In politics as in cricket, the better side wins. It is credit that must necessarily be shared between the leader/captain and members.
In politics as in cricket, the better side wins. It is credit that must necessarily be shared between the leader/captain and members of the team. The BJP has won in Madhya Prad-esh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, led by its star campaigner Narendra Modi and party mastermind Amit Shah.
The elections in the five states just ended, with the advantage firmly with the BJP, is in part a gift of the Congress and in part the extraordinary resilience of Mr Modi in reinventing his message by tweaking the details to make it a new, fresh package for voters, who were seriously disgruntled over the chronic cost of living crisis, unemployment and meagre poverty alleviation programmes.
In all three states, the fight was a one-on-one combat between the Congress and the BJP. The basic common flaw in the Congress strategy was to believe it could win on its own without the benefit of the multiplier effect that could have delivered more seats if partners from the Indian National Inclusive Developmental Alliance (INDIA) collective had been accommodated. In every state, the advantage of the exclusion of allies worked in the BJP’s favour.
The setback for the Congress, contrary to its president Mallikarjun Kharge’s initial reaction, is not “temporary”. It iterates the biggest problem that is second nature to the Congress, superciliousness combined with complacence born of over-confidence. In other words, the Congress delivered to the BJP an advantage it did not have even three months before the elections were announced. It banked on its old guard to deliver a fresh victory, when what was needed was an infusion of new blood, within the party and from allies. The failure of the central leadership was underestimating Mr Modi’s capacity to renew his image by recasting it in a slightly different new mould.
Mr Modi has summarised the victories as the outcome of “the politics of good governance and development”. The subtext is voters have chosen the party that has promised the most. An expansion of the cryptic catchphrase could be read as the “guarantees” Mr Modi promised on the campaign trail, in violation of the Model Code of Conduct and topping of promises by the Congress in direct cash transfers to beneficiaries in the three states, which convinced voters that the BJP was a better choice.
The “guarantees” included the five-year extension of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana, a Covid-19 programme that in the worst of times was repeatedly extended by three months on the plea that the Modi government couldn’t sustain it forever. It was a politically masterly stroke, because it allowed Mr Modi as the helmsman to seamlessly link it to his version of caste politics, as a combination of the poor, women, youth, farmers and socially backward. The Pradhan Mantri Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group Mission worth Rs 24,000 crores worked like a charm in Chhattisgarh, with its promise of safe housing, clean drinking water and sanitation, improved access to education, health and nutrition, road and telecom connectivity, and sustainable livelihood opportunities. Then there were the top-ups on programmes under implementation in erstwhile Congress-ruled states that became part of the development agenda rather than financially unsustainable freebies when Mr Modi endorsed them.
Elections are moments when voters assess what the ruling party has done for them and what they can expect in future. The “double engine sarkar” model is therefore likely to be a winner most times, if backed by five-year guarantees and the probability that Mr Modi will win a third term in 2024.
The perception that the majority of voters, most of whom are Hindus or co-opted as Hindus, are moved by the ideological appeal of decolonisation and the renaming of places to erase the “thousand years” of Muslim subjugation is as likely to be correct as it is likely to be an exaggeration.
When 5 kg of foodgrains per person is offered to 800 million people out of a 1.4 billion total population, the most probable reason for voting for the BJP is the guarantee.
Elections are times when voters bet on future prospects. Mr Modi’s “guarantee” that India would become one of the world’s three wealthiest economies in the near future is a vision designed to raise hopes that the rising tide would lift the poor and the relatively poor out of poverty. The Congress made promises of development, but failed to lay out a grand and shiny vision of the future. It promised to deliver productive changes that would lead to faster development and release from poverty, but it packaged the future as tough, bleak and boring.
The win in Telangana divides India into two parts: the BJP-mukt South of the Vindhyas and nearly Congress-mukt North, barring Himachal Pradesh. The driving force behind the Telangana victory was the energetic Revanth Reddy, who committed to the fight in ways that Kamal Nath and Bhupesh Baghel failed. In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress outsourced the election to Kamal Nath. Instead of a thorough cleanup, it allowed him to decide unilaterally on candidates. It allowed him to reject an alliance proposal from the Samajwadi Party, which cost the Congress in terms of seats. In Rajasthan, though Ashok Gehlot fought hard and hostilities with Sachin Pilot were contained, the voter decided a change as usual was better than endorsing the Congress for a second time. Mr Gehlot was allowed to keep the old and dismiss the idea of an alliance with the AAP. In Chhattisgarh, Bhupesh Baghel was popular but his teammates were not and the Congress failed to counter the Modi appeal.
The meeting of the INDIA collective on December 6 called by Mr Kharge is likely to be stormy. Partners like the Trinamul Congress are justifiably critical and annoyed, while Sharad Pawar is clearly disappointed. A choice and a decision awaits the alliance and Mr Kharge: will the Congress acknowledge that there is, as of now, no natural leader of the collective? The party is in no position to claim primacy. It urgently needs to repair its relationships with the Samajwadi Party and AAP, if these regional parties are willing to take the risk of giving the Congress a chance.
The Congress’ failures in Rajasthan, Chhatt-isgarh and Madhya Pradesh have made it tougher for the regional parties in opposition to the BJP to hold on to their bases in 2024. Across the territory north of the Vindhyas, the BJP won 178 seats out of 225 in the 10 Hindi heartland states in 2019. A weak Congress could be a liability with the fight for seats in 2024 getting harder after Mr Modi has surged back as an extraordinary vote-winner.