Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management
As three states slip out of its hold, the BJP’s hubris will be shaken, but it is unlikely, in the under six months remaining before the 2019 General Election, that the leadership will be able to significantly reinvent itself, or that the party will be able to reposition its core messages. Indeed, if past elections are any signs of what is to come, the current and adverse trend — from the BJP’s perspective — is likely to snowball. Of course, the party will attempt some desperate measures to accommodate, adapt to, or manipulate voter-expectations (given the short time available, an excessive emphasis on the last of these is most probable). The challenge, however, is likely to prove overwhelming. For one thing, once a wave begins to gather at this stage, with elections just around the corner, a change of direction in public opinion is difficult to engineer; the trend will most probably swell further. Moreover, everything that is said and done by the government from this time on is going to be dismissed by evidently disenchanted voters as an ‘election stunt’.
It may, of course, be argued that state elections are not an accurate barometer for the outcome of a General Election. That the ‘Modi wave’ and the PM’s personal charisma will come into play at the national level, whereas local leaders and state government failures were decisive in the Assembly elections. This, largely, is wishful thinking. In the first place, the PM was deeply invested in these Assembly elections and campaigned furiously — as, indeed, he did in all Assembly elections over the past four and a half years. The BJP was at the forefront to attribute past victories to him. In defeat, the blame cannot be passed on entirely to others. There is certainly a measure of weakening in the Modi wave.
Crucially, the wave was always over-estimated. The reduction of the Congress to a mere 44 seats in Parliament, and the NDA’s brute 336, with the BJP accounting for a clear majority with 282 (52 per cent), demonstrated a crushing defeat for India’s grand old party. But the first past the post system has its idiosyncrasies. The underlying reality, often ignored in the NDA’s triumphalism, is that the BJP secured just 31 per cent of the total votes polled — the lowest ever for a party to secure a majority in Parliament. The Congress, on the other hand, with 19.3 per cent of votes, was able to capture just 8 per cent of the total seats. A difference of 11.7 per cent of votes resulted in a gap of 44 per cent in seats garnered.
That 11.7 per cent is the gap that has to be covered. A few percentage points in favour of the Congress, and a few against the BJP, and circumstances will change radically — even though they may not be reversed.
What was thought to be the Modi wave, moreover, also subsumed a groundswell of rage against the Congress. That surge has dissipated. In its place is a growing discontent with, and a loss of faith in, the present regime’s policies and postures. In many ways, Modi’s ‘New India’ appears to be going the way of Vajpayee’s ‘Shining India’.
At a critical point of the electoral cycle, and despite the near total control of all media, the people are rejecting the regime’s message. For all their great felicity in the manipulation of the press, television and social media, Modi, Amit Shah and the BJP are beginning to lose the war of perceptions. And for no great virtue or attainment of their own, Rahul Gandhi and the Congress will be the principal beneficiaries.
Voter behaviour is not influenced significantly by sage assessments of policy, by the niceties of macroeconomic data, or by actual successes and failures of a government (and official claims on each of these are themselves dubious). Commentators often speak of ‘voter sentiment’, and the choice of words is significant. It is ‘sentiment’, irrational and emotive reactions to intangibles in the social, political and economic environment that are decisive in any election.
Crucially, the Indian voter has long demonstrated a proclivity — particularly in polarising elections, and 2019 is sure to be such a one — to vote against, rather than for, particular parties and candidates. Rahul Gandhi’s purported image, the BJP’s repeated ‘Pappu’ jibes, the sustained campaign focusing on his apparent unsuitability for the position of India’s Prime Minister, all this will not matter if public exasperation with the Modi regime — justifiable or otherwise — continues to mount. Moreover, this image has itself changed — gradually over the past year, and dramatically in the immediate aftermath of the latest Assembly election victories — making Rahul Gandhi look far more credible than ever before; again, justifiable or otherwise.
As with the terminal stages of the second UPA government under Manmohan Singh’s leadership, the current dispensation appears to have played out — often overplayed — all its cards. There has been a rather frantic effort in recent months to raise temperatures around the Hindutva platform and on the Ram temple issue, but the outcome of the present elections is proof that this has failed to strike any sympathetic chord among the majority of voters. It is of significance that the Assemblies that the BJP has lost in this round are in its vital Hindi, and Hindutva, heartland.
Of course, the committed cadre of the Hindutva groupings, including the lunatic fringe that has brought the Modi government to disrepute, but has at no stage been significantly restrained by the regime, will throw its all into the Modi 2019 campaign. But this is a relatively inelastic base. If it is to recapture even a shadow of 2014, the BJP needs the fence sitters, it needs an anti-Congress wave, it needs to build a rage against the ‘other’. The first two of these are unlikely to be available. The third, then, will be its fall-back option; but the people are clearly tired of it.
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