There is no doubt that the four by-election victories have energised the Opposition as never before. The triumphalism that has marked the TV and print contributions of the editorial classes clearly suggest that the Opposition believe the tide has turned against the BJP.
The remarkable extent to which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has contributed to the soaring electoral fortunes of the BJP was, ironically, fully evident in the outcome of the recent round of parliamentary by-elections. Whether in Uttar Pradesh or for that matter earlier in Rajasthan, where the BJP lost a total of four Lok Sabha seats, it had won in 2014 to the Samajwadi Party and Congress respectively, the BJP exposed its disproportionate dependence on the Modi factor in winning elections. While this may, arguably, be worrying for the BJP in the forthcoming round of Assembly elections in Karnataka, Chhattisgrah, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, it could also indicate that the outcome of the 2019 general election is not, as yet, pre-determined.
At the same time, there is no doubt that the four by-election victories have energised the Opposition as never before. The triumphalism that has marked the TV and print contributions of the editorial classes, not to mention the extra spring in the steps of Opposition MPs in India’s dysfunctional Parliament, clearly suggest that the Opposition believe the tide has turned against the BJP and that it is now a mere question of waiting for counting day at the end of May 2019. Certainly, the new mood has made it possible for hitherto fractious parties to explore the possibility of electoral alliances in a spirit of give and take.
This is undeniably what has happened in Uttar Pradesh where the likelihood of the Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati forging a united front (with or without the Congress) is no longer a pipedream. Uttar Pradesh was always the main sticking point of the Opposition because of the triangular nature of the contest. With the SP and BSP likely to forge another version of the 1993 alliance that punctured the BJP’s post-Ayodhya forward march, the anti-BJP publicists are forecasting a loss of 50 seats for the BJP from Uttar Pradesh alone. If this happens, the winner of 2019 won’t be either the BJP or the NDA.
For the BJP, the by-election outcomes should be a moment for sober and strategic reflection. First, the belief that opposition parties that come together for an election won’t be able to necessarily transfter their votes to each other seems invariably flawed. The BJP assumed this would be the case in 2015 when the RJD and JD(U) teamed up and it believed it would also be the case in Gorakhpur and Phulpur where the BSP supported the SP candidate at the last minute. On both the occasions, the votes of the non-BJP players transferred to each other.
There is a second flawed assumption that centres on the role of Rahul Gandhi in the Congress. In 2004, the top leadership of the BJP believed that the presence of Sonia Gandhi at the helm of the Congress would ensure that the Congress would be seen as a liability by voters. I would suggest that the fact the Congress emerged as the single largest party in 2004 was not because of Sonia but despite her. Likewise, Rahul’s political articulation may leave a lot to be desired but the Congress is backed by a powerful coalition of forces — particularly the Old Establishment that feels dispossessed after 2014 and feels that it has to reclaim political power if the larger systemic changes brought about by Modi don’t lead to a permanent marginalisation. In many ways, 2019 will symbolise a battle between those who are comfortable with the Old India where transactional politics ruled the roost and a New India that is still evolving but is certain to be different.
There is just no way the Old Establishment will give Modi a walkover in 2019. Moreover, after the by-elections, the anti-Modi forces won’t be lacking in resources — their initial fear. Those who hate Modi have smelt blood and they will put their heart and soul behind the campaign to defeat him.
For the BJP, the implications are clear: it cannot take the 2019 verdict for granted. Neither victory nor defeat is guaranteed. The outcome will depend substantially on two factors.
First, there is the question of what the voters are being asked to choose at an all-India level. The performance of the Modi government in transforming some facets of India has been striking. But while this is important in establishing the credentials of the government as energetic and transformational, the achievements will have to be appropriately packed. Stability has an appeal to many voters but instability also has a charm for those who seek more empowerment. The challenge is to blend stability and change under one political roof with the personality of Modi dominating.
Secondly, one of the main reasons the BJP won the UP elections of 2017 so conclusively was in its ability to shift the social centre of gravity lower down the economic ladder. The Budget of 2018 has tried to reinforce this trend by raising the Minimum Support Price for agricultural commodities and promising assured healthcare up to Rs five lakh. These administrative measures have to be complemented politically at the party level. They will also need concrete action to empower social groups that hitherto are at the margins of the BJP ecosystem.
Finally, there is a vocal section of the BJP that believes — for reasons that are not always clear — that the key to the future lies in aggressively positing Hindu positions on a number of issues, including beef. This is a distraction whose only consequence is to unite all those who already have misgivings over the BJP but are willing to give Modi a chance. All the poll evidence suggests that the popularity of the prime minister stands way ahead of the popularity of the party. It is Modi and his governance agenda that gives the NDA its cutting edge. The BJP election machine can ignore this larger message at its own peril.
(The writer is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.)