If the General Election were to be held now, the BJP will be in for a rude shock. This is the biggest takeaway from the results of the Assembly elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and the panchayat polls in Uttar Pradesh. The Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party have done pretty well in the heartland, while anti-BJP satraps routed the saffron party in non-Hindi-speaking states. Assam is an exception, of course, but it is only an exception. And even this exception has a lot to do with the politics of religious identity, but more about it later.
Is this the 2011 moment for the BJP? This is the primary question that begs an answer. Just two years after an impressive victory — re-election of the Manmohan Singh government and rout of the NDA — UPA-II began unravelling in 2011, reeling under the corruption baggage of UPA-I. Along with corruption allegations, a big setback for the UPA was the 2010 Commonwealth Games fiasco, which turned out to be a cause for national humiliation. The thin-skinned, post-colonial people, obviously, could not brook the scale of the disgrace brought in by the corrupt conductors of the international mela. There began the end of the UPA, which got hastened by Hazare, Ramdev, Swamy, Kejriwal & Co, ably promoted by infighting and leaks from the government, and the real force-multiplier — the TV media.
Well, the Commonwealth Games was only a ludicrous example of an inept government inviting its own demise. But the Covid management failure is a national tragedy of unseen proportions, forcing India to seek global help with a hat in hand. Now, Kejriwal is in power, Hazare is in his village, Swamy is a BJP parliamentarian, Ramdev is heading an FMCG giant and there are no crusaders, no flag-waving messiahs, no activist-anchors urging their viewers to become volunteers; there are only wailing orphans, gasping patients and a nation in mourning. The international media are covering our Covid wards and crematoria better, for some of us are scared to step in fearing infection and death, and the rest do not want to tell the real story.
Yet, the message of the lockdown misery and the ineptitude thereafter seems to have seeped into the masses of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and some of the UP panchayats. The vote against the BJP in these states is definitely a vote against the inefficiency of the Central government and the BJP leadership, which took on the local satraps in a one-on-one tackle. Nowhere, except perhaps in Assam, did the BJP fight on the strength of its local unit. It was the Central leadership that fought the local anti-BJP politician. And in these Assembly elections, the people got an opportunity to express their displeasure at what the Delhi High Court termed the failure of the Indian State. That, in fact, is the major contributing factor towards the loss of vote share for the BJP in West Bengal and Kerala. While the party lost about two per cent votes from its tally in 2019 in West Bengal, it lost over three per cent and the only seat it held in Kerala.
It was not religious polarisation that won the General Election for the BJP in 2014 but the promise of “achhe din” — a well-marketed Gujarat model of development. Hindutva was not even an add-on. In 2019, of course, the Pulwama attack and the Balakot counter-strike scored over all other issues. In the height of war-like fever, all other issues and particularly the Opposition leadership seemed insignificant. But in 2021, there is only one issue — Covid. The Central government’s report card is as miserable as the death tally of the second surge. The Central government did not come across as any better than its local opponent. In fact, in Kerala, despite facing disgraceful corruption allegations, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan sailed through because his performance during the pandemic was exceptional. His government’s management helped reduce the number of fatalities and his Covid kits and welfare pension ensure that nobody goes hungry during days of joblessness. This was in stark contrast to the news trickling in from Delhi, the seat of the Central government, or from the Hindi heartland. The Gujarat model does not hold good any longer; from now on the BJP would be judged on Covid management.
Once again, these elections proved that Ram cannot win the BJP an election without promise of prosperity, good governance or minority consolidation. It is advantageous for the BJP if Muslims en bloc vote for the Opposition because only then can it successfully play its own Hindutva identity card. For instance in Assam, the Congress’ alliance with Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front came in as a godsend for the BJP. Apart from all the organisational inefficiencies of the Congress, its alliance with the Muslim party helped the BJP bring in a counter-consolidation. It did not work in West Bengal because Muslims were voting not for a cleric but for Mamata Banerjee. If Mamata had attempted the Left-Congress blunder of aligning with a Muslim cleric, the results would have been closer to those in Assam.
Minority consolidation or overt appeasement triggers Hindutva sentiments and in its absence the BJP is forced to fight elections on issues of governance or even sub-nationalism, as was evident in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and even Kerala. Suddenly, a vote against the BJP acquired the character of a vote in favour of Bengali/Tamil/Malayali pride accentuated by inherent Indian diversities. The Left in Kerala deftly turned the minorities’ anxiety regarding Hindutva into sub-regional nationalism and a celebration of Malayali-ness. In Tamil Nadu, despite aligning with the ruling party and therefore winning four Assembly seats, the BJP’s vote share did not increase from that in previous elections. Clearly, governance matters more than the might of the Central government.
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