Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Raghubar Das.(PTI file photo)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Raghubar Das.(PTI file photo)

By rejecting Raghubar Das, Jharkhand sends a message to the BJP | Opinion

Don’t impose leaders with no mass base; address the economy; and be prepared for a tough poll cycle
By Rahul Verma
UPDATED ON DEC 24, 2019 08:55 AM IST

When an incumbent chief minister loses along with many of his cabinet colleagues, there is a straightforward interpretation of the mandate. Voters have outrightly rejected the existing government. Everything else is a nuance. The Raghubhar Das-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Jharkhand has met the same fate. This has happened barely six months after the Lok Sabha polls, in which the BJP-led alliance had won 12 of the 14 Lok Sabha seats, and bagged more than half of the total votes polled in the state.

What explains the massive negative vote swing (approximately 17 percentage points) against the BJP in these six months? Since the formation of Jharkhand in 2000, the BJP has recorded higher vote share in Lok Sabha elections compared to the assembly elections held a few months later. The party, in the last three election cycles, has seen an 8-10 percentage points swing against its Lok Sabha vote base.

Unlike Haryana and Maharashtra earlier this year, where the party witnessed a similar erosion in votes, the BJP in Jharkhand is now not even the single largest party in the house. The extent of the debacle in Jharkhand points to some strong messages for the BJP leadership in Delhi.

First, the BJP in the past has appointed chief ministers with no mass base. Results suggest that there is a limit to imposing leaders from the top. Das was widely considered as a non-performing chief minister, who also got himself embroiled in unnecessary factional feuds. He was defeated in his traditional stronghold of Jamshedpur East by Saryu Roy, a BJP veteran and a former cabinet colleague of Das, who dissented. Roy stood as an independent, but was rumoured to have the support of another BJP leader, and central minister, Arjun Munda, along with that of other opposition parties.

Second, since the anointment of Narendra Modi as the chief campaigner of the BJP in 2013, the party has witnessed social and geographical expansion. However, the BJP has won most states as an opposition party. It has trounced the incumbent as a challenger, but has had a tough time retaining (or winning) a state wherever it was the incumbent itself.

This weakness of the BJP has become more evident in the post-2019 scenario, when the country is also undergoing an economic slowdown. The results are a clear signal to the BJP that it needs to address economic concerns, which are now hurting average voters. The BJP may very well push its ideological projects (such as removal of Article 370, the construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya, the National Register for Citizens, and the Citizenship Amendment Act) but it won’t help them electorally beyond a point, until the government does something urgently to fix the stagnating economy.

Third, the electoral map of India now looks starkly different. There are fewer states now ruled by the BJP or its allies than at any point in the last three years. The BJP failed to meet its own electoral expectations in both Haryana and Maharashtra. And now, after the Jharkhand debacle, the party must brace itself for tougher times ahead. In a few months, the BJP will be fighting an uphill battle against the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi. The combined effect of a sluggish economy, electoral losses and civil society mobilisation against the NRC-CAA may set a narrative that is unlikely to please the BJP’s top brass.

Nitish Kumar will be the face of the National Democratic Alliance if the BJP contests the Bihar assembly elections in alliance with Janata Dal(United), as it has said so far. But make no mistake. Kumar will drive a hard bargain on the number of seats. He has the upper-hand, for how many allies can Modi-Shah afford to lose?

The Jharkhand results also have a message for the Opposition. The ascendance of the BJP has forced smaller parties to join hands to take on the might of the party’s election machine. They have also realised that the only way to challenge the BJP’s nationalistic rhetoric is to make their campaign grounded on local governance issues. This strategy has helped them in checking the BJP juggernaut in Haryana, Maharashtra, and now in Jharkhand. They are now also more mindful of not getting into BJP’s trap of exploiting the wedge between dominant and non-dominant castes.

The Congress may continue to piggyback on the strength of regional players, and claim that it played a crucial role in halting the BJP’s march, but it needs to introspect on its own weaknesses. There is, however, a larger question for the Opposition. Each election victory may bring a momentary respite, but without creating and campaigning on an alternative ideological vision, the Opposition’s challenge to BJP’s hegemonic position will be limited to sporadic electoral successes, even as the BJP continued to drive the agenda.

Rahul Verma is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi.
The views expressed are personal
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