BJP continues to ride on PM Modi’s popular appeal but the party should buck up
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BJP continues to ride on PM Modi’s popular appeal but the party should buck up

BJP is riding on PM Narendra Modi’s development agenda but it may need to set its house in order in states to hope for a return to the Centre in 2019.

india Updated: Oct 25, 2017 10:04 IST
Kumar Uttam
Kumar Uttam
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Narendra Modi,PM Modi,BJP
Prime Minister Narendra Modi talks with BJP president Amit Shah at party's national executive meeting at Talkatora stadium in New Delhi.(PTI File Photo)

From one election victory to another, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continues to ride on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popular appeal and many see the party as the best bet to return to power in 2019. But, as the saying goes, there are a few imponderables between the proverbial cup and the lip.

The party has won nine of 13 states that went to polls since May 2014, but the four states it lost exposed the chinks in its seemingly impenetrable armour.

Between 2014 and now, the BJP lost Bihar, Delhi, West Bengal and Punjab, which it ruled with Shiromani Akali Dal.

Modi’s popularity and development agenda were BJP’s unique selling point, while it also gained from anti-incumbency and inertia among political rivals.Party chief Amit Shah’s shock-and-awe tactics – defections in rival camps, high-voltage campaigns and alliances with small political outfits with followers among particular caste groups — was effective, too. But the BJP was found wanting when faced with anti-incumbency in states ruled by it.

While SAD’s unpopularity was a major factor in Punjab, the BJP could not retain its support base among Hindus who constitute about 38% of the state’s population. Congress emerged single largest party in BJP-ruled Goa despite a subtle projection of Manohar Parrikar – then defence minister– as the likely CM .

Professor Badri Narayan of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, however, believes that BJP will still have an advantage in 2019 if it can successfully communicate its achievements.

Worrying signs

Shah has repeatedly told party leaders to publicise Modi’s schemes such as free LPG to below poverty line families and social security schemes. While there are many takers for Modi’s development agenda, the BJP may need to set its house in order in states where it is in power. Many NDA-ruled states have witnessed signs of discontentment — farmers’ protests in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and other places, and agitations by caste groups demanding reservation in Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat, and possibly Rajasthan, where the issue erupts ahead of every election.

In Jharkhand, it buckled under pressure from Adivasi groups and diluted a law to facilitate land-use change for welfare activities. The inept handling of the law and order situation created by supporters of rape convict Gurmeet Ram Rahim brought the spotlight back on Manohar Lal Khattar government’s record of administrative ineptitude.

It’s early days yet but the Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh faces the heat on a host of issues, be it the instances of farm loan waiver of less than Rs 1, death of infants in a Gorakhpur hospital, or the law and order situation. The BJP rules 18 states today and would not have excuses to offer for the state of affairs in 2019.

OBC gambit

The Union cabinet recently decided to set up a commission for the sub-categorisation of other backward classes (OBCs), which intends to give more reservation benefits to non-dominant OBCs.

The move, as the saffron party hopes, might create a coalition of non-dominant OBCs in its favour. It might also alienate dominant castes such as Jats in Rajasthan and Yadavs in Bihar and UP.

Professor Badri Narayan of the Centre for the Study of Discrimination and Exclusion, JNU, however, says the OBC outreach has put the BJP in a “win-win situation”. The upper castes, he says, identifies itself with the BJP and OBCs have started to gravitate towards it.

“The BJP is trying reach out to the broader Hindu society,” says Narayan, adding if the BJP’s “all-inclusive” projection succeeds, it might not need to return to Hindtuva (as a poll plank).

The BJP has also sought to mobilise non-dominant castes, who together are numerically superior as compared to dominant ones, in its favour. This explains the installation of chief ministers from non-dominant castes — a non-Jat in Haryana, a non-tribal in Jharkhand and a non-Maratha in Maharashtra. Whether it works or backfires would be clear only in the next state elections .

Undelivered promises

In the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP promised 10 million jobs if voted to power. ‘Job’ and ‘employment’ figured 26 times in the party’s manifesto, a 42-page document.

“A strong manufacturing sector will not only bridge the demand-supply gap leading to price stabilisation, but also create millions of jobs and increase incomes for the working class… BJP recognises the role tourism and hospitality can play as a foreign exchange earner and its ability to create millions of jobs every year,” said the party manifesto.

“The country was dragged through 10 years of jobless growth by the Congress-led UPA government. Under the broader economic revival, BJP will accord high priority to job creation and opportunities for entrepreneurship,” it added.

These promises could return to haunt the BJP in 2019, with jobs still at a premium and GDP growth rate slumping to 5.7% in the first quarter of 2017-18. Opposition accuses Modi’s economic policies have led to “jobless growth”, a term the BJP used to attack the UPA government.

West Bengal
Mamata Banerjee continues to hold ground. The BJP’s vote share has increased but is still way behind the Trinamool Congress. The suspense over whether or not to support Darjeeling also troubles the party.
Tamil Nadu
The BJP flirts with AIADMK, but the latter is embroiled in internal troubles after the death of J Jayalalithaa. Its efforts to woo stars haven’t yielded results yet. The DMK is eyeing revival and prefers Congress over BJP.
The BJP lacks a leader with mass appeal. The state unit is faction-ridden and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is showing signs of recovery after a setback in panchayat polls.
State’s politics continue to be bi-polar between CPM and the Congressled alliance. The BJP has tried to make inroads but hasn’t tasted much electoral success. The party faces a hostile CPM and its relationship with the Church is cold.
The Aam Aadmi Party retains its hold over the national capital. BJP’s experiment with a poorvanchali (Manoj Tiwari) hasn’t worked. Feuding continues in the state unit.

Critics also see a further downslide in the economy, citing what they see as an adverse impact of demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 bank notes, which sucked out 86% of the cash in circulation.

The youth voted overwhelmingly for Modi in 2014 and the BJP could ill afford to alienate this vocal support base.

The BJP manifesto had also spoken about a national education policy to meet the “changing dynamics of the population’s requirement”.

In its fourth year, the government is still finalising the national education policy. Similarly, the ambitious ‘skill India’ programme has failed to impress. Modi recently dropped Union skill development minister Rajiv Pratap Rudy from the government and allocated the portfolio to Dharmendra Pradhan.

Bad economy returns good political dividends for the opposition, if it is ready to accept it.

Modi did so in 2014, bringing down a scam-tarred regime of Manmohan Sin- gh, who also struggled at the economic front. Modi has managed to avoid any corruption taint on him or his ministers. But the impact of a cash squeeze on consumption, business sentiments and layoffs throw up big challenges for the BJP.

Milan Vaishanv, director and senior fellow in the South Asia Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the short-term challenge for the government is reviving the domestic investment cycle, which is in a precarious position today.

“Unlocking this potential is vital for securing his top-three key economic objectives: jobs, jobs, and jobs...There is no question that the BJP is anxious about the state of the Indian economy, three years into its tenure. It is an essential liability, but perhaps not fatal as far as 2019 is concerned,” Vaishanv adds.

He, however, points out that many of the deadlines the PM has set for his government are due by 2022, midway through a possible second term. “Given where things stand today, the Indian voters are likely to give his government more time.”

Sadanand Dhume, resident fellow with the Washington-based public policy think-thank American Enterprise Institute, has similar views.

“As of now, the BJP is clearly in pole position to return to power in 2019. But two years is a long time in politics,” he says.

First Published: Oct 25, 2017 09:48 IST