More than Narendra Modi, the BJP’s poor performance is an indictment of BJP president Amit Shah.
After all, you only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.”
– Warren Buffett
Three months ago, Amit Shah, president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, said his party will rule India for the next 50 years. With the resounding defeat of the party in its key stronghold states, its prospects are in doubt for the general elections due in just five months.
Amit Shah and his party will offer various excuses to tell us that these results have nothing to do with the general elections. These are state elections, not national. There were local issues. There was anti-incumbency of several terms. The Congress made impossible farm loan waiver promises. Rajasthan does flip-flop every five years anyway.
Each one of these excuses belie what we have been told so far. We’ve been told the Bharatiya Janata Party is an indefatigable election “machine”. The rest – media, opposition, voters – are mere mortals. Whatever happened to Amit Shah’s election machine?
The old normal
Brand Modi and Chanakya Shah, we’ve been told since 2014, had changed the rules of the game. The old ways of looking at Indian elections did not apply anymore. In that case, the ‘cyclical’ anti-incumbency voting in Rajasthan should have given way to a permanent 50-year rule of the BJP. Amit Shah’s panna pramukhs and innovative caste strategies should have decimated the Congress in Rajasthan. Clearly, Shah has no special magical powers that can change the rules of the game. Indian politics stays the way it was before 2014.
Since 2014 we’ve been told Modi-Shah are building a Congress-mukt Bharat. These results may lead one to think that the BJP may well have hit its peak.
The vote is more against the BJP than for the Congress. Except for the promise of farm loan waivers and higher agriculture procurement prices, this is not a vote for the Congress. The Congress party’s efforts in these elections have improved only a bit – incrementally, not transformationally.
We’ll be told these elections are not about Narendra Modi, not about the national mood. But in 2013 they were, or so the BJP had said. Was it not a strategic blunder on the part of strategist Shah to make these elections local? Shouldn’t they have been about Modi-like elections in Uttar Pradesh or Gujarat? Or did Amit Shah think he’s the new vote-getting mass leader now?
We are told there was anti-incumbency in both Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Shouldn’t Shah have addressed that by changing the chief ministers? In all the states, there was anti-incumbency against sitting MLAs – not enough of them were changed. Considering how the BJP had swept Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh with two-third majority in 2013, MLA anti-incumbency was a major headache. But Shah chose not to change too many of them.
For all the claims about Amit Shah being a master strategist, he could do nothing about addressing upper caste angst over the SC/ST Act, or growing tribal disillusionment, or addressing the issues of farmers. While Shah won Uttar Pradesh partly by promising a farm loan waiver, in these states he allowed the Congress to run with that promise.
It is true that voters in these states have been careful to tell anyone who asked that they will still vote for Modi in 2019. This election was about state politics. That’s all the more reason why the results are a severe indictment of Amit Shah. Modi will soon fight his own big election, but we’re no longer sure if Amit Shah’s strategies can help him win that.
When the tide goes out
Under Amit Shah’s leadership, the BJP won many elections. In most of them, he was helped by wobbly incumbents, Brand Modi, a weak Congress, a divided opposition. A real Chanakya is one who can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, turning around impossible situations. When Brand Modi is a bit down, or you are defending three-term incumbents, that’s the sort of situation where an extraordinary politician proves his mettle.
Amit Shah’s leadership credentials have merited a revision since the Gujarat assembly election last year, when the BJP won a majority but shed its numbers despite having gained power at the Centre. A victory is a victory, we were told. Bypolls are local bypolls with no Modi factor, we were told.
In Karnataka, the BJP could not win a majority despite a divided opposition. Instead, it managed to bring the divided opposition together, seal their alliance and weaken the BJP’s prospects in Karnataka’s Lok Sabha seats.
With Tuesday’s results, we have a new Amit Shah emerging, one who’s no longer able to win elections as resoundingly as he did soon after 2014. Maybe he was never the great strategist he was made out to be, only riding high on the Modi wave.
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