In its 34-year existence the BJP would have known few more satisfying days than Sunday, October 19. There are three reasons for this. First, the superlative victory in Haryana constitutes perhaps the BJP’s most impressive electoral triumph ever, more impressive than even the Lok Sabha election victory of 2014. The low base from which the party started even six months ago, the absence of an effective state leadership, the limited base and social coalition the BJP traditionally represented in Haryana: All of these were overcome in a dramatic turnaround that piggybacked on the remarkable showing in the parliamentary contest.
In Maharashtra, while the BJP has failed to win an outright majority, its essential bet in breaking the partnership with the Shiv Sena and in backing itself has paid off. It was long felt that the alliance with the Sena and the fact that some 150 of Maharashtra’s 288 assembly seats were out of bounds for the BJP were preventing the party’s organic growth. This year as well the Sena offered the BJP only 119 seats, of which the BJP could be expected to win 75-80 and continue as junior partner.
However, an internal survey commissioned by BJP president Amit Shah left him with the impression that contesting on its own, the party could take home 120 seats. Later, as a quick-fire and high-octane campaign was mounted, there was hope of crossing 145 seats. This proved exaggerated and the original survey was vindicated.
In the end, it established Shah’s credentials as an astute election strategist, somebody who gambles but does so with care and caution. He can renew relations with the Sena, but on the BJP’s terms, without a Thackeray making loud claims of being the remote control. If the Sena is unreasonable in the coming five years, the NCP is knocking at the door. The BJP is spoilt for choice.
Finally, the BJP has displaced the Congress as the principal pole in Indian politics. Reducing the older party to 44 Lok Sabha seats and now to also-ran status in two traditional bastions, Narendra Modi and Shah have actually expanded the BJP’s political geography. The Congress is left with two states in southern India (Karnataka and Kerala) and two small states in north India (Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh). In the east, it runs only one major state, Assam.
In most of these states, the BJP smells a chance. That aside, in key upcoming assembly elections — Bihar (2015), West Bengal (2016), Uttar Pradesh (2017) — the battle will be between a rising BJP and rooted regional leaders. The Congress will not be in the picture. In that sense, 2014 has been a breakthrough year for the BJP, a year of stunning electoral results that have upturned the sociology and certitudes of Indian politics.
It is silly to argue, as some have in television studios, that the BJP is becoming a mirror image of the Congress of the 1970s and 1980s and that one central leader — the prime minister — is all-powerful and the only factor behind the party’s electoral success. This may sound convenient and facile but underestimates the enlarging constituencies of the BJP and its ability to build social coalitions at the state and sub-regional levels.
True, Modi has provided that incremental zing and zest to the BJP but the party was primed for take-off in Maharashtra even in a pre-Modi context. At its best, electoral success is a happy mix of local urges and aspirations (and where possible charismatic leaders), a national mascot, robust election management and an organisation that thinks strategically. The Congress used to be blessed with this Goldilocks combination; today, it is the BJP’s intellectual property.
For the Congress, its defeat in Haryana is the end of an innings for Bhupinder Singh Hooda, one of its few remaining state strongmen. In Maharashtra, infighting and meddling by the central party leadership have long prevented the emergence of an effective local commander. With Tarun Gogoi (Assam) and Virbhadra Singh (Himachal Pradesh) ageing, India’s once all-dominant party is gradually being reduced to a hollow shell. It has clever-clever party spokespersons, a national leadership that lives in a Delhi bubble, and very few regional champions. This amalgam cannot deliver elections.
What do the results in Haryana and Maharashtra mean for the Modi government in Delhi? By 2016, these states (along with others the BJP won a year ago) will begin to bolster the government’s numbers in the Rajya Sabha. More immediately, they will allow Modi to devote political space and capital to robust economic policy making.
A series of foreign-policy engagements in September and then the state elections have meant Modi’s economic programme has been somewhat delayed. A start was made on October 18 with the decontrol of diesel prices and more announcements can be expected early this week. The prime minister must be conscious that there is only so much patience the investor community — both domestic and international — will have with an India that has consistently failed to deliver on its potential and promises, especially in the second term of the UPA government (2009-14).
No doubt Modi also realises the four months from October 20 to February 28, when Union finance minister Arun Jaitley will present his first full budget, are the BJP-led government’s window of opportunity. There is international capital looking for investment destinations and global crude oil prices are at a four-year low. This is Modi’s moment. Destiny has placed him at a turning point in India’s history. Now India is waiting for him to take that turn.
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator
The views expressed by the author are personal