Being in Varanasi since 10 March 2017 was being in the midst of expectations – first for the Exit Poll on 10 evening, then for the results of the UP election on 11 – and ecstasy. If evening of 10 March added to expectant exultations of the likely margins of victory, by noon on 11 March, the city was waving saffron-green flags; gulal-smeared youth on motorbikes were shouting party slogans and hailing Modi. A visibly glowing seer of the Vindhyawasini temple in Vindhyachal, a two-hour drive from the city, greeted me in an unusual fashion – ‘what a day for you to come to the durbar of (holy) mother, the “Bhajpa” has won; Modi has won!!!’. A visit to the Vishwanath temple on the morning of 12 March was equally instructive; priests young and old were sitting in groups with newspapers and gloating over a victory for the Hindus. For the city draped in the BJP flag, results in other states mattered little. Having witnessed Varanasi during the general election in 1989, when Congress flags fluttered in the city and few would speak of voting for the BJP, nearly three decades of politics that witnessed a transition in Congress from Rajiv Gandhi to Rahul Gandhi, there has been a complete transformation; no Congress flag was visible anywhere.
Aside from the usual percentages of votes each contesting party got, which community voted for whom and what led to the landslide, there would be a pertinent question that needs to be asked. Has India made a transition to becoming a Hindu-dominated polity, just short of becoming a Hindu Rashtra? The questions of this sort would still await answers as the Congress slide, definite since 1998 despite its decade-long rule as the leader of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), continues. Is this phenomenon more due to the loose Congress organisation and its lack-luster and disorganised leadership matched with a much better organisation and stronger articulate leadership? For, in such a situation a credible national challenge diminishes.
Beyond BJP’s ecstasy over the overwhelming majority in Uttar Pradesh (UP), the most crucial state in Indian politics that controls the power-pulse of the nation, the results of the five state Assembly elections hold messages for all – from the expanding BJP to shrinking but persistent Congress to squabbling Samajwadi Party (SP) to an ambitious Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to an accusing Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). One clear message for all is that not only the Modi magic, emanating from the message of an effective and strong leadership in control of the party and the government, but also the gamble over demonetization, crafted less to unearth black money, more to decapacitate the opposition, has worked. While caught as they are in the whirlpool of old and traditional politics, they could not have conveyed this real impression to the people, they could not spin a logic that demonetization was likely to harm them. On the other hand, Modi had the rhetoric and a well-knit organisation to take the logic that the ‘notebandi’ was for the common people and had an egalitarian motive to the people. It is a moot question whether the fund crunch for the rival parties and more than ample at the disposal of the BJP has had an impact on the results or not.
In UP, the BJP very easily crossed the three-fourths majority margin (325/403), despite an undercurrent of feeling that the incumbent Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav had done a reasonably good work. The campaign of Yadav along with Congress Vice Chairman Rahul Gandhi somehow still looked lackluster. While Yadav, the senior partner in the alliance, was hemmed in by the family feud that conveyed a negative message, Rahul Gandhi by now does not look a vote catcher. His party is too busy defending his political reputation than to defend the party fortresses in electoral battles across the country and situate itself meaningfully in the emerging political discourse, which since 2014 are being set by the Modi-led BJP. As a result, the party does not have leaders either at the national level, nor at the state and local levels to enthuse the voters towards the party and its programme. BSP has been synonymous with Mayawati, it has no other leader in any case. It appeared to have reached its dead end since the 2014 general election. Her corruption-ridden 2007-2012 rule – corruption that was largely personalized; of course, others in the party too would have taken advantage of it – exposed its appeal as the saviours of the dalits.
Of course, the challenge before the BJP in UP could not have taken lightly. The party was edgy till the last date. It appeared sure that the Muslims are unlikely to vote for it in large numbers. Hence, it was depending largely on the split Muslim votes between SP and BSP, which did happen. It also took a rather bold step in not conveying any message of seeking out the Muslims; it fielded no Muslim candidate. The rhetoric, led by Modi-Shah combine was that the Muslims must accept the party’s logic of the nation and nationalism rather than any reach out from the party. Thus, Modi’s offending ‘Kabristan and Shmasan’ speech was meant to consolidate the Hindu votes with an imagination that the Muslims have been shown their places. Going by the mood of the Hindu population in Varanasi, it did work. The party also took each challenge very seriously. Hence, Modi camped in Varanasi for four days to take up the poorvanchal challenge that appeared to be sliding in favour of the SP-Congress alliance.
Punjab emerged as a soothing experience for the Congress where Captain Amarinder Singh led Congress trounced the Akali Dal-BJP alliance winning 77 seats in 117 seat Assembly. The ruling alliance slid to third position with 18 seats, conceding 22 seats to the debutant AAP, which was hoping to win the state. Despite PM Modi’s announcement on winning 2014 general election that he would neither accept bribe, nor allow anyone to take bribe (na khaoonga, na khane doonga), Punjab has been high on corruption that was personalized by the ruling Badal family, nepotism that only aided personalized corruption of the father-son duo and drugs in which most from the ruling the combine were involved. A junior partner in the coalition, the BJP for long has been benefitted by the corrupt regime, it never raised the issue with the Badals. Even Narendra Modi personally never broached the issue of heightened corruption in the state with the family patriarch and Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal, or his deputy and son Sukhbir Singh Badal. It, thus, remains a moot point as to how should a national and ruling party, even if it is a junior partner in a state, should reign in the ruling party.
Unlike in other states, the Congress still has a leader in Captain Amarinder Singh in Punjab, who could be recognized and seek votes for the party. The leadership factor mattered, even though Rahul Gandhi barely went to Punjab to campaign. The party had with great effort drafted former cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu, who was miffed at being ignored in BJP, to bolster its chances. There were speculations that Sidhu, known more for his reality TV experience than for any substantive political acumen, would be groomed for the post of the CM. Fortunately, this was not pushed, for this would certainly have annoyed the Captain and upset Congress’s applecart. Though winning the second position, AAP has reasons to smile. Indeed, it was hoping to win the election and speculation of Arvind Kejriwal moving to Punjab as the CM was rife, but winning a half state
such as Delhi is simpler than a state such as Punjab. For a party founded in November 2012 and in the electoral fray since 2013, emerging as the main opposition in Punjab is no mean achievement.
Uttarakhand developed a biparty competition and a system of alternation since its creation in 2000. Hence the two national parties have been alternating there since the beginning. The margin of victory – BJP 57, Congress 11 – is surprising. Even though speculations mostly predicted a BJP victory, some believed Chief Minister Harish Rawat would be able to carry the day with his deft handling. Indeed, that meant that the margin of victory either way would be slender. Not surprisingly, since in 2012 it was one seat – 32:31 – that gave Congress a slender victory. In 2007 too, when the Congress lost decisively it could manage 21 seats against BJP’s 34. In the state where ideology hardly decides party shifts, squabbling in the party had loaded the dice against the ruling party. Several leaders, including Vijay Bahuguna had defected from the party and ultimately joined the BJP. Rawat was unable to arrest the slide. In the hill state where there are few contentious issues, corruption and other developmental issues matter. Thus, it is more a question of managing the perception and images than a major issues to decide the fate of a party. However, having been reduced to 11 seats should be worrisome for the Congress leadership.
Goa that became a state in 1987, returned a hung Assembly with the 17 seats to Congress and 13 to BJP in a 40-seat house. This was seventh Assembly election in the former Portuguese colony since 1989. BJP registered its presence in 1994 with a 4-seat win, it has been increasing its strength since then, but except for 2012 when the Congress got 9 seats, the party has either had more seats than the BJP, or very close to it. Clearly, the state has its own model of multi-party system with the two national parties dominating the scene. Has BJP’s organisational mess and a rebellion in the RSS ranks that emerged after the then CM Manohar Parrikar moved to New Delhi as Defence Minister led to its defeat? That appears to be a plausible explanation. However, a resurgent BJP without caring for any norms has decided to follow Indira Gandhi and sent back Manohar Parrikar to Panaji as the CM, the Governor, following the footsteps of the ‘Congress’ Governors of the 1970s and 1980s invited him to form the government ignoring the constitutional norms.
The 60-seat Manipur Assembly also witnessed a similar drama. Congress with 28 seats as compared to 21 of the BJP was caught unawares as the Governor, obviously with the nod, if not instructions, of the Union Government, swore in a BJP coalition with other parties. Indeed, as the politics of the twenty-first century takes shape, the Congress was mocked by the BJP for being too slow to react, the result however has been on the lines of the politics of Indira Gandhi. The Congress can indeed take solace in the fact that despite anti-incumbency of the three-time CM Okram Ibobi Singh, the party managed to come close to winning a majority. However, the increasing footsteps of the BJP in the north-eastern states, is a comfort for the resurgent party that could be more sanguine, yet fair in its political move; it is worrisome for the Congress for coming so near, yet remaining so far from power.
It is not easy to draw general lessons from the results of five diverse states such as the largest and the most diverse UP and the tiniest of them all Goa. Yet, the first lesson, that has been emerging since 2014 is that parties need to focus on organisation. BJP’s expanse is due to dual organisational strength of the party and the RSS. This is where Congress has been losing, as its organisation has continued to be in decline since 1996; 23 years is a long time for the party to have mended organisation. Second, close to organisation is institutionalization. All the parties in India are deinstitutionalized. Basking in its electoral success and organisational strength, BJP is smug to deinstitutionalization within, while having closed its mind on Rahul Gandhi’s leadership and the ‘family’ as the saviour, Congress cannot even think institutionalization. The less said about parties such as SP and BSP the better. Third, Narendra Modi’s rise since Indira Gandhi in 1971 and 1980 clearly highlights the significance of the leadership. This is where smaller parties too have succeeded despite other weaknesses. Congress is still figuring out Rahul Gandhi, whereas state leadership was obliterated during Indira and Rajiv regimes. Fourth, inventing political discourse is important. BJP has succeeded in inventing aggressive hyper-nationalism that thrives on otherization of anyone who disagrees. It is exclusionary and the party appears to have come close to developing Hindu majoritarianism. But would it succeed in the long run without negative, if not disastrous, consequences? Congress is unable to develop an alternative challenging discourse or narrative, hence the decline. Fifth, should the parties, whether Congress of the 1970s and 1980s and BJP of the twenty-first century, give constitutional niceties a go by? It would be a contentious issue to discuss, but remains as much relevant in analyzing the Indira-Rajiv regimes as the Narendra Modi regime. These sober thoughts are relevant both for those resurgent in victory and those demoralized in defeat!
(The author is Honorary Director, Centre for Public Affairs, Noida )
By Ajay K. Mehra