Why is BJP failing to catch up with Modi in the states?

In the states, the BJP is falling short of what Narendra Modi secures in the Lok Sabha polls. In other words, people are reposing faith in Modi when his election is being held, but not in his state leaders. Photo/PTI

Jose Marti, considered the ‘apostle’ of Cuba’s independence, once said: “The first duty of a man is to think for himself.” One-and-a-half-century after his time, it appears, Indian voters have taken his advice. That is why we are witnessing, for the first time, voters recognising different parameters for state Assembly polls and the national elections, and reacting to them accordingly. Quite interestingly, this is happening at a time when a charismatic leader like Narendra Modi is dominating the political scene.

Let us start analysing the scenario from Maharashtra, where an under-confident Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) joined hands with the Shiv Sena, a rather belligerent ally, with which the former shared a prickly relationship for the last three years, and has now paid the price for it. Here, the National Democratic Alliance (BJP+ Shiv Sena) vote share came down from 50.88 per cent to 42.16 per cent between the Lok Sabha and the Assembly elections, held about six months apart.

As far as the BJP is concerned, its vote shrunk from 27.59 per cent to 25.75 per cent. If juxtaposed with the Lok Sabha results, the shrinkage has cost the BJP about 20 seats , statistically speaking, as the incidence of winning increases with every percentage point after one crosses a critical mark. Had it succeeded in retaining its vote share, the BJP might have won about 125 seats in the Assembly. That would have put it just about 20 seats away from the majority mark (145), and limited the options of its electoral partner.

But Maharashtra is a rather complicated case. In each constituency, both the partners contributed to each other’s pool of votes. In contrast, the story of Haryana is rather simple, as there the BJP was fighting the polls on its own. The fall in vote share for the party was rather steep here. From 58.02 per cent in Lok Sabha polls, it slipped down to 37.46 per cent in the October-end Assembly elections.

The trend should worry the BJP leadership the most because it is not limited to these two states. Rather, it is showing signs of becoming a pan-India pattern. West Bengal saw a surge in the BJP’s vote share in May 2019, when it secured 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state. But recent by-elections in three Assembly constituencies of Bengal saw the BJP defeated by Mamata Banerjee's party hands down.

Strangely, in two of these three constituencies – Kharagpur and Kaliaganj – the BJP led by 45 and 56 thousand votes respectively in the May 2019 general elections (figures for Assembly segments during the Lok Sabha polls). Six months later, it lost Kaliaganj by a narrow margin, while in Kharagpur, from where state president and MP Dilip Ghosh had won earlier, it was trounced by the TMC by a margin of over 22,000 votes. In Bihar too, the NDA (Nitish Kumar’s party, Janata Dal (United)) conceded three Assembly seats in the October 2019 by-elections after winning 39 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in the state.

The trend cannot be dismissed simply as a consequence of the economic slowdown. The BJP lost Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in end 2018, but bounced back to dominate all the three states in the May 2019 general elections. The same thing happened in Karnataka in May 2018. Even in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, the gap between the BJP’s vote share in the Assembly polls (December 2017) and the Lok Sabha elections is more than 10 per cent. Jharkhand too may follow the same trend if predictions of opinion polls, for the Assembly elections being held, holds true.

It all boils down to a single fact. In the states, the BJP is falling short of what Narendra Modi secures in the Lok Sabha polls. In other words, people are reposing faith in Modi when his election is being held, but not in his state leaders. Modi campaigns in all these Assembly elections, and often campaigns quite vigorously, but fails to enthuse the people to vote for the Lotus.

What are the takeaways from this story? In a nutshell, three things can be pointed out.

First, the voters of modern India have become quite mature. They distinguish well between the political situations of the nation and their own state. While Modi enjoys the benefit of TINA (there is no alternative) factor at the Centre, in the states strong regional satraps from the Opposition fold (be it Mamata Banerjee in Bengal, Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh or Bhupinder Singh Hooda in Haryana) still have a large support base. On the other hand, it exemplifies the lack of quality leaders in the state BJP units.

Second, the BJP is failing to weave a colourful, attractive new narrative that can draw people of all regions and states towards it. The dreams it sells have less takers as far as state elections are concerned. Issues such as the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and amending the Citizenship Act, the abolition of Art 370, ‘giving a fitting reply to Pakistan’ and so on are matters of the Union government. People have supported or rejected the BJP for all these reasons in Lok Sabha polls, and Modi won securing 45 per cent votes for the NDA. But, for the state elections, these issues are not relevant. The BJP went overboard in Bengal with the NRC campaign, and a large number of citizens across religions were frightened as many of them do not have the required documents to prove they are citizens of India. They have reacted in the recent by-polls accordingly.

Third, the narrative of Hindutva, with Ram at its centre, is losing sheen. The Supreme Court has cleared the path for making a Ram Temple, and not much scope is left for Hindutva politics anymore. But the core of the BJP is still wrapped around Hindutva. It may not serve any purpose in the coming years (unless the Hindus feel threatened for some reason).

The BJP must realise what we are witnessing now is the Modi phenomenon, and not the resurgence of the BJP under the leadership of Narendra Modi, as was thought till the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls of 2017. The voters of India are sending out the message loud and clear. It is now BJP’s turn to react, and reinvent its ideology to make it relevant for the modern times.

(Diptendra Raychaudhuri is a Kolkata-based journalist and author of books including, A Naxal Story. He is a deputy editor at the Bengali daily, Aajkal)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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