It’s the Opposition, stupid!

So here is the paradox of our times. Read the business pages, and there is a fair chance that you will get the impression of a Narendra Modi government on the ropes and an economy in serious trouble. Then, read the political pages and find that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) juggernaut is marching from one electoral success to another. It has now taken an election in Maharashtra, and even more specifically in Haryana, to finally create a measure of symmetry between reports of popular dissatisfaction on the ground on local issues, ranging from lack of drinking water to job losses, and election outcomes.

In both the assembly elections, the BJP vote share is down substantially, compared to its Lok Sabha high of just five months ago. In Haryana, for example, the BJP had won 58% of the popular vote and all 10 Lok Sabha seats, while leading in as many as 79 assembly segments. That we now have a hung assembly in Haryana, albeit with the BJP still the single-largest party, suggests a dramatic shift in voter behaviour. In Maharashtra too, the BJP-Shiv Sena led in more than 220 assembly segments in the Lok Sabha elections, but has now lost about a fourth of the seats in the Vidhan Sabha.

These numbers indicate a growing disjunction between the state and Lok Sabha elections, as witnessed in the winter elections of 2018. Then, the Congress had won three states, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, only to lose in these very states in the Lok Sabha polls. In the national election, the BJP was successful, especially after the Balakot strike, in converting the elections into a presidential-style contest in which local issues barely mattered. The image of Modi as the all-powerful, muscular, risk-taking leader was enough to lift the BJP to success across large parts of the country. The BJP attempted a similar “nationalist” formula in the state elections, only to find that community interests, local antagonisms and caste alignments often take precedence over so-called “national” emotive issues.

A good example of this is the Parli constituency in drought-hit Marathwada. Senior BJP leader Amit Shah kicked off his Maharashtra campaign from here, repeatedly reminding voters of the BJP’s decision to scrap Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir as evidence of a nationalist, desh-bhakt government that was not afraid of taking tough decisions. Prime Minister Modi also visited the constituency, which is represented by high-profile state minister Pankaja Munde, and spoke a similar language of national pride. The voters though have rejected Munde and the BJP in a region where several villages have not had drinking water for weeks. Ditto the case in several parts of rural Haryana where the BJP again saw Article 370 as a winning ticket. In a state where unemployment levels are among the highest in the country, the attempt to stir a nationalist fervour again had limited appeal. To that extent, the assembly election results are a wake-up call for the BJP’s seemingly invincible electoral march, a reminder that no political party can afford to take the voter for granted. The defeat in the prestigious Satara Lok Sabha by-election is an illustration of the fact that even royalty can’t substitute hubris for hard work.

And yet, the fact that the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance will form a government in Maharashtra and the saffron party is still in pole position to form a government in Haryana only reveals how the Opposition has failed to capitalise on the BJP’s weaknesses in addressing real issues. In Maharashtra, the Congress barely even fought the election, a party devoid of leadership and inspiration. The Nationalist Congress Party’s Sharad Pawar was just about the only Opposition leader who seemed ready to take the fight to the Devendra Fadnavis camp. The image of the ageing Maratha warhorse addressing a rally in pouring rain must go down as a defining moment in his long political career. In Haryana, the Congress at least had a regional chieftain in Bhupinder Hooda, but by the time the party high command decided to plump for the two-time chief minister, the elections were barely weeks away. That Hooda was still able to lift the Congress and enable it to punch above its weight suggests that had he been given control over the state unit a few months earlier, we may well have seen a different result in Haryana.

Yes, Modi remains the country’s neta number one by some distance. The BJP still has an empowered state leadership, a well-oiled machine, unlimited resources and highly-motivated cadres on its side. But the Opposition could well have crafted a winning narrative if it had not entered the race with a defeatist, demoralised mindset. Not for the first time, the Opposition, especially the Congress, has shown that it never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. In 1992, a strategist for the US President Bill Clinton had carved out a successful campaign by reminding the voters, “It’s the economy, stupid”. In the Indian context, in the backdrop of these elections, the motto for our times could well be: “It’s the Opposition, stupid”.

Post-script: The next electoral fights will be in Delhi and Jharkhand, and the national capital, in particular, could well see a closely-fought election. Unlike most other Opposition leaders, at least Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal seems up for a fight. Self-belief is the first step to victory, in life and elections.

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