In 2004, a few weeks before the general elections and a day after the Lucknow stampede in which 21 poor women were killed while collecting free saris, then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee admitted to me in an interview that the tragedy had dented the ‘India Shining’ image being aggressively promoted by his government. “There are areas of darkness, no doubt about it, and we should be worried,” he said with a contemplative air typical of the man. It was almost as if amidst the euphoria of a near-certain re-election, the politician in the hotseat sensed his own limitations.
Narendra Modi is not Atalji. Where the BJP’s original prime minister had the meditative and brooding edge of a poet-politician, his successor rarely demonstrates even the slightest hint of self-doubt. Politics in the Modi age is a winner-take-all ‘akhara’ whereas in the Vajpayee era it was a gentler, less acrimonious contest. This is an age where the slightest hint of uncertainty in decision-making is seen as a sign of weakness, any admission of failure a dent in the aura of invincibility that encircles the Supreme Leader. Which might explain why there has been so little attempt made by the BJP leadership, atleast in public, to admit to possible failings that may have led to defeats to the Congress in the assembly elections across three Hindi heartland states.
The BJP parliamentary party meetings have avoided any specific reference to the poll reverses even as party president Amit Shah and the BJP spokespersons have reverted to the more familiar diatribe against the Gandhi family after the Supreme Court judgement on Rafale. Any mention of note-bandi or GST having been a double whammy for substantial sections of society is met with a dismissive wave of the hand, or a deft cherry-picking of numbers. It is almost as if any criticism is viewed with suspicion by a regime that refuses to step out of its own echo chambers.
Indeed, the constant BJP narrative over the past week has been to suggest that the December 2018 losses are a mere blip on the radar, a natural consequence of a five year anti-incumbency cycle in Rajasthan and, in fact, evidence of the resilience of the party machine where despite being in power for 15 long years in MP, the BJP just missed out by a whisker in the end. The party has also brushed aside its defeat in Telangana where it won just one seat after claiming that it would emerge as the principal opposition as a one-off ‘regional’ wave election. The only partial admission of a botch-up has come in Chattisgarh where the party suffered a debacle and even here the party maintains that the 2019 Lok Sabha elections will be a different ballgame.
But will the summer heat of 2019 be dramatically different to the winter freeze of 2018? Well, yes and no. Yes, a state election battle is always far more localized than a general election where it is possible to generate greater fervor around an individual or issue that has national resonance. To that extent, the BJP may well believe that it has enough band-width to make the general elections a ‘Modi versus who’ presidential-style battle that has echoes of Indira Gandhi in 1971. Moreover, the BJP’s organizational and resource footprint across the country, including in the major states of the more populous north and western India, gives it an advantage over all rivals.
And yet, there are five reasons why the BJP should worry. Firstly, while the party’s vote share is in the same range as the Congress across the three Hindi speaking states, except Chattisgarh, it has sharply declined by an average of five per cent when compared to 2013, and almost double that when compared to 2014. Secondly, the BJP has suffered reverses across segments where it has made impressive strides in recent years, especially in the SC/ST reserved constituencies which it has dominated previously. Thirdly, the Congress has almost double the number of seats when compared to the BJP in the ‘high poverty’ rural districts that polled. Fourthly, even in the urban areas which are seen to be a BJP fortress, the party suffered a loss of around four per cent in vote share, losing seats from Bhopal to Jaipur, Indore to Jabalpur. And finally, there appears to have been a negligible impact this time of the prime minister’s own campaign, with an erosion in the BJP’s seats even in areas where he held rallies.
The big picture that emerges then is of a party which peaked in 2014 as an anti-Congress, pro-Modi ‘north-west’ wave swept the country but which is now having to deal with the double anti-incumbency of being in power in Delhi and also in a vast number of crucial states. To believe, as the BJP insists, that the anti-incumbency has now exhausted itself is to live in a make-believe universe where ‘real’ issues like stressed rural incomes and uncertain job prospects have created a potential ‘kisan-naujawan’ alliance that cannot be easily bested by a familiar ‘Hindu-Musalmaan’ narrative. Indeed, the manner in which the BJP has sought to project the polarizing UP chief minister, Yogi Adityanath as a star campaigner is fraught with risk: the divisive ‘Ali versus Bajrangbali’ rhetoric is prone to diminishing returns in an environment where voters are seeking tangible returns for their investment in the Modi government’s promise of ‘achche din’.
This doesn’t mean that the BJP isn’t still in pole position to emerge as the single largest party in 2019: when a figure of 282 seats is contrasted with the 44 of the Congress, the gulf at the starting point is apparent as is Mr Modi’s personal popularity when compared to rivals, including a rejuvenated Rahul Gandhi. But politics is often about present day momentum as much as it is about past equations. The cheerleaders – in the media and beyond -- who insisted that the Modi-Shah combination was unbeatable have been silenced for once even as the opposition has gradually found a voice. To recapture the mood of the nation, the BJP’s leadership needs to snap out of denial mode, else the winds of change that have gently blown through the dusty bowls of central India may only accelerate in speed and intensity in the coming months.
Post-script: At a media conclave this week, when asked who would win the 2019 World Cup and the general elections, finance minister, Arun Jaitley quipped, “It is not easy to defeat either Narendra Modi or Virat Kohli!” Ironically, the remark was made on the very day the Indian team lost the Perth test despite Kohli scoring a superb century, a reminder that in cricket as in politics, individual skills cant always overcome team weaknesses.