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Opinion| The BJP needs to snap out of denial mode

Those who insisted that the Modi-Shah combine was unbeatable have been silenced to an extent. There are five reasons why the Bharatiya Janata Party should worry.

columns Updated: Dec 21, 2018 09:19 IST
2019 parliamentary elections,2018 assembly elections results,assembly elections 2018
The big picture emerging then is of a party which peaked in 2014 as an anti-Congress, pro-Modi ‘north-west’ wave swept the country but which is now having to deal with the double anti-incumbency of being in power in Delhi and also in a vast number of crucial states(AFP)

In 2004, a few weeks before the general elections and a day after the Lucknow stampede in which 21 poor women were killed while collecting free saris, the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee admitted to me in an interview that the tragedy had seriously damaged the ‘India Shining’ image being aggressively promoted by his government. It was almost as if amid the euphoria of a near-certain re-election, the politician in the hot seat sensed his own limitations.

Narendra Modi is not Atalji. Where the BJP’s original prime minister had the brooding edge of a poet-politician, his successor rarely demonstrates even the slightest hint of self doubt. This is an age in which any admission of failure is a dent in the aura of invincibility that encircles the Supreme Leader. Which might explain why there has been so little attempt made by the BJP leadership to admit to possible failings that may have led to defeats to the Congress in the assembly elections across three Hindi heartland states.

Indeed, the constant BJP narrative over the past week has been to suggest that the December 2018 losses are a mere blip on the radar with an insistence that the 2019 Lok Sabha elections will be a different ball game. But will the summer heat of 2019 be dramatically different to the winter freeze of 2018? Well, yes and no. Yes, a state election battle is always far more localised than a general election where it is possible to generate greater fervour around an individual or issue that has national resonance. To that extent, the BJP may well believe that it has enough bandwidth to make the general elections a ‘Modi versus who’ presidential style battle that has echoes of Indira Gandhi in 1971. Moreover, the BJP’s organisational footprint across the country, especially in the more populous north and western India, gives it an advantage over all rivals.

And yet, there are five reasons why the BJP should worry.

First, while the party’s vote share is in the same range as the Congress across the three Hindi speaking states, except Chattisgarh, it has sharply declined by an average of 5% when compared to 2013, and almost double that when compared to 2014.

Second, the BJP has suffered reverses across segments where it has made impressive strides in recent years, especially in the SC/ST reserved constituencies which it has dominated previously.

Third, the Congress has almost double the number of seats when compared to the BJP in the ‘high poverty’ rural districts that polled.

Fourth, even in the urban areas which are seen to be a BJP fortress, the party suffered a loss of around 4% in vote share.

And finally, there appears to have been a negligible impact this time of the prime minister’s own campaign, with an erosion in the BJP’s seats even in areas where he held rallies.

The big picture emerging then is of a party which peaked in 2014 as an anti-Congress, pro-Modi ‘north-west’ wave swept the country but which is now having to deal with the double anti-incumbency of being in power in Delhi and also in a vast number of crucial states. To believe, as the BJP insists, that the anti incumbency has now exhausted itself is to live in a make believe universe where ‘real’ issues like stressed rural incomes and uncertain job prospects have created a potential ‘kisan-naujawan’ alliance that cannot be easily bested by a familiar ‘Hindu-Musalmaan’ narrative. Indeed, the manner in which the BJP has projected UP chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, as a star campaigner is fraught with risk: the divisive ‘Ali versus Bajrangbali’ rhetoric is prone to diminishing returns in an environment where voters are seeking tangible returns for their investment in the Modi government’s promise of ‘achche din’.

This doesn’t mean the BJP isn’t still in pole position to emerge as the single largest party in 2019: when a figure of 282 seats is contrasted with the 44 of the Congress, the gulf at the starting point is apparent as is Modi’s personal popularity when compared to rivals, including a rejuvenated Rahul Gandhi. But politics is often about present day momentum as much as it is about past equations. The cheerleaders who insisted that the Modi-Shah combination was unbeatable have been silenced for once even as the opposition has gradually found a voice. To recapture the mood of the nation, the BJP’s leadership needs to snap out of denial mode. Otherwise, the winds of change that have gently blown through the dusty bowls of central India may only accelerate in speed and intensity in the coming months.

Post-script: At a media conclave this week, when asked who would win the 2019 World Cup and the general elections, finance minister, Arun Jaitley, quipped, “It is not easy to defeat either Narendra Modi or Virat Kohli!” Ironically, the remark was made on the very day the Indian team lost the Perth test despite Kohli scoring a superb century, a reminder that in cricket as in politics, individual skills can’t always overcome team weaknesses.

Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Dec 21, 2018 07:36 IST