Indian voters have a knack of surprising political pundits. Just a few weeks ago, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah could do no wrong; now, after a series of byelection reverses, the Modi-Shah duo is being blamed for losing the Midas touch. Neither is the euphoria nor the harsh criticism valid: No two elections are the same and the extreme responses that accompany every election result are perhaps uncalled for. Modi and Shah are undoubtedly the star politicians of 2014, and a setback in the byelections cannot detract from the enormity of their achievement in ushering in the first BJP-majority government at the Centre. And yet, success can make a political party complacent, even arrogant, and that’s the risk which the BJP must learn to recognise.
Take the manner in which the BJP has gone about seat distribution in Maharashtra. For 25 years, the original saffron alliance worked on a formula where the BJP was the junior partner and the Shiv Sena was accepted as the dominant force in the state. Bal Thackeray was the Hindu Hriday Samrat and his word was final in alliance dealings at the state level. Now, the BJP believes that its spectacular triumph in the general elections has reversed the balance of power. It wants more seats and a possible shot at the chief ministership. When Amit Shah visited Mumbai recently, the Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray had to request him for a meeting. A similar situation would have been unthinkable when Bal Thackeray was the Sena supremo.
In the four months since Modi became prime minister, the BJP has sent the firm impression that this is not a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition government but a BJP-only government. Allies like Ram Vilas Paswan were given mostly inconsequential portfolios; the Shiv Sena’s protest at being given the heavy industries portfolio was ignored; the Tamil Nadu allies have been marginalised; the Haryana Janhit Congress has been jettisoned, even the Akalis seem miffed.
In a sense, the BJP is returning to its pre-1998 avatar when it, to use LK Advani’s memorable words, appeared to exist in “splendid ideological isolation”. That isolationist positioning saw the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government fall within 13 days of taking office. Advani was astute enough to realise that the BJP’s immediate political future lay in reaching out to other parties and building a durable coalition. The NDA was born, and, at one stage during the Vajpayee years, had as many as 24 parties under its umbrella.
In the 2014 general elections, the BJP adopted a conscious strategy of cementing alliances with smaller parties. Even a relatively inconsequential party like the Apna Dal, which has a marginal presence in a small pocket of eastern Uttar Pradesh, was wooed with two seats. By the end, the NDA had more than a dozen small and large parties by its side. The wider alliance served two purposes. One, it gave the BJP an incremental vote (for example, the Apna Dal has a solid Kurmi vote in the Varanasi-Mirzapur region). Secondly, and more importantly, it helped Modi get rid of the tag of being a ‘political untouchable’. The likes of Paswan and Chandrababu Naidu had spoken out against Modi in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots. Now, by having them by his side, Modi could send out a clear message that his contentious past was well and truly buried.
The sheer scale of the election victory though has changed all equations once again. By winning 282 seats on its own, the BJP surprised itself. It has led the party to believe that Modi is indestructible and the victory is that of an individual, not of any political alliance. To some extent, this is not untrue: One of the BJP’s biggest successes in the 2014 general elections was to effectively convert the campaign into a presidential-style referendum around Modi’s persona. And yet, a formula that might have worked successfully at the Centre is tough to replicate in every state. Which is perhaps why the BJP suddenly changed the thrust of its campaign in UP in the byelections from good governance to a sharper Hindutva agenda. By making a rabble-rouser like Yogi Adityanath one of its star campaigners, by raking up the spurious issue of love jihad and allowing fringe elements to move towards the political centre, the BJP was experimenting with a brand of politics that many observers thought it had left behind. It was, as the UP byelection results confirm, a costly mistake.
Shah, who was the mastermind behind the BJP’s successful triumph in the general elections in UP, may now need to press the pause button on his election strategy. When he suggests that so long as there is communal tension the BJP stands to benefit, he is hinting at a religious polarisation that can easily backfire on the party. The average Indian voter is tiring of identity politics and is looking for a political message that can rise above the traditional caste and community divides. In the general elections, Modi’s message of hope — as exemplified by the slogan ‘Achche Din Aanewale Hain’ — resonated with a younger India desirous of change. This India isn’t going to be swayed by the shrill rhetoric of love jihad and wants a strong developmental agenda to be the basis of new age politics. Modi speaks that language in Delhi, but the state units of the BJP, especially in UP, remain caught in a time warp. An anti-minority campaign is subject to the law of diminishing returns: It makes the Muslims fearful, it troubles the secular Hindu voter.
Which is why Shah must now decide which direction he wishes to take the BJP: Is he a unilateralist who will abandon alliance politics and drive a divisive ideological agenda? Or will he look to pursue an inclusive politics that looks beyond Hindutva? Modi has shown the potential to move from ideologue to statesman as prime minister. Is Shah capable of a similar transformation?
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal