Although the Congress today is in no position to coherently challenge the BJP, a small event can galvanise the party.
Success does not only have many fathers, it also spawns self-seeking narratives on behalf of the victors. After the BJP’s spectacular win in the Assam elections, Ram Madhav, BJP general secretary and a key RSS thinker in the party, said the Sangh Parivar had been planning the Assam strategy for a long time. Of course, we do believe Madhav that the RSS had been plotting the Assam coup for a while. But then, the BJP had also been deeply plotting an electoral coup in Bihar, staking every bit of the Sangh’s capital there to oust Nitish Kumar. Bihar didn’t work out the way the BJP had thought. But Assam did, one must concede. By the same token, should one assume the BJP will have Assam-like success in the crucial assembly elections next year?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are probably already deeply strategising for the Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat elections, to be held next year, with the help of the Sangh. But they may not produce another Assam. Current empirical surveys in UP show Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party within striking distance of power. The BJP, which swept UP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections with a 43% vote share, is presently struggling to retain the support of the farmers and Dalit community who had reposed faith in Modi and his hyper-promises. The unprecedented crises in the agriculture sector and shrinking rural incomes is not helping Modi, who had made tall promises to farmers. If the BJP were to get all the votes it did in 2014, which is an impossibility, it would end up with a two thirds majority. But even the BJP will not dream of this at the current juncture. There is nowhere to go except downhill from its 2014 peak performance, whatever the strategy of the Sangh.
So there is an inherent fragility in the grand narratives that momentarily get built around dramatic election victories, which TV channels embellish with noisy and hyped up commentary. For its own good, the BJP must guard against getting deluded by such seductive theories as “BJP’s irreversible national footprint”. Indeed, such narratives appear very intoxicating in the short term and may even be reinforced by the despondency in the opposition camp. The Congress morale is at an all time low, just as the BJP morale was at a low in 2009 when the Congress came back to power beating anti-incumbency at the Centre. The BJP had then developed a serious existential dilemma. Not for long though, as it went for a leadership overhaul in a few years. And then the cycle turned for the party.
But it takes little for political cycles to change direction. Although the Congress today is in no position to coherently challenge the BJP, a small event can galvanise the party.
In my view it is not UP that will galvanise the Congress. The Congress has its best chance yet to beard the lion in his own den in Gujarat. Psychologically, for Modi, Gujarat is a huge prestige state, almost like what Amethi is to the Gandhi family. Currently, the BJP is vulnerable in Gujarat, facing a three-term anti-incumbency, which no one has beaten in recent decades. It becomes worse as Modi is not there either. There is talk of replacing current Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel with a more acceptable leader to dilute the anti-incumbency. This is not an easy task for Modi and Shah.
The BJP got a shock in Gujarat last year when it lost 80% of all district panchayats in rural Gujarat to the Congress, possibly reflecting the disenchantment of the middle peasants — the Patel community — with the BJP. The BJP did retain its vote in the urban municipalities but overall the Congress seems to have got a higher vote share than the BJP in all of Gujarat’s local elections. This was just a pointer to what might be in store for the BJP in 2017. Modi and Shah are studying this seriously and will formulate their response in the months ahead.
What is certain is Gujarat is a bigger prestige battle for Modi than even UP, especially at a psychological level. He remains quite obsessed with Gujarat which remains his laboratory for many experiments, both economic and social. Since Gujarat is a bipolar fight it can easily swing the other way after a 15-year fatigue with one outfit. Mind you, Congress at its worst got a 38% vote share in the 2012 assembly polls and the BJP received 48%. So Congress still has a strong base in Gujarat and would benefit from a 5-6% vote shift away from the BJP. In a sense, the BJP is yet to achieve a Congress-mukt Gujarat, going by the developing political churn in the state, additionally fed by the Patidar movement.
Similarly, the BJP will face 15-year anti incumbency in Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh in 2018. In Chattisgarh, the Congress has a 40% vote share, just 1.5% behind the BJP. In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress has a vote share of about 35%, which it can dramatically improve upon as the gory after effects of the Vyapam scam are yet to play out electorally. The Congress can reap this if it just plays smart and does not make any big mistake. So the coming electoral cycle does not particularly signify the much touted phenomenon of “Congress-mukt Bharat”. The BJP will surely be aware of this.
True, the BJP feels on top of the world today as it claims to govern nine states with around 35% of India’s population and the Congress is reduced to just 6 smaller states covering about 8% of the country’s population. If some of the reverses happen in the bigger states going to the polls in 2017 and 2018, the equation could change dramatically. It is too early to write off the Congress, however tempting it may be to its detractors.