Sunday, 14 August, 2022
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Five predictable results make for an uncertain 2019

BJP's leadership has earned itself a post-Bihar reprieve, but it hasn't brought them a more convincing nationwide claim in 2019.

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The more precise description for the results of the state elections on Thursday is, five foregone conclusions. A more illustrative one, is like a championship where teams end up performing exactly in keeping with their rankings, or seedings.

The absence of a surprise oddly enhances the significance of these results. Because two of India’s biggest political forces, the BJP and Congress, even if as a distant second, were searching for surprises to beat the form-book. The BJP wanted to show a substantively expanding foothold in West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, hoping to build on its increased 2014 vote percentages, decisively emerging as the new Congress. The Congress, in turn, was attempting to make a return in West Bengal with a partner it has fought through history and in Tamil Nadu by embracing an old friend it had dumped. Both national parties failed in this. To that narrow extent, we are back to the pre-election status quo.

On the wider ideological battlefront, both combatants are back in the trenches, with very little territory exchanging hands, besides Assam, which was expected. Kerala, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu have their own significance for sure, but do not alter the big picture for the BJP. While its leadership has earned itself a desperately needed post-Bihar reprieve, it hasn’t brought them the promise of significantly better numbers in the Rajya Sabha, or a more convincing nationwide claim in 2019.

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If politics was simpler, it wouldn’t be so exciting. The BJP can celebrate that their objective of “Congress-mukt Bharat” is now nearly achieved and Rahul Gandhi has been delivered another humiliation. But, with the Congress already down to 44 seats in the Lok Sabha in 2014, does the loss of a couple more, less important (and generally not particularly cash-producing states) strengthen the BJP very much? Not when the more important of the two states, Kerala, has been lost to a grouping that is even more the BJP’s adversary. The Congress may still be willing to make back-room deals or help the passage of many Bills (including GST going ahead), but the Left will continue to define its politics in terms of its enmity to “communal forces”.

In one of those cruel paradoxes, while the Congress continues to be the Left’s electoral adversary in Kerala, the two rivals have had a fairly peaceful relationship lately. The BJP is the Left’s physical enemy, and both spill blood in the backstreet. In every state, the Congress has failed. But other than in Assam, it has ceded space to political parties or groupings equally hostile to the BJP if not more. You might argue that J Jayalalithaa and the AIADMK are quite happy to do business with the BJP. But the truth of Tamil Nadu is, that while they have retained power, their numbers are very severely reduced. Like Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, she would want to be compensated by the BJP in kind for any favours. But her fate is no longer at the mercy of the NDA government’s caged parrot. The Supreme Court is to decide on her acquittal by the high court and the prosecuting agency is the Karnataka government, which will continue to be with the Congress at least in the crucial months when the appeal is decided. The Tamil Nadu story is not over yet. DMK has not won power, but has returned from the graveyard. It has a successor to the supreme leader going ahead. Jayalalithaa doesn’t, and she may feel that lack much earlier if the apex court asks her to return to jail. Can the BJP “fix” it for her? I would say no. The Supreme Court may be questioned for being overly active or interventionist in areas of the executive, but no, it isn’t a Their Masters’ Voice, as Uttarakhand has shown.

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Net-net, therefore, the Congress has declined further, the BJP has Assam but Mamata Banerjee, and to some extent Jayalalithaa have emerged as adversarial powers and while the Left is decimated and nearly buried in Bengal, its more conservative wing is strengthened with Kerala joining little Tripura in the bag.

The results make great impact on the fortunes of some others. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, for example, can see his momentum broken. Banerjee has grown as a more powerful rallying point for the secular forces on her own, while he shares the space with Lalu Prasad. He has the advantage of better communication in the Hindi heartland, but the Bengal chief minister is also no Jayalalithaa or M Karunanidhi. She can pretty much hold her own in Hindi as we heard during her election campaign with the most endearingly colourful ditties: thanda-thanda, cool-cool, Trinamool, Trinamool or Gulshan hai to phool khilenge, zinda rahe to phir milenge. My favourite: Roshni chand se hoti hai sitaron se nahin, dosti Trinamool se hoti hai, hazaron se nahin. She has built a qualitatively different equation with Arvind Kejriwal and, together they make the peskiest adversaries to both BJP and Congress.

This is the most far-reaching implication of these results, more important than the Assam reprieve for the BJP. It is possible – even likely if Kejriwal does well in Punjab next year – that there may be two political groupings opposing the BJP in 2019. And if they come together against the common adversary, the leadership will not automatically devolve to the Congress by right. Kumar, Banerjee, Kejriwal and who knows by then even Mayawati will have a better claim than Rahul Gandhi. In any case, it will be a formidable bunch of rivals. Narendra Modi has to now make a choice. Either he softens his politics at least in non-Congress states and improves his equation with Banerjee and the dominant Uttar Pradesh party in 2017, besides reassuring Jayalalithaa. Or risk having everybody ranged against him.

Completing the destruction of the Congress is his ideological priority and you can’t see Kejriwal accepting a modus vivendi even if Modi, uncharacteristically, bent over backwards. Five predictable results have contributed to making the politics leading up to 2019 more unpredictable, the only certainty for the moment seeming to be the terminal decline of Rahul Gandhi’s leadership.

Also read: Why Modi doesn’t feature in a list of India’s reformist prime ministers


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