BJP’s post-poll silence

BJP’s post-poll silence


Suddenly the BJP fortress has developed cracks and the vulnerabilities are out in the open. The loss of power in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh has hit the party hard, after its president Amit Shah had only recently claimed that it would rule the country for the next 50 years.

These three are the states the BJP has ruled the longest after Gujarat, and the slippage there is not the common kind of electoral reverse suffered after a period of incumbency.

The argument that it was natural for a strong anti-incumbency sentiment to operate after 15 years in power in MP and Chhattisgarh is in fact wrong and misleading. The BJP had strongly come back to power in the two states after five years and 10 years, and so the anti-incumbency sentiment could have been only of the last five years.

Most of these five years a BJP government under the very visible Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in the saddle at the Centre. So, the blame for the anti-incumbency sentiment cannot be laid only at the door of the state governments. It is a vote against the Centre and the BJP too, not just against the state parties and governments. That is probably why there is still no cohesive explanation of the defeat from the party and its leaders. The prime minister did not go beyond formally extending congratulations to the Congress.

Amit Shah and all the party spokesmen who responded on TV channels on the day of counting and later had more to talk about the victory of the Telugu Rashtra Samithi (TRS) in Telangana and the Mizo National Front (MNF) in Mizoram than about their losses in their own bastions.

There is an overwhelming and embarrassed silence and a subdued mood in the party, and that is because of a creeping realisation of the impact of the assembly election results on the all-important 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley ruled out any impact of the state poll outcome on the Lok Sabha polls but he was only putting up a brave face. There are reports from various states and the Centre that the party would now adopt policies that appeal to the upper castes, Dalits, farmers, young people and other sections which may have been disenchanted and alienated. But the question is, where is the time before the April-May elections to the LS? 

The BJP has been reluctant and unwilling to admit to its failures. It came to power in 2014 at the Centre after projecting a positive agenda of development which it hardly implemented. The build-up of Modi as a knight on a white charger come to rescue the country and his promise of achhe din were the essential features of the projection. 

This was in the context of the failures of the scam-ridden UPA II government which made the new agenda relevant and credible. The man who talked of growth, clean politics, efficient government, jobs and inclusiveness had already been groomed in public perception as the development man because of the growth Gujarat had made under his charge. But the image had to fail over time because it was not real. 

It was not real because Narendra Modi was not all about development. He had defined himself as a Hindu nationalist, and the persona that was acquired and which appealed to the people had some masquerading about it.

The evolution of that persona needs to be seen in the historical context of the fading of the A B Vajpayee era in the BJP after the 2004 defeat of the NDA government. The party was in need of a leader with a contrasting style and profile, with a stronger sense of Hindu identity and the ability to assert it, and Modi filled the bill.

Even with all the progress Gujarat made under him, it is debatable whether Modi would have gained as much acceptability in the party as he did if the 2002 riots had not been there. This is not to claim that he had a role in the riots. But the impression that he had a role and in any case being there when the riots happened did help. But what was projected to the people in 2014 was the development persona and it clicked because of the moral and political bankruptcy of the UPA II government. 

Planks of development

Over the years, the planks of development, inclusiveness and fight against corruption took a back seat and the government increasingly became a Hindu nationalist idea in the works, encouraging and promoting divisiveness and polarisation of society.

There were long silences before the prime minister spoke about the attacks on Dalits, lynching of people in the name of cow protection and other acts of intolerance and aggression of fringe groups. The prime minister’s public platform became negative with more and more attacks on the Congress and its present and past leaders, and all others who were not with him.

There were and less and less claims about the achievements and performance of his own government. When you talk ill of others, people instinctively know you don’t have much good about yourself to talk of. When the demand for construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya is also resurrected, everyone knows there are not many other weapons left in the armoury. The rise of leaders like Yogi Adityanath was another sign of the toxic worldview which was spreading, and the people rejected it.  

The BJP’s defeat in the three states is not just the result of a revolt by farmers, as it is sometimes made out. The party lost a chunk of votes of every class and group, like the youth, the middle class, city residents, government servants, business men, workers, artisans and others for some action or decision which it took that affected them adversely or for something which it did not do.

Demonetisation meant disruption and GST meant inconvenience. It may not be easy to win the people back in the next few months before the Lok Sabha elections. It is also wrong to claim that the defeats were narrow in MP and Rajasthan. The Congress came from far behind to win its victories and so the shift of votes is large and considered.

The three states have a history of voting the same party in assembly and Lok Sabha elections if they are held close to each other. If they do so, it will be difficult to make up the shortfall with gains in other states, especially when there is a real possibility of a loss of seats in UP, which for the party is the elephant in the polling booth now. That is why the loss in the Hindi belt matters much to the party.