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The challenges BJP faces before 2019 Lok Sabha elections: Opinion

The BJP will have to show that it has delivered on promises made in 2014 (or worked towards delivering it), even while keeping the anti-corruption platform relevant

columns Updated: Mar 17, 2018 19:37 IST
Chanakya
Chanakya
Hindustan Times
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with BJP leaders Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh, Vijay Goel, Ananth Kumar and other ministers pose for a photograph after the party’s victory in the assembly elections in the northeast, at Parliament House on March 5, 2018.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with BJP leaders Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh, Vijay Goel, Ananth Kumar and other ministers pose for a photograph after the party’s victory in the assembly elections in the northeast, at Parliament House on March 5, 2018.(Sonu Mehta/HT )

The bypoll results from Uttar Pradesh (and, to a lesser extent, Bihar) seem to have got everyone excited. If every fourth Indian became an economist after demonetisation, then every third seems to have morphed into a psephologist after the results. An alliance of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party won two Lok Sabha seats held by the Bharatiya Janata Party, and not just any two seats either — one was previously held by the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, and the other by the deputy chief minister.

There are a few interesting insights about the UP bypoll results. The first is the complete felicity with which the BSP has been able to transfer its vote en bloc to a partner. With Dalits making up 16-18% of the electoral base in the state, this makes Mayawati a formidable partner. The second is the low turnout in both constituencies, perhaps an indication of over-confidence, but equally, a reflection of a poor choice of candidates. And the third, which many analysts have conveniently ignored (although the second explains it to a degree) is that the coming together of the SP and BSP doesn’t fully explain the fall of the BJP (purely in terms of vote shares and comparing the Lok Sabha results in 2014 in these two constituencies to the bypoll results). This means other factors —the agrarian crisis, unemployment, the crisis in small enterprises, maybe even the spate of encounter killings in the state —may have had some role to play in the verdict.

Uttar Pradesh (and Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Gujarat) are very important to the BJP. In these four states the party won 149 Lok Sabha seats out of a possible 160 in 2014. All told, it won 282. And in UP alone, it won 71 of 80. If the party has to repeat its 2014 performance in 2019, it can’t afford to lose anything at all in UP.

The verdict has been analysed threadbare, going back four years, sometimes more, and several polls. That may seem excessive because a bypoll isn’t a general election. And, in this particular case, a bypoll in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi didn’t campaign is definitely not a general or even a state assembly election (in which he always campaigns). Still, talk of a national grand alliance to take on the dominant pole of Indian politics, the BJP, has gathered steam.

Chanakya would like to look at the UP results as a continuum that includes the Gujarat assembly elections, the Rajasthan bypolls, the elections in three North-eastern states, and the bypolls in Bihar. There’s clearly a trend, however weak it may be at the moment. And because there is one, it makes sense to flip the coalition equation on its head and look at the coalition of issues that brought the BJP to power in 2014. More than the arithmetic, it is this that will decide the party’s fortunes in 2019.

The first was the promise of Achche Din (good days) which had universal appeal in 2014 (and will always do). The BJP’s promise struck a chord with everyone — from farmers seeking to increase their incomes to the middle class desiring more and better jobs (and less tax payouts and a simpler tax structure) to businessmen anxious for rapid economic growth to free-market advocates hoping for the complete (or even partial) exit of government from business and an end to subsidies. The government’s performance on this promise has been patchy.

The country is in the midst of an agrarian crisis —brought about, in one part, by extreme weather events and, in another, by the lack of market linkages (which means that a bumper produce doesn’t necessarily mean good returns for farmers). Few jobs have been created. And the twin disruptions of demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax (GST) have taken their toll on many small businesses and the economy. The formalisation of the economy is a laudable objective for the government, as long as it is willing to put up with the pain (and the political cost) associated with it. To be sure, both GST and the bankruptcy code are fundamentally transformative reforms that will have a beneficial effect in the long-term, but they are not exactly the kind of moves that win elections. Finally, many of the free-market proponents who supported the BJP have been disappointed with the party’s centrist (and often populist) economic policies, and its continued reliance on Big Government. All of this suggests that the Achche Din promise may not have in 2019 the same kind of appeal it did in 2014.

The second issue that worked for the BJP in 2014 was the anti-corruption platform that the BJP made its own, presenting itself as the alternative to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance that, between 2008 and 2014, was embroiled in several corruption scandals. To its credit, the BJP hasn’t been involved in any such scandal since it came to power, but public memory is short and voters have a habit of not focusing too much on parties that have already been penalised electorally once for their past deeds (which could explain why the government is trying hard to revive and pursue some of these cases).

The promise of Achche Din and the anti-corruption platform expanded the BJP’s appeal beyond its natural electoral base which remains intact. Coupled with the smart social engineering that manifested itself in the selection of candidates, it made the BJP an unbeatable election machine. The challenge for the party in 2019 will be to show that it has delivered on its promise (or worked towards delivering it), even while keeping the anti-corruption platform relevant. If it can’t, then all the coalition maths that analysts have worked on over the past few days will come into play.

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