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The BJP must get out of election mode to govern

The ruling party is simultaneously attempting wholesale political capture and a cultural turnaround unmindful of the deal making that is needed for governance.

analysis Updated: May 22, 2016 20:56 IST
Whether the BJP has achieved total political dominance is still an open question. BJP continues to fail against regional parties and non-Congress opposition space in India remains vibrant, muscular and remarkably obstinate.
Whether the BJP has achieved total political dominance is still an open question. BJP continues to fail against regional parties and non-Congress opposition space in India remains vibrant, muscular and remarkably obstinate. (Sonu Mehta / HT Photo)

Two narratives have emerged following last week’s assembly election results in five states. One points to the Congress’s “irresistible decline”. The losses in Assam and Kerala follow defeats in Rajasthan, Delhi, Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir in recent years. From ruling 13 states in 2004, the Congress is down to seven with only a single big state in its control, Karnataka. As the data journalism website IndiaSpend concludes, “the Congress now directly rules about 190 million Indians, down from 270 million in 2004” while the BJP governs 520 million Indians in 12 states.

Read | Poll results: A lot of fight left in the saffron camp

The second narrative, however, argues that the recent BJP gains do not indicate a real and deep saffron spread. Commentator Mohan Guruswamy was among the first to point out that even though the Congress was trounced in Assam and Kerala, it still managed to win 115 Assembly constituencies in five states as compared to the BJP’s 65. The Congress’ vote share, in fact, exceeded the BJP’s in four of the five states. The BJP fared worse than the Congress in Delhi’s recent civic polls and won only four of the 607 seats it contested outside Assam. It has a little over 10% of the vote share in Bengal and Kerala and won Assam, a state of 31 million people — not a big state in the national scheme of things. In fact, had the DMK run a better campaign in Tamil Nadu and had the Congress not let go of Himanta Biswa Sarma, a last minute defection to the BJP in Assam, a very different electoral story would have emerged. And as some have pointed out, the BJP also had the luck of not having a single drought-ridden state in central India head to the polls.

Both these narratives can invoke a measure of conviction and strongly suggest that the political landscape in India remains fluid and unsettled — notwithstanding Amit Shah’s declaration that the country has taken two steps towards a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’.

What the recent Assembly elections do nonetheless clearly suggest is that the BJP has indeed become a formidable electoral machine with the drive and organisational muscle to strike in newer territories. A capacity that is also greatly enabled by the vast financial resources that the BJP is able and willing to spend.

But whether the BJP has achieved total political dominance is still an open question. For one, the BJP continues to fail against regional parties. The non-Congress opposition space in India remains vibrant, muscular and remarkably obstinate. Even Assam for the BJP required a truce with the Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodoland People’s Front.

Read | In BJP-yukt Bharat, Congress must focus on national security

On the other hand, anti-incumbency pressures await the BJP in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Goa and Rajasthan. That the BJP is thinking of replacing Anandiben Patel as chief minister of Gujarat also points to anxieties that it could potentially lose in Hindutva’s flagship state.

Put differently, the wave of assembly elections in India in post 2014 — with the see-saw of victory and defeats — and the potential outcomes of the coming assembly elections is being allowed to haunt the credibility and standing of the Modi government.

Small wonder then that the Prime Minister, in perhaps either a mood of electoral exhaustion or genuine administrative concern, unambiguously expressed his desire for “all elections” to be held in a single go.

In part, treating assembly elections as mini referendums with consequences for long-term policy decision-making reveals an unprecedented and unhelpful political strategy. In what appears to be calculations that are chiefly ideological driven, the country has been plunged post 2014, in the conduct of its politics, into an almost uninterrupted election mode.

The BJP has seemingly settled into a groove of sorts for delivering regular electoral shock and awe tactics, where symbolic issues are aggressively pitched at election intervals such as the beef ban, ‘Love Jihad’, the “sedition” controversy in JNU and the raucous noise over AgustaWestland. Social and political temperatures have thus been so raised that the much-needed discussion on growth, employment, reform, education and the economy in general has almost been sidelined.

Read | Mamata won because of five years of consistent performance

It appears that the BJP’s clear and significant mandate in the 2014 election is rapidly being frittered away over assembly or municipal election anxieties and outcomes. A strange unease and lack of confidence in governance is now becoming obvious as the government attempts another electoral validation exercise rather than dealing with the exceptional mandate promise of 2014.

Will “election fatigue” ultimately unsettle the BJP, at this rate? Has the Prime Minister’s office turned too much into a campaign-driven enterprise? How many electoral victories are required by the BJP for it to singularly focus on governance?

It is probable, as many will argue, that the mandate of 2014 was less about a “Congress mukt bharat” than it was about the palpable economic frustration arising out of demographic change. Meeting such expectations entails a less confrontational approach to politics. The BJP is simultaneously attempting wholesale political capture and a cultural turnaround unmindful of the deal making with political peers that is needed for governance. It would do well to heed the popular saying about the cavalry-based central Asian empires of the late medieval period: You needed a horse to conquer an empire but to govern one you had to get off the saddle.

Read | Poll results: A saffron footprint in God’s Own Country

Rohan D’Souza is Associate Professor, Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University . The views expressed are personal