Momentum dipping for BJP?

March to 2019: Elections to three northern states have indicated an anti-BJP mood among voters

Supporters of India's main opposition Congress party celebrate after initial poll results at the party headquarters in New Delhi. REUTERS

Of all the five states witnessing the recent assembly elections, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan acquire centrality on two counts. First, the states witnessed a direct electoral contest between BJP and the Congress and second, in popular perception, they emerged as the site for gauging the mood of the nation, that is, a precursor to the 2019 general election.

The fact that Congress managed to dislodge ruling BJP, decisively in Chhattisgarh and barely in MP and Rajasthan, at a time when all the parties are looking for a dominant narrative to plunge themselves in the 2019 election, signify two trends unequivocally– the momentum for BJP is dipping and going up for the Congress. In this backdrop, it would be desirable to map out the factors accounting for the electoral outcomes in the three states and their expected bearing upon 2019.

Factors for BJP’s defeat

First and foremost, all the incumbent BJP governments in the three contiguous states were known for investing into meticulously customised massive welfare schemes, particularly for the BPL sections covering the majority of Dalits, Tribes and Backward Castes. In fact, in MP and Chhatisgarh, the popular ‘rice scheme’ had created a thick and committed social constituency among the poorer section for the party.

Rural distress: A cursory look at the spatial distribution of respective performance of BJP and the Congress in the three states reveal that while Congress improved its tally in the urban seats, its real intensity lied in rural seats, indicating that primarily it’s the rural voters who punished BJP. The reason for the rural backlash against BJP lied in treating the agrarian question and occupational identity as secondary to the ascriptive identity of caste and religion.

Here, it must be remembered that while rural India shared the enthusiasm of Modi-wave in 2014, the symbolic response that came from Modi-government was for ‘smart-cities’ rather than ‘smart-villages’. In fact, the policy measures like Jan-Dhan Yojna, PM Aawas Yojna and Ujjawala Yojna that catered primarily to the rural voters were not addressing the core of their problem, namely, their economic precarity which required a substantial policy intervention rather help them enable to run their daily household.

The rising inflation on account of whopping increase in the prices of diesel, petrol, seeds and fertilizers, that is, all the inputs that the farmers have to invest into and the lower prices for their crops only added to their woes and intensified their anger.

Also, it must be noted that while rural distress was the binding factor, the nature of the same and their electoral translation was differentiated in the three states. Madhya Pradesh witnessed the emergence of a strong solidarity of farmers around their occupation identity cutting around caste, class and sub-regions as the cash-crop based agriculture there is thickly linked to the market.

Rural space in Chhatisgarh was mainly about the discontent of the tribals who were tired of being treated as the passive section requiring just free monthly rations from the governments in the generic ambience of joblessness and inflation. In arid Rajasthan, where agriculture is not as a prominent vocation as in MP, it was the interface of inflation, joblessness and state’s logic of perpetual anti-incumbency that sealed the fate of BJP.

The empty achhe-din

The historic mandate that the Modi-led BJP got in 2014 signified the arrival of aspirational Indian especially the youths, both urban and rural, hoping to witness heralding of a new era catering to their material and cultural aspirations. However, it is for the first time that the policy measures of the central government had so direct a bearing upon the assembly elections, thereby defying the conventional political wisdom that the dynamics of assembly and general elections are qualitatively different.

In all the three states, the linkages of demonetisation with rural distress and rising inflation to steep increase in the prices of diesel and petrol– a policy domain of central government– were strongly articulated by a significant section of rural electorate who generally are not expected to provide an articulate response. Thus, both Modi and his policies were as significant issues in the electoral dynamics as the local issues.

A series of field study by this author in all the three states revealed the growing disillusionment of all sections of people, the farmers, small businessmen, daily wage rural and urban labourer and especially the youths. The metaphor of ‘achhe-din’ to them not only signify an emptiness but also a sense of the heralding of their woes. In this backdrop, the Modi-factor that used to be an asset for BJP’s electoral fortunes and last moment swing that he used to be in favour of BJP have diminished considerably. In nutshell, the emerging material crisis and the adequate policy response played a significant role in denting the support base of BJP. Compared to the last assembly election of 2013 and 2014 general election, the party’s vote percentage witnessed a significant fall.

Cultural politics

Along with the material policies, BJP’s tactical approach has been to infuse a great deal of cultural issues, thereby attempting to appeal to both the economic and cultural aspirations of the electorate. However, faced with a material crisis, the party attempted to privilege the cultural-identity of the Hindu voters by unleashing the issues of Ram Mandir and name-change of the places as a meta-narrative.

Also, the fact that Congress managed to win the elections in the three states without allying with BSP wherein majority of Dalits voted for the grand old party despite the prevailing controversy around the SC/ST issue signify that the centrality of caste-based identity politics is witnessing a decline. This emerging shrinking space for the cultural politics indicate that it would be difficult for BJP to whip up emotions of the electorates around the cultural issue of temple and cow.

Implications for 2019

The most significant implication of the electoral verdict in the three bi-party states is about the timing. One need to remember the that by this time in 2013 , the country, especially Hindi-heartland and western India had witnessed complete Modi-fication, adding to the BJP’s juggernaut wherein a hopeless UPA seemed to have deserted the ground before the fight.

However, at present when Modi is no more the fulcrum of the aspirational Indians, witnessing 3-0 in direct contest with Congress has taken away the psychological edge BJP used to enjoy in the ‘war of perception’ before actual elections used to happen. It is not the revival of Congress under Rahul Gandhi that is the prime worrying factor for the BJP, but rather, it’s the shattering myth of Modi’s invincibility that will hurt it the most.

This factor becomes all the more important as Indian electorate are witnessing a phase of fragmentations of earlier quasi-settled identities around castes
and occupation wherein a significant section is falling into the category of fence-sitters. This section tends to vote for the winning side and takes its clues from the prevailing perception index–something both Modi and BJP are losing at the moment.

However, there’s one crucial difference between 2014 and 2019. The cultural issues in all likelihood would backfire and the issues accounting for BJP’s electoral setback are going to be relevant for Lok Sabha election as well.

However, unlike the previous general election, the BJP is determined to fight back to the hilt while the opposition is still to acquire the wave that Modi witnessed in the past. Hence, the electoral arena in 2019 is going to be open-ended and by implication extremely interesting.

(The writer is a political analyst associated with People’s Pulse, a Hyderabad-based research organisation)

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