It is too early to call 2019

Assembly elections do not necessarily foretell the larger fortunes of political parties. Just how well Narendra Modi fares nationally could depend on voter satisfaction and the emergence of a credible opposition that can tap the counter-narrative.

May 20, 2016 02:42 am | Updated September 12, 2016 08:54 pm IST

As the exit poll results > filtered in for the current round of State Assembly elections, and excitement peaked over the possible national implications of Verdict 2016, the usual questions popped up in the television studios. Will Narendra Modi do an encore in 2019, leading the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to a second consecutive Lok Sabha victory? Second, is it curtains for the Congress, as in, is the party facing political extinction?

The > actual results have validated the speculation — for the obvious reason that, as of May 19, 2016, the BJP seems to have overcome the nightmare of the previous year and re-emerged as the major pole of Indian politics. The party > smashed through the Congress fortress in Assam , the largest and most politically significant State in the Northeast, and registered its presence with noteworthy vote shares in West Bengal and Kerala. In West Bengal, it picked up three seats from having none at all in 2011. The breaking news set TV newsrooms on fire. Some TV anchors gazed into the crystal ball and foresaw the BJP overtaking the Left Front and the Congress to become the principal Opposition in the State, and suggested that given time it could even do an Assam in West Bengal. Well, that’s a stretch. However, the BJP would certainly seem to have emerged from the shadow of 2015.

The Modi-Shah monopoly The 2015 elections to the Assemblies of Delhi and Bihar, both of which the BJP lost by fantastic margins, had broken the dream run of the team of Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah and punctured their claim of invincibility. Indeed, ahead of the February 2015 Delhi election, Mr. Shah had boasted that under his watch, the BJP had won every single election it had contested, in Gujarat through Mr. Modi’s years as Chief Minister, and nationally, with a record-breaking victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Few dared to disbelieve him, given how spectacularly Mr. Modi had turned around the BJP’s sinking fortunes. Up until his arrival in national politics in 2013, the BJP had been the butt of jokes. I remember writing a 2011 commentary piece in The Hindu headlined ‘The case of the missing BJP’. Commentators sympathetic to the BJP in fact suggested that the party could be imploding. The party was cranky and dispirited from losing two successive elections, and it did little besides creating trouble in Parliament.

Mr. Modi electrified the BJP cadre, promised a brand new politics of development and had the young and the restless eating out of his hand. On the ground, Force Modi-Shah relentlessly pushed ahead. Mr. Shah stoked communal passions via inflammatory speeches in Uttar Pradesh. Mr. Modi talked up the dreams and potential of first-time voters, promising them jobs and opportunities, but also played the chaiwala and caste cards, and cleverly infused Hindutva into the mix when the going seemed to get tough. The jaded pair of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, enfeebled further by the United Progressive Alliance’s unceasing scams, was no match for the genius of Mr. Modi and his lieutenant. Having crushed the Congress in the Lok Sabha election, Mr. Modi’s BJP went on to win all the State elections of 2014. It took Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand, and made up the shortfall in Jammu and Kashmir with an alliance with its ideological opposite, the Peoples Democratic Party.

State and general elections Against this backdrop, Delhi 2015 hit the Modi-Shah victory machine like an avalanche. Though a Union Territory, Delhi was symbolically big. More devastation followed in the form of Bihar. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP had taken all seven seats in Delhi and scored massively in Bihar. After the 2015 Assembly elections, pundits who had predicted that the Modi-led BJP would eternally rule India swiftly changed sides, and the buzz was around a nation-wide Mahagathbandhan, modelled on Bihar. Bihar and Delhi showed that voter support is transient, and could trump even a seasoned micromanager like Mr. Shah.

With the 2016 results, the media have yo-yoed back to Mr. Modi as the favourite to take the 2019 Lok Sabha election. After all, with the Congress in historic decline, Mr. Modi would have to win, if not on his own merit, which even friends acknowledge was overrated, then on the TINA (there is no alternative) factor. In truth, it is futile to speculate using Assembly elections as the yardstick. The Congress won the 2009 general election despite losing a majority of the State elections held between 2004 and 2009. Of 30-plus State elections held in this time, the Congress won only 14. It lost Karnataka and Odisha twice, the former in 2004 and 2008 and the latter in 2004 and 2009. Its other big losses included Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and, of course, Uttar Pradesh. In 2008, few could have bet on a Congress return in 2009. That year it lost six of 10 State Assemblies, besides coming perilously close to losing a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha over the India-U.S. civil nuclear deal. Just a year later, in the 2009 big test the Congress bounced back. In Gujarat it picked up 11 of 26 seats to the BJP’s 15. In Madhya Pradesh, its score was 12 of 29 to the BJP’s 16. In Punjab, it won eight of 13 seats to the BJP’s one. In Uttarakhand, it won all five seats. And it dazzled in U.P, with a delicious harvest of 21 of 80 seats.

A caveat here. This is not to suggest that the Congress could return any time soon. The party, with its image of corruption cast in stone, is undeniably on a downward spiral. This analysis is solely to caution against extrapolating from the Assembly elections to the larger Lok Sabha canvas. The BJP’s example buttresses this point. Between 2009 and 2014, the BJP won only nine of 30-plus Assembly elections. Its major losses included Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Odisha, Haryana, Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Delhi, and Himachal Pradesh. In Uttar Pradesh, its flagship State through the 1990s, the party bit the dust with only 47 of 403 seats in the 2012 Assembly election. Yet in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, it hit the jackpot in the same State, winning an incredible 71 of 80 seats on its own, and two more with its allies. In Himachal Pradesh and Delhi, where it had lost out to the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party, respectively, the BJP made a clean sweep.

The big test — Uttar Pradesh There are three years to go before the 2019 general election, and even if the BJP did phenomenally well in the Assembly elections in this interim, it doesn’t automatically guarantee a victory in 2019. To be sure, a big showing in a significant State is bound to have its spin-off. It will re-energise the cadre and indicate whether or not there has been an erosion in the contesting party’s popularity. Without any doubt, the potential game-changer State is Uttar Pradesh. If the BJP gets U.P. in 2017, that could arguably cascade into higher returns nationally for Mr. Modi and the BJP. But how does any party or any leader better or equal or even approximate the record of 71 of 80 seats, which, if the trend held, would translate as a three-fourths majority in the Assembly?

Seen in the context of Mr. Modi’s lacklustre performance as Prime Minister, this becomes even more difficult to pull off. Travelling in U.P. in April 2015, I was stunned to see how quickly the popular mood had shifted from adoration for Mr. Modi to questioning the gap between his promises and delivery on the ground. A part of this disillusionment owed to the sky-high expectations Mr. Modi had raised in 2014. It was slowly sinking in with the young that there were no instant jobs to be had. Farmers were in distress, and since then large swathes of the State have come under the grip of a severe drought that has been compounded by food and water scarcity. The State government led by the Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav is widely being seen as ineffectual and self-obsessed. As a strong opposition force in the State, the BJP ought to have gained from this. Yet because Mr. Modi overpitched what he could deliver, the BJP too unusually faces a measure of anti-incumbency. Ground reports suggests a revival of voter interest in Mayawati who is remembered as a tough administrator.

Just how the BJP will turn the situation around is not difficult to guess, and sure enough, communal experimenting is already underway, especially in the very volatile parts of western Uttar Pradesh. However, unlike in 2014, the non-BJP parties will be prepared to launch a counter-offensive, in U.P. and nationally. Ultimately, elections are not about numbers. They are not even about alliance chemistry. Elections are about a groundswell of popular support. The biggest message of this election is from Tamil Nadu and West Bengal and it is that welfare politics works. In 2014, Jayalalithaa stopped the ‘Modi wave’ with her Amma canteens and she’s done it again. Mamata Banerjee too practises a form of Left politics.

Back in end 2003, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP won three critical State elections and buoyed by it, Mr. Vajpayee called early elections and went with the theme of ‘India Shining’. But unbeknown to him, there were alignments being formed on the ground by disaffected voters, which were captured by the Sonia Gandhi-led alliance. That there is an undercurrent of unrest, among farmers, students and other marginalised sections, is evident today. The Congress is out of the reckoning. So the question is: is there any other party or alliance capable of tapping this to its advantage? If not, it could be Mr. Modi again.

Vidya Subrahmaniam is a Senior Fellow at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. E-mail: vidya.subrahmaniam@thehinducentre.com

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