The winter of 2018 has sent a chill up the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) spine, and Christmas has come early for the 133-year-old Congress party. At the time of writing, it looks as though in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, the incumbent BJP regimes have been toppled by the Congress in head-to-head contests.
Telangana, one of India’s youngest states, has elected nativist Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and a decade-old Congress government has been dislodged by rival Mizo National Front (MNF) in Mizoram. Bottomline 2018: Congress 3, Others 2, BJP 0.
This is a turn of the screw from the relentless triumphalism of the BJP: Suddenly voters seem to have woken to a wider range of political choices beyond Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party boss Amit Shah. Electoral contests in the immediate future won’t be sure-fire saffron walkovers: each seat in every state could witness tough fights.
Here are the major takeaways from the winter polls.
One, BJP’s losses in its Hindi strongholds show that the carefully-crafted image of Modi-Shah as election-winning geniuses, is bust. This isn’t for lack of trying. Both campaigned with relentless toxicity, pitching these elections as a contest between Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi, rather than an exercise to vote in different state governments.
Two, Congress has more than doubled the number of big states where it holds power: from two (Karnataka and Punjab) to five. Apart from boosting morale, an important ingredient for a party which has lived with disappointments for much of three years, this outcome might boost campaign finance for summer’s general elections.
Three, the image of Rahul Gandhi, widely spread by BJP’s propaganda machine, as an entitled (‘naamdar’), hapless and lazy ‘Pappu’ might turn around. BJP’s spin-meisters will need to ask how a mere Pappu could beat mighty Modi-Shah on their turf. In the future, it might not be a great idea for the BJP to pitch contests as personalised slugfests.
Four, voters have punished BJP regimes for administrative incompetence and callous policymaking. The roots of these defeats can be traced back to Modi’s bewildering decision to destroy 86% of currency in circulation overnight, announced November 8, 2016.
In a country where 98% of all transactions are conducted in cash, where 93% of the workforce operates in the ‘unorganised’, cash-only sector and formal banking is spread thin on the ground, Modi’s ‘notebandi’ hit the poor where it hurts most.
A landslide victory in Uttar Pradesh in early 2017 convinced BJP strategists that demonetisation was a killer electoral app. There is evidence that UP’s poor were misled to vote BJP by a feeling of schadenfreude – happiness at the misery of others. But by the beginning of this year, that warm glow had been replaced by seething anger.
Between January and November, by-elections were conducted in 13 assembly and Lok Sabha seats in seven states. Of these, Congress won three seats, its allies won five, BJP topped only two and in seven seats its incumbent netas lost to other parties. While it’s a mistake to pin too much significance on by-poll outcomes, the trend hinted at in these isolated contests across India has been reinforced by the outcome in five state elections.
Five, speaking to the media immediately after results came in, Trinamool Congress chief and Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee attributed BJP’s loss to its overweening ‘arrogance’. There’s more than a grain of truth in her observation. Modi runs the administration from Delhi as his personal fief; his cabinet is populated by people who wield zero authority in the ministries they head. Senior bureaucrats run to and from the prime minister’s office carrying instructions and files. This appalling centralisation of power, bolstered by a Shah-led party which dares not speak truth to Modi, has met its comeuppance at the polling booth.
Modi rushes to appropriate credit for everything that seems to be going right. He is equally quick to disown blunders, like the disastrous fallout of notebandi, a haphazardly implemented goods and services tax (GST) and violence unleashed by his bhakts in the name of protecting cows, caste privilege or Hindu ‘chastity’, from the clutches of minorities.
Six, given the blunders and policy flops of the Modi regime, the BJP is rapidly running out of themes to run a campaign with. His 2014 pitch about ‘vikas’ or development for all, ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ and so on now look like poor jokes. Everyone, including Modi, knows these kites won’t fly any more.
Therefore the return to prominence of toxic themes like building a Ram temple at Ayodhya and a chest thumping hyper-nationalism. So also measures like amending laws to allow Hindus from neighbouring countries automatic citizenship and a national register designed to strip ‘foreigners’ in border states of all rights. Well, none of this cut any ice with voters this winter.
Finally, what do these results tell us about the forthcoming Lok Sabha contest in summer? Here is a simple, arithmetical exercise which might shed some light. There are a total of 520 assembly seats in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. These are grouped into 65 Lok Sabha seats, so each parliament seat is made up of eight assembly seats on average.
In 2014, BJP won 60 of these 65 seats in parliament from these three states. Congress won a measly four. These 60 BJP seats added up to 443 assembly segments.
This year, the BJP has won 193 assembly seats in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. If eight assembly seats equal one parliamentary seat and the same trend holds in 2019, then BJP can expect to win 24 Lok Sabha seats from these states next year. That will be a huge drop of 41 parliamentary seats from its 2014 tally from three states it had swept earlier.
The Congress will hope that the BJP’s loss translates as its gain.
Abheek Barman is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.