Massive win, undisputed leader

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he is presented with a garland by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders after the election results in New Delhi, India, May 23, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

The BJP has won a runaway victory in the Lok Sabha elections, not just replicating its 2014 performance but even improving on it. The victory means five more years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, that too with an enhanced mandate. Conversely, it also means the failure of the Opposition to make an impact on the people, and conspicuously the inability of the Congress leadership to provide an alternative to the BJP. The BJP’s dominance was felt across the country, except in parts of the South, East and Punjab. Though much of the South is beyond its reach even now, it has won an unprecedented victory in Karnataka where it has dealt a major blow to the Congress-JD(S) alliance, which may prove fatal for the coalition government in the state.

There is a massive 10 percentage point increase in the BJP’s vote share across the country. That is a huge shift of support in its favour. The victory is more remarkable than its 2014 win because then it had the advantage of being a party challenging a government that was facing a strong anti-incumbency sentiment. It did not have that advantage now but had to go into polls saddled with the poor performance of its government on the economic front, failure to keep its 2014 promises and a bad record of divisive social and political policies. But the party retained its supremacy in all states that had helped it to come to power in 2014 and extended itself to new states like West Bengal and Odisha. Even the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) of K Chandrashekar Rao, which is entrenched in Telangana, has felt the heat. The BJP was also able to recover the ground it had lost in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan to the Congress in the 2018 assembly elections. Most importantly, it warded off the biggest challenge to it in Uttar Pradesh, where the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party had formed an alliance against it.

Though the BJP has won, the victory is all Narendra Modi’s in an election that was overwhelmingly presidential in nature. No prime minister has won such a big and consecutive victory in elections since 1971. The BJP projected Modi as a larger-than-life leader who alone could save the country from enemies, both real and imagined, and Modi himself played the role. The Opposition had no counter to this. The Congress, and especially Rahul Gandhi, fell into the trap of making the election a personal contest. Modi also succeeded in converting the election into a contest over national security after the Pulwama terrorist attack and the Balakot airstrike. The bread-and-butter issues in the country, like farmers’ distress and unemployment, which should have counted in a normal election, were swept under the carpet. Of course, some of Modi’s welfare schemes, especially the cash transfers to poor farmers just before the elections, worked well for the BJP, and it succeeded in keeping attention away from the negative impact of demonetisation and GST implementation. The BJP’s management of the election was much better than the Opposition parties’ and it worked its mechanics better than them. It had no shortage of resources and it had good control over the media, gained over the last few years, not to speak of the role of the Election Commission. But divisive and polarising issues relating to religion and caste were brought to the fore in the campaign, and Modi himself led this insidious attempt.

Paradoxically, Modi’s own appeal went beyond caste and other social divisions and he could relate to aspirational groups and to young people more than any other leader. In fact, there was no other leader who could match his stature and that has been well reflected in the results. There is a lesson in this for him. It is that he can be an even greater leader if he moves away from a divisive past and works for an inclusive and compassionate India based on love and not hatred. In his first response after the results, Modi has stressed the idea of building a strong and inclusive India where all Indians grow and prosper together. He has an opportunity to follow and practise the idea in the next five years.

The Opposition could not present a different and convincing narrative to the people. Even where it had an arithmetical upper hand over the BJP, as in UP and Karnataka, it could not convert that into votes because the chemistry at lower levels of the parties did not work. No party could present a credible agenda to the people. Though the Congress presented NYAY, its income support plan for poor people, as a gamechanger, it could not take it to the voters. The party has hardly moved forward from its miserable two-digit position in the last Lok Sabha, and its plight is no better represented than by the loss of Rahul Gandhi in Amethi. Most of its important leaders, like Mallikarjuna Kharge in Karnataka and Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh, have also been blown away in the electoral wind. Rahul Gandhi’s victory in Wayanad will actually be a reminder of the humiliation he and the party have suffered in Amethi.

While a big victory was being scripted at the national level, two states also saw remarkable electoral feats, with the YSR Congress, led by Jaganmohan Reddy, trouncing the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) of Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh, and Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal winning a fifth term in office in Odisha. The BJP is set to come back to power in Arunachal Pradesh. But, on the day of the results, while there are some stories at the state level which stand out, there is no mistaking the overwhelming narrative at the national level, where the BJP and its leader knew how to come back to power, worked hard for it, and came back with a bang.

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