The results of the 2018 Assembly elections, especially those in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, are a wake-up call for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his entire council of ministers, advisers and bureaucratic executive. The ruling BJP has suffered a rude jolt owing to its abject neglect of core constituencies. While it opportunistically comes on the side of Hindus after blundering over issues like Sabarimala — or suddenly realises, as in Uttar Pradesh, that smashan-versus-qabristan could be a poll plank and then, recently, finds merit in changing all Muslim-era names of cities — it has largely ignored fundamental concerns of the majority community. After a passing mention of the promise to make the state withdraw from temple control in the manifesto for Karnataka, it seems to have junked the agenda altogether. In the wake of the onslaught of judicial activism on Hindu practices, wherein the Supreme Court not only tried to force changes in rituals but also came down heavily on customs, the executive led by the BJP stood like a mute spectator.
On the economic front, the reforms have been so incremental, cautious and sluggish, thanks to a circumspect former lawyer who steers the policies, that citizens could not feel a qualitative change in their lives. But then, why blame Arun Jaitley for governance that is wholly decided by the prime minister? It is Modi who should have realised long ago that the harping on the rhetoric of “ghareeb aadmi” neither helps the poor nor is it an effective election strategy in the long run. With several welfare schemes aimed at the have-nots helping the lowest stratum of the economy sustain but not excel, anti-incumbency was bound to return as the perennial sentiment in this class of society. At the same time, due to the markets not taking off — the more than 7.3% GDP growth notwithstanding — there is little the middle class can look up to either.
Did not the local issues determine these election outcomes? Yes and no. While Vasundhara Raje had successfully miffed even RSS swayamsevaks whose Hindutva agenda she came in the way of — most glaringly her refusal to accommodate Pakistani Hindus in Rajasthan — there was no dissatisfaction on the ground about Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Can Raman Singh be blamed for cornering Maoist terrorists and should he have been punished for that? The BJP did pay a price for ignoring the advice to remove Raje for the past two years. Even if Chouhan wrests Madhya Pradesh in a photo-finish, the victory would be nothing to gloat about. He was advised to deny nominations to 80% of sitting MLAs. Growing cold feet in the apprehension of an uncontrollable rebellion in the ranks, he could garner enough courage to remove just 40% of incumbent legislators. Finally, the hegemonic attitude of many local BJP leaders and the monotony of 15 years of rule claimed their price.
Telangana and Mizoram were foregone conclusions. Deep inside the first state, the people could not have tolerated N Chandrababu Naidu and his TDP who fought the formation of the new state tooth and nail. While this Telugu party managed some seats along the borders of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana largely thanked K Chandrasekhar Rao and his TRS once again for fighting against years of neglect by the coastal areas of the undivided state. Besides, Rao’s freebies and doles played a major role. Since the death of YS Rajasekhara Reddy, the Congress has stood no chance in either Andhra Pradesh or Telangana. The MNF’s win Mizoram was expected, too. Lal Thanhawla faced anti-incumbency and was seen as leading a party locally that could never align with the Centre, which every political party in the Northeast barring the Congress wants. Yesterday’s insurgents will now be legislators and executives in Mizoram, albeit with a sobering effect if they seek the Union government’s cooperation in developing the province.
Roughly four months, with stormy winter and budget sessions of Parliament in between and the near impossibility of a bill that can provision the construction of the Sangh’s dream, a temple on the legally disputed plot in Ayodhya, is no way enough to initiate another round of reforms that would be so historic that voters will once again flock to the BJP. The period 2014-19 is an opportunity lost. The chase for elusive voters of other parties has left the core disillusioned while failing to retain the additional votes. This hunt for others was akin to the proverbial building of castles in the air — with the foundational bricks of Hindutva and big-ticket liberalisation kept aside. The charisma of Modi alone could pull off victories until the Gujarat election when the factor started proving insufficient for the BJP. A party that is not focussed can get another term after April-May 2019 only if miracles happen in the interregnum or extreme political tricks are employed.