Narendra Modi should be now prepared to answer hard questions on economy, climate of hatred and Rafale.
Political scientists call it “self-correcting mechanisms” of electoral democracy. Just as Adam Smith’s famous hidden hand is supposed to correct distortions of market economy, competitive elections are supposed to correct the excesses of political systems. That is what the outcome of state assembly elections 2018 has done.
Auto-breaks have been triggered in a polity rapidly sliding into electoral authoritarianism, where all institutions, norms and constitutional freedoms were held hostage to the invincible cult of the Supreme Leader Narendra Modi. Suddenly, 2019 is an open race now.
First of all, the verdict has underlined the real agenda on which people vote. It has confirmed that agrarian crisis and rural distress is for real. Although the final equation for government formation in Madhya Pradesh remains unclear, there is a decisive swing away from the ruling BJP in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan as well as in Madhya Pradesh. The BJP’s losses in Malwa of Madhya Pradesh, eastern Rajasthan and central Chhattisgarh confirm that farmers’ anger has worked against the BJP, as it did in Gujarat.
The social break-up of the exit polls that captured the trend correctly shows that the BJP’s losses were disproportionately higher among the rural voters, especially farmers. These polls also confirm that the unemployed youth voted in a big way against the ruling party. All pre-election polls had identified jobs as the top electoral issue.
The results also attest that mandir didn’t click as an issue, despite aggressive campaigning by Yogi Adityanath. It may not be fair to draw this conclusion about the rest of the country, but we can say this much about the electoral agenda of the Hindi belt in 2019: Hindu na musalman, bas kisan aur jawan (Neither Hindu, nor Muslim; just farmers and soldiers).
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The result also sends another democratic message: money and media are necessary to win elections, but they are not sufficient. It is no secret that the BJP outspent its opponent by a ratio of at least 1:10. We know that it has received 95 per cent of the electoral funds collected through the uniquely opaque but legal route of electoral bonds.
As for the media, the less said the better. Suffice to say that the manner in which a large section of the ‘independent’ media has become a mouthpiece for the ruling party would go down as one of the most shameful chapters in the history of Indian democracy. It is also no secret that the BJP poured money into spawning rebel candidates and parties against its main rivals. All this did help the BJP, as it helped the TRS in Telangana. But the BJP’s defeat reminds us that you must connect to real people and real issues.
Third, the election shows the limits of personality cult. It would be unfair to conclude from these results that the Modi era is over. All the polls suggest that he was the most popular leader, way more popular than Rahul Gandhi and more acceptable than his own party. But it is safe to conclude that he can no longer swing the elections any which way and get any lamp post elected, as he did in the first two years of ascent to power.
His magic spell is broken, and he should be now prepared to answer hard questions about the economy, about the climate of hatred, about institutions and of course, about Rafale. The Congress’s most spectacular victory comes from Chhattisgarh where it did not have any clear leader, let alone someone who enjoyed a personality cult.
While this verdict has checked the hubris of the ruling establishment, it can also act as a corrective to the complacency in the opposition. The Congress’ failure to secure a majority in Madhya Pradesh and to win a thumping majority in Rajasthan demonstrates that the Congress cannot just sit back and wait for the Modi regime to melt down.
If the Congress could not fully capitalise on the palpable public anger against Vasundhara Raje’s government and widespread distress under Shivraj Chouhan’s rule, there is something seriously wrong with the party. For the last five years, the Congress was in the opposition, but was nowhere to be seen on the streets, carrying out an opposition’s role. Chhattisgarh was a different story, where the Congress leadership was active in launching grassroots movements and protests in the last five years.
Finally, the electoral outcome has shown the limits of alliance arithmetic. On paper, the Congress had stitched together the most powerful coalition in Telangana. On paper, the combined strength of Congress-TDP-CPI-TJS was much more than that of the TRS. Yet, the ill-conceived coalition with the party that opposed the formation of Telangana was clearly rejected by the people.
In Chhattisgarh, the Ajit Jogi-BSP coalition was supposed to trip the Congress. Yet, the people of Chhattisgarh rejected one of the most dubious middleman of state politics. The message is critical for attempts to put together a mahagathbandhan for 2019. Coalitions are useful but are no substitute for credibility. Elections are about selling a dream, creating a hope, generating a narrative. The emerging anti-Modi coalition does not have that as yet.
The BJP entered the road to 2019 with five trumps: Machine, Modi, Mandir, Media and Money. The outcome of this round of assembly elections puts the first three in perspective. The BJP’s organisational machine is still formidable, although not invincible. Modi is not out, but his popularity is definitely down. Mandir can excite the faithful but not the swing voter. It is also likely to change the other two.
The media barons would recognise the need to fine-tune their message. At least, one can hope for a reduction in the most brazen pro-regime propaganda. Similarly, big money will also not put all its eggs in one basket. The Congress and other opposition parties would begin to get a share of the money they need to stay in electoral fray. Lok Sabha elections 2019 would now be contested on a less uneven playing ground. The correction hasn’t come a day too soon.
The author is National President of Swaraj India.
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