It began as a one horse race. A predictable election with a public relations blitzkriegs leading to a foregone conclusion that the BJP would come up trumps, even as a deflated Congress mounted a half-hearted slow-off-the-block campaign with the Gandhi Parivar barely registering their presence. Yawn. Suddenly two regional satraps Congress’s Hooda and NCP’s Pawar rose phoenix like and led a valiant push back in Haryana and Maharashtra. Yet it came to naught as the Saffron Sangh emerged victorious taking it all.
Leaving hanging the question: At what cost? It exposed that the Modi-Shah matrix was not infallible, despite micromanagement of candidates and campaigns. They could be held down and trounced by a strong regional leader who could exploit their weaknesses. The Maratha supremo Pawar and Jat strongman Hooda did just that.
Winning 54 seats, the NCP underscored its dominance was one of the primary reasons why the BJP-Sena alliance failed to secure a landslide victory. In Haryana the Congress score of 31 ensured the Saffron needed crutches of Chautala’s JJP to reach a majority of 46 MLAs, way below its call of ‘Abki baar 75 paar’.
Certainly, the Congress-NCP performed better than expected but fell short of posing any real threat to the ruling BJP-Sena combination. The BJP-Sena alliance won 161 of 288 Assembly seats to form the Government comfortably even though their combined tally was less than 2014 when the two Parties stitched a post-poll alliance. The BJP tally fell to 105 from 122 seats in 2014 and way below the halfway mark 144 which it hoped to win.
It will now face changed equations with a more confident Opposition led by Pawar and a more aggressive Shiv Sena already demanding a 50-50 power sharing for all Ministerial berths and rotational Chief Minister. Asserted Thackeray “I am not warning but only reminding of what had been discussed.”
Pertinently, voters gave a thumbs down to turncoats in both States. At least 19 of 35 defectors who left Congress and NCP to join the BJP and Shiv Sena lost as did nine Ministers, two Cabinet and seven junior Ministers. Adding insult, the BJP lost three seats where Modi held rallies. Interestingly, NOTA (none of the above) garnered a large number of voters in several constituencies.
In Haryana the voters’ disenchantment was stronger as it nixed six top Ministers and booted out defectors. Clearly, the Party’s ‘revolving door’ policy of encouraging defections from other Parties to partake power at all cost has lead to its “Congressisation” and become an albatross round its neck. Not only did it led to discontent among its rank and file but many leaders turned rebels, fought elections as independents thereby hitting the Party’s fortune. Putting a question mark against the-anything- goes-in- rajniti.
Undeniably, this is a wake-up call for the BJP. The results show that conjuring up mass hysteria of NaMo and ‘All is well’ has its limitations. Of course, one could argue that the Party had set the bar to high and was trying to outreach itself. Of not only a Congress Mukt Bharat but annihilate the entire Opposition and establish its ideological hegemony across the country.
But one thing is crystal clear. Despite its communication skills, adept use of technology in its social and public outreach and managing its image, the Saffron Sangh failed to read the political pulse of the people. The State polls happened under the shadow of economic slowdown, weak consumer demand and rising joblessness.
The results indicate that economic distress has political consequences and has finally started to hurt the BJP. While it fought the election on muscular nationalism including Article 370 and soaring global clout, the final outcome indicates voters, especially in rural areas voted more on local bread and butter issues which were adroitly highlighted and exploited by its opponents.
After all, depending mostly on the personal persona of macho Modi, image building of its Chief Ministerial candidates and booth management has its limitations in State elections where voters are more concerned about roti, kapada aur makaan. Its tirade against “Parivarvaad” too came a cropper. As in both States Pawar, Deshmukh, Thackeray, Hooda, Chautala etc dynasts led the counter charge and won.
At a broader level, though the BJP has strong central leadership it has yet to build State level leaders in States like Maharashtra and Haryana who can dominate the political space. Plainly, it came to power riding on an overarching Modi wave but that wasn’t enough to expand its base.
Perhaps the BJP has shot itself in the foot by being too cocky and overplaying its nationalistic zealousness. Time know for Modi-Shah and the top brass to realize that nationalism has only limited appeal but pitted against hungry stomachs it faces a losing battle. There is no escape from fixing the economy and providing jobs and income. Bluntly, it needs a rapid course correction as it goes to the husting in three States Delhi, Bihar and Jharkhand.
Besides, the elections also highlight the limitations of cocking a snook at deeply embedded caste politics. BJP’s strategy of consolidating non-dominant castes has its limitation. Notwithstanding this strategy successfully worked in UP, Bihar, Assam and West Bengal elections.
By vilifying politically dominant communities Marathas and Jats by rallying numerically smaller and less dominant castes, the BJP got mud on its face. Both Fadnavis and Khattar were no match to tackle Pawar and Hooda’s caste equations. In Haryana, Jat votes consolidated behind the Congress in a much bigger way than in the 2014 Lok Sabha and Assembly polls. Ditto In Maharashtra.
Further, it is a warning that there are cracks in the BJP edifice and it cannot take its winning streak for granted. Given there is something fragile and nothing predictable about it. It is a cue that political dadagiri in a democracy is made of several layers between the voter and Party and needs constant nurturing.
Importantly, the BJP needs to ask itself if Modi’s leadership and popularity alone is enough to win polls? True, it got the Party 303 Lok Sabha seats but the NaMo mascot couldn’t swing a majority in both States, thereby signaling the limits of a personality cult and the dangers of banking on it exclusively and excessively.
The results hold a flicker of hope that the Opposition is back. It indicates the BJP is unable o improve its tally in States where it is in power and is seeking reelection. Parties need to have smart and credible coordination to convert peoples’ angst into a protest vote for an alternate economic and ideological narrative. The manner in which the interplay evolves will determine the nature of political opposition.
The BJP setback has partially revived a comatose Congress and shown that it is time the Gandhi’s took a back seat and allow local satraps to take charge in States. Honestly answer whether it does better in the absence of its central leadership? It needs to usher in organizational change, structural reforms and give power to leaders who have a direct connect with the masses. A churn has already began.
Elections are a great leveler of inflated egos and bruised ambitions. It would be a mistake to read the poll verdict as a decline in Modi’s popularity and numero uno status. Yet citizens have emerged victorious as they have shown their power to propel leaders to dizzy heights or expose their feet of clay. More power to the People!