Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he is presented with a garland by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders after the election results in New Delhi, India, May 23, 2019.(REUTERS FILE PHOTO)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he is presented with a garland by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders after the election results in New Delhi, India, May 23, 2019.(REUTERS FILE PHOTO)

India keeps faith in PM Narendra Modi

On Thursday, the party did just that. It had won or was leading in 303 seats (of a total of 542 polled) at midnight.
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By Prashant Jha
UPDATED ON MAY 24, 2019 01:28 AM IST

In the intense, long-drawn out, and often confrontational campaign ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, the most optimistic Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters borrowed a slogan first used ahead of the 2017 state elections in Uttar Pradesh: Ab ki baar; teen sau paar (This time, over 300).

On Thursday, the party did just that. It had won or was leading in 303 seats (of a total of 542 polled) at midnight.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had returned to power for second term, and how.

Modi led his party to a higher vote share (37%) as compared to 2014 as well, achieving outright political dominance in large parts of north, central, west, and east India.

The electorate has decisively rejected the Opposition, reducing the Congress to a mere 52 seats (won or leading at midnight), just eight more than what it won in 2014. Party president Rahul Gandhi himself lost from the family pocket borough Amethi to the BJP’s Smriti Irani, though he won from Wayanad. The 2019 mandate has also come as a huge setback for several regional players, from Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh to Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal to Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra. It is only in south India - where barring Karnataka and to some extent Telangana - that the BJP faced a strong opposition.

This is the first time since 1971 that a Prime Minister has been re-elected to office with an outright majority.

The Modi hawa

This is also the first time in decades that an election turned truly presidential.

This was the most important strand of the political message of the BJP, with Modi reiterating that a vote on Kamal (the party’s lotus symbol) would directly be a vote for him. The decision to turn the poll into a referendum on himself completely overwhelmed local anti-incumbency against BJP candidates, adverse social equations in seats, larger economic issues, and helped the party penetrate areas where it had been traditionally vulnerable.

From March 28, starting from a rally in Meerut in west Uttar Pradesh, Modi addressed 142 rallies. His speeches combined a focus on his government’s delivery of rural assets in villages ; national security ; honest administration; and most importantly, strong leadership and a cohesive government .

The BJP, acutely conscious of the 2004 verdict, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost despite being the favourite, was careful to avoid the same mistakes. By playing up its pro-poor welfare agenda, it sought to avoid the trap of being seen as elitist. The party also coordinated closely with its ideological co-travellers in the Sangh Parivar, which many believed had turned somewhat inert back in 2004. The coordination also involved an explicit Hindutva tilt in the campaign -- this was most visible in its decision to award a ticket to terror accused Pragya Singh Thakur in Bhopal, its firm defence of the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Bill, and a commitment to remove the special provisions with regard to Jammu and Kashmir in the Constitution. Compared to 2004, the BJP has also expanded its social base, winning over the support of a large segment of both backward and Dalit communities, while it succeeded in retaining its old traditional vote of the middle-class, and upper castes. All of this, aided by a strong organisation shepherded by Amit Shah, made 2019 different.

But it was, at the core, Modi’s appeal and the faith he evoked among voters that best explains the verdict. The BJP achieved what was considered almost impossible in political circles. The NDA replicated its 2014 performance of winning all 26 seats in Gujarat, 25 in Rajasthan, seven in Delhi, and five each in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand yet again It improved its tally in Haryana by winning 10 of the 11 seats, and in Madhya Pradesh by winning 28 of the 29 seats. It won nine of the 11 seats in Chhattisgarh. And it swept Bihar along with its ally, Janata Dal (United), winning 39 of the 40 seats in the state.

The party’s most remarkable performance came in three battleground states. The first was Uttar Pradesh where the party confronted the formidable alliance of Samajwadi Party-Bhaujan Samaj Party. But a robust social coalition across Hindu castes, the message of nationalism, the government’s welfare delivery, and Modi’s appeal saw the NDA win 61 of the 80 seats, a loss of only 13 from 2014. The second state was West Bengal, where from a mere two seats in 2014, the BJP’s aggressive campaign yielded dividends and the party won 18 seats. In Odisha too, while the electorate swept Naveen Patnaik to a fifth term in office in the state assembly, they rewarded BJP with eight seats, from just one back in 2014.

Soon after the trends became clear, Modi tweeted:”Together we grow. Together we prosper. Together we will build a strong and inclusive India. India wins yet again.”

The Opposition rout

But if one element of the 2019 verdict was the resounding mandate for Modi, the other accompanying story has been the decimation of the Congress, yet again.

Rahul Gandhi, at a press conference on Thursday evening, conceded defeat, took full responsibility, said he respected the verdict of the electorate, congratulated Narendra Modi and the BJP, and asked Congress workers to keep up their morale.

But the message hid the scale of failure of India’s grand old party. It had won three state assembly polls only at the end of last year -- Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. But put together, it won only three of the 53 seats in these very states in the Lok Sabha elections. It had put up a spirited fight in the Gujarat assembly elections of 2017, but failed to win a single seat this time around. In North India, it was only in Punjab where Captain Amarinder Singh was able to deliver eight seats to the party.

The Congress’s failure is being seen as a culmination of several factors. While Gandhi had put up a strong challenge, he was clearly not seen as prime ministerial by a large section of the electorate . Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who was admittedly just one of the party’s many General secretaries, failed to make an impact in the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh.

The party’s big issues did not resonate. While citizens did not appear to believe that Modi was corrupt, Gandhi kept repeating allegations in the context of the Rafale deal. The party also failed to communicate its promise of Nyay effectively to the electorate. The failure to stich up an alliance with the SP-BSP -- which was attributed to Mayawati’s refusal rather than the Congress -- also hurt the party.

The Congress’s only gains happened in South India, where, riding on the alliance with the DMK, it was able to win eight seats in Tamil Nadu; it scored an impressive victory in Kerala, winning 15 of the 20 seats on its own and 18 along with its smaller allies; it also won three seats in Telangana.

But it was not just the Congress. The SP- BSP-Rashtriya Lok Dal alliance won just 18 of the state’s 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh. It was clear that their social coalition of Yadavs, Muslims and Jatavs was either unable to match the combined social coalition of the BJP or cracked, and not all constituents and supporters of one party transferred their votes to candidates from the other party. This leaves the fate of the alliance uncertain.

Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal won 22 seats, but with the BJP emerging as the principal and extremely strong opposition with 18 seats, the Trinamool will confront a major challenge in the next assembly elections of 2021. In Odisha, the BJP replaced the Congress as the second-largest party, and is set to grow even as Naveen Patnaik managed to hold on to his own.

The most devastating news, however, for a regional satrap would be received in Ranchi. Currently in jail, Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, was being led by Tejaswi Yadav. The party has failed to win a single seat across Bihar, with the Congress just picking Kishanganj, a Muslim-dominated constituency in Seemanchal.

The southern frontier

It was only in the south that regional forces were able to put up a strong show.

In Andhra Pradesh, Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress Party won both the state assembly elections convincingly, winning 145 of the 175 seats, but also won all the 25 Lok Sabha seats from the state.

But the real story of change came from Tamil Nadu. This was the first national election after the death of the state’s two iconic leaders, M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa. From winning no seat in 2014, the DMK has now won 23 seats in the state, and 33 along with its allies. This marks the arrival of MK Stalin, the DMK’s current leader, as a leader in his own right.

Looking forward

Analysts credited Modi for his big win but also pointed out that the challenge for the Prime Minister begins now. From a range of crucial foreign policy decisions to addressing the situation in Kashmir, the PM will have his plate full.

But the most important item on his table could well be the economy.

Devesh Kapur, the head of the Asia Programme at the Johns Hopkins University and an authority of India’s political institutions and economy, said, “Mr. Modi may well find that winning was easier than governing is likely to be. India’s economy is in much worse shape than is realized. The biggest challenge is reviving growth which almost certainly has been lower than the official numbers over the past decade.”

He added that all the ambitions that the Prime Minister had for the country would come to naught unless growth is much more robust. “Frankly, there are no easy ways to make it happen, especially given the massive problems in the financial sector and a deteriorating global environment. Unless the balance sheet problems of the banks and NBFCs are addressed with utmost urgency, credit and liquidity will be constrained and the private investment cycle will not revive, and unless that happens growth will not pick up.”

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