A day before the Supreme Court verdict on the Ayodhya title suit, a senior minister in the Narendra Modi-led government thought of generating some feel-good stories about the state of the Indian economy. She called a group of journalists to give them a lowdown on how the worst was over and an uptick in the economy would be visible from the third quarter as the slump had “bottomed out”. Achhe din aane hi wale hain (good days are about to come) was the central message, no matter what Moody’s had to say.
“If it (slump) has bottomed out, when will the numbers start showing it (revival)?” asked an intrepid journalist. The minister looked flustered. She wouldn’t commit a timeline. Some sectors have bottomed out but others may take time because of the “lag” in the economy, she said.
The minister may need to have a convincing answer for her bosses in the government and the ruling party though. After peaking in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP seems to be getting caught in this lag now. The Haryana and Maharashtra assembly election results were indicative of it.
Tough times ahead for BJP
A party that used to ride roughshod over everyone and everything that came in its way is looking like a hapless victim in Maharashtra today as Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray suddenly roars like a ‘tiger’ that his father, Bal Thackeray, was once known as.
In Haryana, the BJP is compelled to share power with Dushyant Chautala’s Jannayak Janta Party (JJP), primarily a Jat party that is antithetical to its non-Jat politics. Chautala now wants a common minimum programme, and not the BJP manifesto, to set the government’s agenda.
The BJP’s coalition partner in Bihar, Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), wants to join the NDA government on the condition of proportional representation. This means up to four ministerial berths for the JD(U) that has 16 members in the 17th Lok Sabha.
Kumar is likely to grow more assertive in the run-up to the Bihar assembly elections next year. The BJP is not in a position to say ‘no’ to him; the prospect of a 2015-type opposition mahagathbandhan is too daunting.
Worse, Jharkhand and Delhi are going to the polls before Bihar, and the BJP is not seen as a favourite in these two states. The party may not be very excited about 2021 either. Of one union territory and the four states going to the polls that year — Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal and Assam — only the last offers any comfort at this stage.
Clearly, it’s not just the economy that is witnessing a lag, as the minister mentioned.
Maharashtra and Haryana have signalled the onset of a likely lag the BJP is staring at in its political fortune. But will the Supreme Court verdict paving the way for the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya reverse it?
The BJP was quick to take credit for the resolution of the Ayodhya issue, with working president J.P. Nadda pointing out that the judgment came during the Narendra Modi-led NDA government’s tenure.
The BJP’s desperation is understandable. The so-called ‘formidable organisation machinery’ that BJP president Amit Shah was credited for building seems to become ineffective whenever the ‘Modi factor’ is out of the equation. The much-hyped booth-level workers, panna pramukhs, and lakhs of people who joined the BJP during its membership drives were difficult to trace in Haryana and Maharashtra. Political ‘masterstrokes’ such as the installation of chief ministers from non-dominant communities — non-Jat in Haryana and non-Maratha in Maharashtra — came to naught.
Modi as the prime ministerial candidate could transcend the caste barriers, but the BJP as a political party hasn’t. So long as people voted for Modi in the Lok Sabha and state assembly elections from 2014 to 2019, traditional caste fault lines looked blurry.
The same looks unbridgeable when they vote to elect their chief minister. The BJP suddenly looks fallible and vulnerable, at least in the assembly elections. People still trust Modi but they have started asking questions.
BJP banks on Ram Mandir’s electoral appeal
And that’s why the Ayodhya verdict is so crucial in the BJP’s scheme of things. Of the three core agendas — uniform civil code, scrapping of Article 370 and Ram Mandir in Ayodhya — Modi-Shah-led BJP has delivered them all. Well, almost. Consider the triple talaq legislation as a substitute for the UCC, which the party is no longer enthusiastic about. Article 370 might not have fired the imagination of the people — probably because of the overdose of nationalism since the 2016 ‘surgical strikes’. But the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya must, or so the BJP hopes.
During a video chat with BJP workers from Varanasi last month, a party member had urged Modi, 69, not to apply the cut-off age (of 75 years to be in the government) in his own case. The Prime Minister just smiled in response. He couldn’t comment. The BJP remains vulnerable without him.
As I suggested in my column last week, the first indication of how Ayodhya’s Ram Mandir issue will play out in national politics is likely to come on 23 December when Jharkhand assembly election results are out.
Don’t go by the no one’s victory-or-loss-in-Ayodhya speeches or those reports about PM Modi telling his ministers not to make “unnecessary” remarks on this issue.
There were similar reports after the 2016 ‘surgical strikes’, the 2019 Balakot strike and the defanging of Article 370 too. They soon became the BJP’s central election planks. So, trust the ruling party to project Ayodhya verdict as a major achievement of its government in Jharkhand elections.
Will it work? We will know on 23 December. But going by the tepid response of the people in Haryana and Maharashtra to the move on Article 370, the BJP may devise a new strategy to make the Ayodhya verdict an election game-changer.
A senior politician recently told me in exasperation: “Voters keep shifting the goalpost, nowadays. You give them roti, they want vegetables and pulses. You give them roti and vegetables, they want mutton and chicken. There is no end to their expectations”. True, but who is to blame for this?
We will come to this discussion some other time.
I recalled my conversation with the politician as political observers are wondering whether the people who have been voting for the BJP for decades on its Ayodhya Ram Mandir assurance would now shift the goal post and want more or vote for the party again for delivering on its promise.
Can Ayodhya’s Ram Mandir swing it again for the BJP in a country where 65 per cent of the population is below 35 years? Most of them were not even born when L.K. Advani started his Ram Rath Yatra in 1990 and created a frenzy that led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid two years later.
If the BJP wants to overcome the likely lag in its political fortune, it must convince the people that the Ram Mandir is an answer to all their quests — spiritual as well as temporal.
Meanwhile, the wizards in the finance ministry also seem to be waiting for some divine intervention, a deus ex machina, to end the ‘lag’ in the economy.