An unambiguous message to the BJP from the state elections: It’s time for you to go.
The Congress party has much to celebrate in the five state election results that came on Tuesday. There were resounding victories in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, and a clear, if close, win in Madhya Pradesh. Telangana and Mizoram were defeats, but not entirely unexpected. On the whole, the electorate has sent an unambiguous message to the BJP: It’s time for you to go.
There were common themes everywhere: The people are hurting after four and a half years of misconceived policies, airy speechmaking and failed delivery. Political rhetoric has not matched prosaic reality. Farmers are in real distress, jobs are not available for the young, the economy has stalled. Achhe din is nowhere in sight.
The big trends are clear. The voters are tired of failed promises and jumlas. There is no point doctoring statistics and manipulating GDP numbers if people know in their own lives that they are doing badly. PR can only take you so far. Those who bought into Modi’s oratorical salesmanship have realised they have bought an empty package. They’re not going to keep buying it.
Take a look at the real issues that mattered to voters in the three Hindi heartland states. A staggering 75 per cent of Rajasthan’s population is rural and more than half (53 per cent) of all households in Rajasthan own agricultural land. An estimated 90 per cent have not received MSP for their crops. While the Congress-governed Punjab ensured 84 per cent procurement, the BJP government in Rajasthan is the worst performer with only 4 per cent wheat procured by the government. In Madhya Pradesh, where agriculture employs nearly 70 per cent of the workforce, procurement prices for onions and pulses have collapsed and some 46 per cent of agrarian households are debt ridden.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 21,000 farmers committed suicide in Madhya Pradesh in the past 16 years, of which the BJP has been in power in the state for over 14. While farm suicides dropped by 10 per cent elsewhere in the country in two years to 2016, MP saw a 21per cent jump. More than 1,900 farmers and farm labourers committed suicide in the state between February 2016 and February 2017. Similarly, about 13,000 farmers have committed suicide in Chhattisgarh under the BJP government.
Unemployment remains another key issue. Some 55 per cent of Rajasthan’s population is below 25 years, but the BJP government has been unable to provide employment to the young; according to the CAG, there are 33 lakh unemployed youth in the state. The only progress made was in the level of promises: While in the last election, the BJP had promised to create 15 lakh jobs, this time the BJP promised to create 50 lakh jobs. Since they hadn’t come close to fulfilling their original promise, the new one lacked all credibility.
The total number of job seekers from Rajasthan registered with the National Career Services (NCS) department of the government is 8,57,316. As of 31 March, 2018, the total number of job vacancies available (in all sectors) in the state was only 12,854 – so just 1 per cent of the unemployed could have found jobs. If they had turned to the MGNREGA scheme instead, there was no joy to be had. Last year, nearly 77 lakh persons in Rajasthan demanded work but only 65 lakh were actually hired. And Rajasthan also provided one of the lowest daily wages under MGNREGA at Rs. 136.84 per day compared to the national average of Rs. 169.45 per day.
Madhya Pradesh fares even worse: Of the 14.1 lakh youth unemployed in the state, nearly 12.9 lakh are educated unemployed. A job vacancy for some 200 peons in the state government (a position requiring just an 8th standard pass) attracted 1.3 lakh applicants, including over 200 doctorate-degree holders and thousands of post-graduates. This is not as surprising as it sounds, since the percentage of educated unemployed in Madhya Pradesh rose from 79.60 per cent in 2015 to 85.74 per cent by the end of December 2016. As per information provided in the state assembly, on an average only 17,600 jobs have been created every year in the past 14 years of BJP rule.
Add to this a number of corruption scandals, notably Vyapam and the Narmada Plantation Scam in Madhya Pradesh and the Rs 36,000 crore PDS Scam-Nan Ghotala in Chhattisgarh, not to mention the fact that chit fund companies in Chhattisgarh duped over 46,000 investors to the tune of over Rs 343 crore on the BJP’s watch, and the negatives kept mounting. With so many negatives, and very little positive to show for themselves, the BJP governments were thoroughly discredited. No wonder the BJP is so upset today: The voters gave them a triple talaaq.
There were doubts in some people’s minds as to whether voters would see the Congress as a credible alternative. The party dispelled those concerns by mounting an effective, united and coherent campaign in each state, overcoming all talk of factionalism. Rahul Gandhi’s energetic leadership of the campaign effort and his 80 public meetings in all five states have meant that he has marked the first anniversary of his leadership of the party with a decisive victory. He acknowledged the triumph with a sober and statesmanlike press conference, which conveyed that he was conscious of the responsibilities his party has taken on and determined to shoulder them seriously.
While the defeat of the three BJP governments (and the ten-year-old Congress government in Mizoram) confirms that anti-incumbency remains a potent force in Indian politics, the success of the TRS in Telangana suggests that judicious welfarism and strong appeals to identity still work. Other parties will no doubt have taken note.
There are no grounds for complacency, but there are plenty for optimism. The voters have signalled that they are tired of being taken for a ride by the BJP and are open to climbing on the Congress bandwagon instead. In the next four months, the Congress will have to demonstrate once again the vision and the capacity to restore, across the country, the voters’ faith that the party can deliver for them. The results of December 2018 augur well for May 2019.
Shashi Tharoor is an MP for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied History at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 18 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is The Paradoxical Prime Minister. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor.