no one – outside or even within the BJP – that can match up to the appeal and the energy of Narendra Modi when it comes to election campaigns.
Three potential challengers in UP – Akhilesh Yadav, Rahul Gandhi and Mayawati (and one more, if you throw in Mulayam Singh Yadav) – proved no match for Modi’s relentless campaigning. Towards the end, it appeared that the entire Union cabinet was camping in Varanasi, determined to woo the electorate, but the leader of this charge was the prime minister himself. That effort has clearly paid off.
The minutiae of the results will be known and analysed in the coming days, but it is clear that a victory on this scale could not have happened without voters in different regions, across castes and perhaps even among different religions backed the BJP. The messaging – vikas with some generous dollops of communal polarisation – appears to have impressed voters from different backgrounds who saw in the BJP, and particularly Modi, a party (and man) who would “do something”, as opposed to the others, who either were still handicapped by their casteist personas or were only preoccupied with hitting out at Modi himself. It should by now become apparent to opposition politicians that the more you attack Modi, the more energetic he becomes. Unless the opposition comes up with a clearly defined agenda of its own, it can say goodbye to power in 2019.
It is not as if the BJP did not sew up its own caste coalition – both the ‘upper’ castes and sections of the OBCs backed the BJP. This is the old Congress formula refined under Indira Gandhi, wherein both the Brahmins and the Dalits saw her as someone who would look after their interests. In those pre-Mandalite times, various ‘OBCs’ also supported the Congress. The emergence of the casteist parties or others with a narrow, identity-linked base was successful for a few decades but is now withering away. This is also being seen in Maharashtra where the Shiv Sena’s appeal among Marathi-speakers is being diluted because youngsters are moving towards Modi, who talks of growth. Akhilesh understood that but he couldn’t get rid of his party’s image completely.
But look wider and outside UP, and another layer to the picture emerges. In most states – UP, Uttarakhand, Punjab and perhaps Manipur – it is the incumbent who has lost. The factors in each case were purely local – rampant misrule of the Badals in Punjab and poor governance in UP and elsewhere – but the voters wanted to give another party a chance. This is a lesson that parties have shown no inclination to learn – that more and more, voters want governance as exemplified by the basics: jobs, security and infrastructure. The Badal regime was a prime example of corruption and nepotism gone berserk and with a robust Amarinder Singh taking them on, they just caved in. The Aam Aadmi Party, with its penchant for a high-decibel campaign and amplification by an enthusiastic volunteer force, gave the impression that it would be forming the next government in Punjab – and Goa – but flattered to deceive. It should derive some solace from its performance in Punjab, but this victory still does not give confidence about the party’s long-term future in national politics.
The Congress too can feel happy with its performance in Punjab and Goa, but the message for the grand old party is clear – it’s time it went in for a major structural overhaul. The Gandhis hold the party together, but if they are no longer a vote-winning machine as before, what is the use? Why doesn’t it have competent and, more importantly, trusted regional leaders? Amarinder in Punjab and earlier Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan showed what good regional leadership can achieve, surely that is the way forward? As for Rahul Gandhi – will he or won’t he take over the party? And if yes, does he have it in him to change the basic culture of the Congress and at the same time win over voters? Can he face up to the Modi onslaught?
This once again raises the original point – the opposition has no one with the stature, the presence and the energy that Modi has, at least where mass popularity is concerned. But neither does the BJP. It is a one man show in the truest sense. Not only at the Centre, but also in UP, it was Modi all the way. The party may say it doesn’t want to make the mistake of Delhi, when it named Kiran Bedi as the chief ministerial candidate and lost miserably. But not having credible local leaders and relying solely on the appeal of Modi can prove to be a self-limiting exercise in the long run.
The UP win will come as a boost to the party, which was looking for a victory after its loss in Bihar. It strengthens the hands of Modi and Amit Shah not just in the parliamentary elections but also in the Gujarat elections, where again there is a lack of a credible opposition personality to take them on. The BJP is bound to now think it can push through the laws it wants to. With an opposition in disarray, that is going to be quite easy.