A by-election is a bit like a school monthly test: the marks don’t count for anything during the final exam. Which is why the opposition celebrations after besting the BJP in another round of by-elections maybe premature but neither can India’s principal party afford to take victory in the 2019 general elections for granted any longer.
This isn’t just about a more united opposition challenge: truth is, from Kairana in western Uttar Pradesh to Bhandara-Gondhia in Maharashtra, the BJP’s vote share is showing signs of decline, a first indication of creeping anti-incumbency. That the election setbacks have come in the north and west is also significant: it was, after all, a ‘north-west’ India tidal wave that propelled the BJP to a famous win in 2014. Nor can the BJP claim this time that Narendra Modi did not campaign in the by-elections: a day before the polling in Kairana, the prime minister was in the neighbouring Baghpat district, flagging off a new expressway and promising ‘achche din’ to the region. And the BJP’s UP Hindutva mascot, chief minister Yogi Adityanath, was even more omnipresent, holding a series of rallies in the area, even raking up the communally charged issue of removing a Jinnah portrait in Aligarh Muslim university.
As it turned out, May 2018 was not quite May 2014: then, against a backdrop of the horrific Muzaffarnagar riots, the BJP succeeded in achieving an unprecedented communal polarization and swept western UP. This time, the more prosaic issue of ganna – as exemplified in farmers demanding their sugarcane dues – defeated the divisive politics of Jinnah. So, are we seeing the revival of a fresh political narrative ahead of the 2019 general elections where local concerns trump the ‘national’ issues that play out in tv studios? Well, yes and no.
Local issues do matter at election time, especially when they play out through the prism of strategic alliances on the ground. This is exactly what happened in Kairana where the entire anti-BJP opposition backed the Rashtriya Lok Dal candidate, giving them a strong arithmetical index of opposition unity advantage that enabled them to play the ‘ganna’ card with confidence. But amplifying the ‘act local’ messaging over 543 constituencies spread across 29 states in a general election is a huge challenge: the competitive instincts of political parties mean that while they maybe ready to cede space in a by-election, they are unlikely to be as generous in the ultimate parliamentary test. Would, for example, a Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party be as willing to give up its claims to Lok Sabha seats in UP as the party has been in by-elections? How would a Mamata Banerjee accommodate the Congress in Bengal when she is waging a war against them on her home turf?
Moreover, the BJP will determinedly make the 2019 elections a made for tv presidential contest, posing the issue before the voter as ‘Modi versus who?’. If the opposition falls into the trap of accepting the leadership challenge, there can be only one winner. In election after election, Mr Modi with his indefatigable energy and personal charisma has shown the capacity to lift the BJP in the final stretch, a bit like the prize sprinter who hauls his side over the line in the last 100 metres of a closely fought relay. Besides, in a by-election, voter turn out tends to be low, but in a general election the sheer size and resources of the BJP-RSS election machine will give the saffron parivar the confidence that fence-sitting voters will swing with the Modi momentum.
And yet, as Karnataka and now Kairana have shown, the notion of political invincibility is also part of a myth-making factory. Modi and his lieutenant Amit Shah have built a larger than life image for themselves by convincing the opposition that they are indestructible: to draw an analogy from the world of cricket, Steve Waugh’s Australians and Clive Lloyd’s West Indians won most matches even before they went out to toss because their opponents could not even contemplate the thought of defeating them. But, as India’s stunning 1983 World Cup win over the Windies and the magical turnaround in Kolkata in 2001 showed, even seemingly unbeatable rivals can be outplayed provided there is sufficient self-belief.
From an opposition that has been pummeled and out-witted at almost every stage for the last four years, we now atleast have the emerging contours of a potential challenge. At the heart of it is the ultimate political weapon: the neta’s survival instinct. Nothing else explains why the Congress has virtually surrendered to a HD Kumaraswamy while forming a government in Karnataka, or the fact that a Mayawati is ready to forget past animosities. ‘The beauty of compromise’, as Mahatma Gandhi once described his idea of conflict-resolution, has now become the opposition mantra, a desire to reconcile opposing positions by moving beyond the politics of dogmatism with the sole aim of defeating the principal adversary.
Not that the dominant party is simply going to lie down and let the opposition walk all over them. Within days of the by-poll setbacks, there are signs that the Modi-Shah duo are in course correction mode. The massive aid package to the sugar industry is perhaps a belated recognition that post-Kairana the ‘ganna’ farmer needs a break. Expect more such sops in the months leading upto the general elections as the Modi government prepares to dip into its petrol tax-rich coffers to share the booty with the aam aadmi. That Shah is now courting allies and even sharing photo-ops with celebrities ranging from Kapil Dev to a former army chief is another pointer to the future: in the run-up to 2019, the BJP will need to re-learn the art of winning friends and influencing people. Ekla chalo re is a stirring song, it doesn’t necessarily make for good politics.
Post-script: A day after the Kairana results, a whatsapp forward from a BJP supporters group was sent to me by a friend. It read: ‘See what happened in Kairana: 35 per cent Muslims voted as a bloc while we Hindus are divided and fighting over petrol prices!’. In the months ahead, as the stakes get higher, expect the communal pitch to intensify further.