The BJP’s bypoll defeat in Rajasthan and West Bengal will likely be a big cause of concern for the Modi-Shah duo.
In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under their declared prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi got 73 seats in Uttar Pradesh along with ally Apna Dal, 25 out of 25 seats in Rajasthan and 26 out of 26 seats in Gujarat. These sweeping wins added to Modi’s “56-inch” swagger and enabled him and his shadow Amit Shah, whom he anointed BJP president, to turn the BJP into a two-man party and his cabinet into virtual cardboard cutouts.
But things appear to be changing. The Rajasthan bypoll results, where the Congress managed to wrest two Lok Sabha seats and an assembly seat from the BJP, has been a rude wake-up call and reality check for the Modi-Shah duo. Sachin Pilot, Congress chief in Rajasthan, who told me that “I will be bringing my two MPs for an introduction to parliament today”, was thrilled, saying “these results are a tectonic shift in North Indian politics”.
For once, the hyperbole was justified, as the Modi magic that had India in its thrall appears to be waning. Currently, the hottest buzz in parliament is early elections and the smart money is on the duo trying to defeat anti-incumbency and take the divided opposition by shock by going in for early general elections.
Rajasthan, the virtual laboratory of a virulent, hard Hindutva, which witnessed the lynching of Pehlu Khan in April 2017 and the recent silent strategic BJP support for its surrogate the Karni Sena, has exposed the limitations of the BJP’s long polarisation drive. If assembly elections were held in Rajasthan today, going by the vote share of yesterday’s results, the Congress is likely to sweep the 200-seat Vidhan Sabha.
The diminishing returns from polarisation will worry Modi and Shah, who have built their entire politics around it, covered with a thin veneer of development meant to convince the fence- sitters.
While analysts remain in denial, the anointment of Adityanath as Uttar Pradesh chief minister was a clear pointer to Modi and Shah upping the polarisation policy. The issues that Adityanath, who has since his appointment emerged as a pan-Indian Hindutva icon, has chosen are clearly all about communalism. Consider “love jihad“, “anti-Romeo squads” or the recent events in Kasganj where an ugly communal incident occurred and one person died, and the picture takes on a sharp focus.
This also exposes the fundamental way that the BJP remains a party of the Hindi heartland, despite the tall talk of expansion in the south and the east. When Adityanath goes to campaign in Karnataka and cites the UP model of development, it has a surreal feel to it.
Senior BJP leaders say that unless the BJP can repeat its stupendous performance in north and central India – a very tall order, with broken promises of “achhe din” (now a banned phrase in the party) – it has no hope of even securing a simple majority.
Shah had made an art of getting defectors from every party and in Bengal had challenged chief minister Mamta Banerjee by breaking away Mukul Roy, who was facing allegations of corruption. The margin of 4.74 lakh votes that the Trinamool Congress won in the Uluberia seat ought to make Shah pause and reflect over the BJP’s expansion plan in Bengal. Similarly, in Maharashtra, Shah forgot the BJP’s stated anti-corruption crusade and got the Congress and Shiv Sena turncoat Narayan Rane, who is again accused of serious corruption charges, over to the BJP. Now, Rane makes daily threats, saying his patience is over, while there is huge resistance to such lateral entrants from within the BJP.
In Gujarat, where the BJP barely squeezed through with 99 seats after an all-out campaign by Modi based on him symbolising “Gujarati asmita” (Gujarat pride), helped along with with some intemperate statements by expelled Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar which were twisted by Modi, the defectors that Shah had got from the Congress all lost.
As the unkept promises pile up, the development and “good governance” claims of Modi stand exposed as empty slogans. The other plank that brought Modi to power – corruption – sees no action, and Shah’s description of “jumla” seems to be apt. The collapse of the 2G scam case in court and zero progress in any action against Robert Vadra, who was called “damaadji” by Modi on the campaign trial with a promise to put him in jail within 100 days of assuming office, are cases in point. Four years have passed and Vadra is still a free man. The assisted “escapes” of Vijay Mallya, Lalit Modi and arms dealer Sanjay Bhandari have certainly dented the anti-corruption crusader image projected by Modi. Says a senior BJP leader, “The 2G case and its outcome will now be a campaign issue against the BJP in the next elections.”
The mystery around the Rafale deal and its offsets, the conflicts of interests and allegations of crony corruption have seriously compromised the government’s image. Despite all its attempts, the government is unable to put a lid on the mysterious death of Judge B.H. Loya, who was hearing the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case that had Shah as an accused.
The first ones to sense the change of mood are the allies of the NDA government, who have been repeatedly humiliated and shown their place by Shah. The Shiv Sena has already said it has broken its two-decade “yuti“ (alliance) with the BJP and will go it alone in the next elections in Maharashtra and the Centre. Post the recent by-election results, Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party has also expressed his disappointment with the Budget and said he wanted to say “namaskar” (farewell) to the BJP.
In Odisha, Shah’s aggressive moves and attempts to break the Biju Janata Dal with the help of a networked billionaire MP, now suspended, has not come to any fruition and has ensured that Navin Patnaik, the chief minister, is now looking at the opposition as an ally.
Sources say even Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who is subjected to daily pin-pricks by Shah and Modi and who nearly had a billion-dollar General Motors project cancelled in Bihar by the Centre, is now regretting that he jumped ship. One of his MPs says, “Nitishji was treated as a Bihari dulah (bridegroom) by the UPA, he could always count on Sonia Gandhi controlling Lalu Prasad Yadav and his sons; now Shah does not even treat him as a baarati (guest) and with Lalu going to jail, he is really regretting jumping ship.”
So, what does this all add up to? Early elections and more polarisation, as even the pretence of development is given up, and more opposition from within the Sangh to Modi and Shah.
If the opposition can script an alternative India story for the voter, it is certainly game on for the general elections, which are now wide open.
Swati Chaturvedi is a Delhi-based journalist.