Prime Minister Narendra Modi was warmly welcomed at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi after the double-edged victory in the Maharashtra and Haryana assembly elections Thursday, but interestingly, party president and Home Minister Amit Shah, was not.
“Bharat Mata ki jai,” Shah said, exhorting the audience to respond in kind. But there wasn’t a loud response. “Arrey bhai, you have won two states,” Shah had to add, before his audience responded enthusiastically.
PM Modi’s glitter, on the other hand, remains intact. Here are three reasons why.
First, within hours of the results, the master communicator was reaching out to his voter to explain what happened, why the BJP had failed to get a majority in Haryana (40 seats in a house of 90) and had done worse in Maharashtra (104 seats in a house of 288, down from 122 in 2014).
Modi congratulated chief ministers M.L. Khattar and Devendra Fadnavis, and described their performances as “exceptional and unprecedented,” sending the message that in good times as well as bad, the leader would always publicly support his team.
In contrast, there was not one word from Congress president Sonia Gandhi or her influential son, Rahul Gandhi. With Haryana’s Hoodas openly in revolt, Rahul had attended two rallies during the campaign, while his mother had cancelled even the one she was supposed to attend.
Thursday evening, the Congress high command was silent. Considering the Congress had done so well after so long, perhaps its workers needed a pat on their backs? But party workers had to be content with Anand Sharma insisting that the Congress fightback in both states was the beginning of a mass movement.
Second, when Modi swept the Lok Sabha polls in Haryana six months ago, the party won all 10 Lok Sabha seats with 58.21 per cent of the vote share. But as he focuses on his building his world image as a statesman in his second term – he is travelling to Saudi Arabia again on 29 October – the PM’s reliance on party president Amit Shah has grown even more.
If arrogance is what cost the BJP, especially in Haryana, where all except the chief minister and his deputy lost their deposits and the vote share has come down by 22 per cent from the Lok Sabha elections, then surely Amit Shah should get the message?
In his own, elliptical way, that’s what the PM was doing. Certainly, it was too soon to put his closest aide and confidante Shah on notice, but by having present and former party presidents sit on stage at the BJP headquarters – Amit Shah, J.P. Nadda, Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari – Modi was both signalling a united front (despite persistent rumours that Gadkari was being sidelined) as well as warning Shah of signs of trouble.
Third, Modi realises very clearly that if he falls or fails, it will be on the back of a slipping economy. He said as much at the BJP headquarters as he congratulated Fadnavis for keeping Maharashtra, pointing out that “political stability” was essential for India’s financial capital, Mumbai.
But if Modi doesn’t watch out, stagnating rural and urban demand could further aggravate political stress. Elections in Delhi – where Arvind Kejriwal has adopted Modi’s tactics of creating the perception of a strong leader – and Jharkhand in a few months from now will surely be a test on Modi’s handling of the economy.
In fact, the shabby state of the economy edged out the BJP’s employment of nationalist rhetoric around the scrapping of the special status of Jammu & Kashmir through Article 370 as well as slogans promising to protect the country from the poison of Pakistan next door.
This is surprising in Haryana, where the so-called Jat “martial race” (a term employed by the British to flatter those it appropriated to do its fighting) sends thousands of men to the armed forces. In the Lok Sabha election, three-time Congress candidate from Rohtak, Deepender Hooda found that early postal ballots normally sent by soldiers from the front were one big reason for his paper-thin margin of defeat.
So, what happened this time? Analysis by ThePrint’s Chitleen Sethi shows that both Jats and non-Jats have returned to the Congress as well as Dushyant Chautala’s Jannayak Janata Party (JJP). The incredible support for Khattar’s decision to computerise recruitments in government jobs and put an end to massive bribery and scandal, that was so evident during the Lok Sabha campaign, seems to have been overtaken by the deteriorating economy.
However, the fact that more people from the armed forces have died during Modi’s first term than the previous five years is still behind the curve and not feeding into politics, at least as of now.
As he travels to Saudi Arabia after Diwali, Modi has much to chew on.