WINDS OF CHANGE
Recent Assembly Election results suggest that the field is wide open in 2019, and a brand-new Prime Minister may not be out of the question
The bigger they are, the harder they fall. This old saying seems to be suddenly and scarily fitting the Bharatiya Janata Party like a glove.
Around four and a half years ago, the BJP had come to power riding on a massive ‘Modi wave’ as well as anti-incumbency sentiments against what was called a corruption-tainted, underperforming Congress-led UPA-II government. In the ensuing period, the BJP juggernaut was seen rolling over opposition forces in one assembly election after another.
In stark contrast, the Congress party was losing state after state to either the BJP and its allies or other regional powers. Reduced to a record-low 44 seats in the Lok Sabha after its drubbing in the 2014 general elections, the grand old party of India – increasingly accused by critics of lacking in strong leadership – seemed to be helplessly spiralling downwards towards political irrelevance.
The BJP’s avowed ambition of having a Congress-free India was looking eminently achievable a few seasons ago. In fact, many BJP leaders used to joke that Congress president Rahul Gandhi was their party’s best political ally, because as long as he led his party, the BJP could be assured of handily winning elections and staying on in power.
However, all that changed this month – irrefutably.
After the BJP badly lost the Karnataka byelections last month to the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) alliance, when talks about an imminent change in national political narrative first began making rounds, many BJP leaders had defiantly insisted that the assembly elections in December – not a mere bypoll – should be deemed the semi-finals ahead of 2019.
With three of the five states belonging to the Hindi heartland, the proverbial cow belt that had been a happy hunting ground of the saffron party more than any other, its leaders were overtly confident about an overall victory.
They were gravely mistaken.
By the end of the day on December 11, when the counting was all but over, the BJP had got a harsh reality check. And how.
In Chhattisgarh, where the BJP had been ruling for the past 15 years and was overly optimistic about winning a fourth consecutive term, the Congress won a staggering 68 seats out of 90, with the saffron party reduced to a meagre 15. This was a shocking turnaround from the 2013 elections when the BJP had won 49 and the Congress 39.
The next jolt came from Rajasthan, also a BJP-ruled state. While the Congress won 99 seats (compared to 21 five years ago), just short of the halfway mark of 101 in the 199 seats where polling was held this time, the BJP found itself languishing at a distant 73, a precipitous fall from the 163 seats it bagged in 2013. With its ally Rashtriya Lok Dal winning a seat and BSP – winner of six seats – announcing its support, the Congress was assured of wresting Rajasthan away from the BJP.
The ultimate big setback came from Madhya Pradesh, another long-time stronghold of the BJP where it had won the past three assembly elections. After a daylong see-saw battle, the Congress finally pipped the saffron party to the post by winning 114 seats, five more than its rival. And once again with the support of BSP, which won two seats, the Congress hit the simple majority mark. Back in 2013, the Congress had won only 58 seats and the BJP a whopping 165 in the 230-member House.
The marked changes in those numbers spoke volumes.
Noting the dismal performance of the BJP in the rural belts of these three Hindi heartland states, many political pundits pointed out that agrarian distress, particularly over low crop prices, played a major role in the eventual outcome of the assembly elections there.
That rang true, as the BJP won only around 61 seats from rural Rajasthan as against 141 in 2013. Similarly, in Chhattisgarh, the BJP won only a third of the number of rural seats it did five years ago. Promising farm loan waivers, the Congress saw its rural seat numbers soar from 20 to 91 in Rajasthan and hit the 59 mark in Chhattisgarh.
In Madhya Pradesh, too, it was the rural votes that helped Congress edge out BJP in a nail-biting finish.
The All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), which has vigorously protested against the agriculture-related policies of the BJP government over the past years, had warned that inaction would have electoral consequences.
"Clearly, the farm distress is now in the centre of the national politics. The 2019 elections will be contested on the issues facing by farmers," said Yogendra Yadav of Swaraj India, a part of AIKSCC. He added that the recent poll results proved beyond any doubt the prevalence of rural distress in the country.
Eminent agriculture economist Ashok Gulati pointed out that the BJP government was held guilty of failing to address the problem of falling crop prices. "The government did not put up priority for agriculture market reforms. There were more slogans and announcement...People who vote will not go by slogans but for what is pinching them right now," he said.
If farmers earn half a rupee for a kg of onion that was sold for Rs 20 in the markets, then something was “seriously wrong”, and the BJP did not even get close to righting it, Gulati rued.
"Last year, Mandsaur happened. What solution? Nothing! They will have to pay price," he said, referring to the police firing in the Mandsaur district of MP, which killed six farmers protesting against low crop prices.
However, most political experts and economists agree that distressed farmers are not the only one to have put brakes on the BJP’s electoral juggernaut. Rising fuel prices, the BJP’s failure to generate enough jobs in the country, and its poorly executed reforms in the form of demonetisation and Goods and Services Tax have been held to be equally significant factors.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi had raised all these issues to the hilt during his vigorous election campaigns in the poll-bound states.
The BJP has been putting on a brave front, with many of its leaders unwilling to see the losses as a referendum on the Modi government.
Noting that state elections are fought on entirely different issues, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said that the 2019 general elections would be fought on the plank of Prime Minister Modi’s performance, with the nation much more likely to go for his proven leadership rather an opportunely cobbled opposition coalition that would be shaky from the start.
Besides, Jaitley sought to underplay the importance of the Hindi heartland losses by reminding everyone that the BJP had lost the Lok Sabha elections in 2004 despite having won Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh just a year earlier.
However, Prime Minister Modi’s tweets stating that the poll results “will our resolve to work harder for the development of India” was indication enough that the BJP leadership was taking the losses with the grave seriousness that it needs to.
At present, it seems to be in an unenviable position. On the one hand it needs to keep the old support base, especially its ideological parent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, happy by assuring that the Hindutva agenda will not be sacrificed at the altar of development. On the other it has to make sure that the burgeoning youth and middle class of India are not led to believe that it is committed to Ram temple, cow protection and other forms of Hindu majoritarianism more than it is to creating jobs and other welfare schemes that could alleviate the everyday problems of the common people.
The Congress, however, has plenty of reasons to celebrate. The three victories in the Hindi heartland have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is back in the game as a true contender for the upcoming general elections. It no longer has to worry about playing second fiddle to regional players with the prospects of a united Opposition against the BJP looking brighter than ever before. Rahul Gandhi’s image as a political leader has certainly taken a turn for the better, with both the Congress party and the media projecting him as the driving force the of Congress’ victories in the cow belt.
However, the humiliating loss that Congress suffered in the hands of the Mizo National Front in the state of Mizoram, thereby losing its last bastion in the northeast, has supported the theory – propounded by many political analysts – that anti-incumbency has played a big role in the December elections.
They also seek to suggest that while these victories have provided the Congress with a template and hope to turn the tables on the BJP in 2019, they are far from guaranteeing the grand old party a return to power at the national level next year. Besides, the party’s inability to defend its incumbent governments has been cited as a major hurdle towards it becoming the most powerful political party of the country once again.
Meanwhile, there are other forces in regional India that are showing the promise and intent of leading a united Opposition against the BJP in 2019.
The TRS, led by Telengana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao, is one of them. At a time when the BJP lost its Hindi Heartland and the Congress its northeast bastion to anti-incumbency, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi rode on a pro-incumbency wave to hand a humiliating loss to “Praja Kutami”, a Congress-led alliance including the TDP, CPI and the Telangana Jana Samithi.
This scintillating victory made TRS chief K. Chandrashekhar Rao bold and confident enough to declare that he would play a crucial role in national politics.
This has led many political analysts to suggest that Biju Janata Dal boss and Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik could be the most eligible candidate to lead a united Opposition, or the long-vaunted Third Front, against the BJP. After all, he is arguably the most successful chief minister of Odisha, having won four consecutive terms and well poised to win a fifth. Thanks to his squeaky-clean image and intellectual prowess, he is not only Odisha’s favourite political leader but also one of the most respected chief ministers of the country.
If Prime Minister Modi can claim to have made a model state out of Gujarat, Naveen can certainly take credit for making Bhubaneswar the smartest (read technology-enabled) city and Odisha one of the most investment-friendly states of the country. At a time when divisive politics is prevalent across the nation, Naveen is focusing on nation-building through sports. He has successfully managed to make Bhubaneswar one of the premier sporting hubs of the nation by making Odisha the first state in the country to sponsor a World Cup event.
Plenty has already been written over the past few years about the unique political nous and administrative abilities that have enabled Naveen to rule his state uninterruptedly since the turn of the millennium. Unlike most of his rivals and contemporaries, Naveen seems to have obviously cracked the anti-incumbency code.
With his policy of equidistance from both the BJP and Congress, Naveen has also proven his boldness as a politician of principles – a quality that has not been lost on the people of Odisha who have time and again chosen him as their leader.
Naveen seems to have delegated his responsibilities towards his state in a manner that has rarely been seen elsewhere in the country. Surrounding himself with the right kind of officials, most notable being his Private Secretary, V Karthikeyan Pandian, one of the finest bureaucrats of the country, Naveen has made sure that his government’s plans and schemes are executed meticulously and in good time.
For these reasons, among others, a rising number of political pundits are subscribing to the notion that if Indian politics truly needs a change from the Congress-or-BJP cycle, the man for the job might just be found in Bhubaneswar.
NEW CONGRESS CMS: EXPERIENCE OVER YOUTH
After its triple triumph, when the time to pick chief ministers came, the Congress seemed spoilt for choice. It had an assortment of veteran, tried-and-tested leaders and younger, highly promising ones at its disposal.
Eventually, after multiple rounds of meetings between Congress president Rahul Gandhi and the contenders, it was agreed that experience should get precedence over youth.
Seventy-two-year-old Kamal Nath – the senior-most member of the Lok Sabha, who has been union minister in different Congress-led governments and held many organisational posts within the grand old party over his nearly 40-year-long political career – was picked over 47-year-old Jyotiraditya Scindia, despite the latter’s rising popularity, to be the new chief minister of Madhya Pradesh.
Rajasthan proved to be a tad more complicated. State Congress chief Sachin Pilot and his supporters made a serious case for the 41-year old to get the top job, considering his success in galvanising the party after its 2013 loss. Yet that job eventually went to 67-year-old Ashok Gehlot, the man who has already been chief minister of the state twice, apart from having served as Union Minister and party General Secretary. However, Pilot agreed to serve as Deputy Chief Minister given Congress’s eagerness to keep the Gujjar community – a demographically and electorally dominant one in the state – happy ahead of next year’s general elections.
As India First went to press, a decision on the new Chief Minister for Chhattisgarh had yet to be made.