The return of BJP in a big election year

BJP will be satisfied at redefining the rules to access power yet again in Delhi. It has exhibited its ability to leverage opportunities. But Maharashtra and Jharkhand made sure it was not all sunshine for the party.
The overwhelming consensus, thus, was that Modi may return to power, but with depleted numbers. (Photo @BJP4India)
The overwhelming consensus, thus, was that Modi may return to power, but with depleted numbers. (Photo @BJP4India)
Updated on Aug 14, 2020 07:00 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By

At the beginning of 2019, political commentary revolved around whether Narendra Modi would return to power. In three state assembly elections — Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh — the Congress had just ousted the incumbent governments of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party-Bhaujan Samaj Party had come together in what appeared like an unbeatable alliance. The BJP’s multi-caste umbrella was fracturing, with upper castes unhappy about the restoration of the original provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. And its eastward and southward expansion plans seemed more rhetorical than real.

The overwhelming consensus, thus, was that Modi may return to power, but with depleted numbers. This, then, would constrain the ability of the BJP to push through its agenda. It would make Modi dependent on allies. The party’s political hegemony would dissipate. Institutions would have more room to act as a check. And India would have a stronger opposition.

Within five months of the year, however, Prime Minister Modi returned to power — and how. It speaks of both the unpredictability of Indian politics, and the collapse of older analytical categories used to describe and understand elections, that these observations turned out to be inaccurate. It also speaks of the BJP’s ability to leverage political opportunities and convert them into triumphs, as well as the Opposition’s failure to put up a robust national challenge to Modi.

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If 2014 was an election that was marked by both a high degree of anti-incumbency against the Congress and hope in Modi, 2019 was marked by a ringing endorsement of his governance record and ideological worldview. The election was fought on the question of leadership, making it arguably the most presidential poll in Indian electoral history — and citizens, close to 40% of them, saw in Modi the leader they wanted. It was fought on the issue of nationalism, which gained traction after the Pulwama and Balakot episodes, and voters decided to repose faith in the BJP’s ability to secure the nation. It was fought on the issue of welfare delivery, and the government’s record in providing housing, gas cylinders, toilets, and direct income assistance to farmers helped in expanding its vote share. And it was fought on Hindutva, where Modi — but to a larger extent, BJP president Amit Shah — promised legislations and policies to tackle immigrants (read Muslim immigrants).

All of it worked. But nothing worked as effectively as the absence of a strong national opposition. Rahul Gandhi, as the Congress president, was the face of the challenge. But neither was he able to gain the trust of voters as a potential PM candidate, nor did the issues he raised — be it allegations of corruption around the procurement of Rafale or the promise of income assistance to the poorest Indian households — resonate. Congress barely improved its tally from 44 in 2014 to 52 five years later, throwing the party into a leadership crisis, as Gandhi decided to quit as president, with his mother, Sonia Gandhi, returning as interim chief.

But back on the ruling side, the election marked the consolidation of power of both Modi and Shah, who made an entry into the cabinet as the home minister. Both also saw the mandate as a resounding one for the party’s agenda. And they followed it up with radical measures, be it the nullification of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and the reorganisation of the state into two union territories, or the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The government also took steps to strengthen its own powers through amendments to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or the National Investigative Agency Act, while taking steps which arguably weakened the powers of watchdog institutions such as the Central Information Commission or Human Rights Commissions.

But its actions, particularly in Kashmir and CAA, came at a cost. There was widespread criticism, both domestically and internationally. The task of Indian diplomacy became tougher, as it set out to convince a skeptical world that these actions were not authoritarian or discriminatory in nature.

But 2019 was not all sunshine for the BJP. As the year ended, state polls in Haryana (where the BJP emerged as the single largest party but got fewer seats than it had expected), Maharashtra (where its oldest ally, Shiv Sena, walked out to form a government with the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress), and Jharkhand (where the BJP lost to an opposition alliance) showed that Indian democracy retained its character to surprise and check a powerful party. It also revealed the distinction between national and state polls — where voters were clearly prioritising local leaders, local issues when it came to polls which determined who would govern state capitals.

As the year ends, the BJP will be satisfied at redefining the rules of Indian politics to access power yet again in Delhi. It will be satisfied at the opportunity to push its goals, helped by a legislative majority, strong executive power, and judicial verdicts (particularly the Ram Janmabhoomi order). It will however be concerned about the economic slowdown and its potential impact on electoral performance, as it will be about the erosion of power at the state-level, which will complicate Modi’s task of governance. The Opposition will look back at this year with regret and dismay, having lost yet another election and got relegated to the margins. But it will draw hope from protests against the CAA and how the economic downturn could eventually pave the way for voters looking for an alternative. But as both forces look back, 2019’s biggest political takeaway is the return of Narendra Modi and the BJP to power, in its strongest ideological avatar ever.


    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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