The massive mandate in 2014, along with several states under the BJP government, can become Modi’s curse in 2019.
There is now an emerging pattern from BJP’s state-level victories since 2014 and its defeat Tuesday in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
Since the anointment of Narendra Modi as the chief campaigner of the BJP in 2013, we have witnessed the social and geographical expansion of the party. It not only won a massive mandate in the 2014 general elections, but also won in state after state.
But interestingly, the BJP won most states as an opposition party. It trounced the incumbent as a challenger. The party, however, has had a tough time retaining (or winning) a state wherever it was the incumbent.
The BJP became the single-largest party in Maharashtra after playing second fiddle to Shiv Sena for decades. It was defeated in Bihar but emerged as the second pole in the state politics, around which upcoming elections would revolve. It trounced the Congress in Haryana, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. The party also made forays in northeast India by winning Assam in 2016 and dislodged the three-decade-old Communist party government in Tripura in 2018.
When the party managed to win Uttar Pradesh in 2017 with the largest mandate ever seen in the state’s history, we were staring at the rise of the second dominant party system, this one led by the BJP.
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In all these states, the BJP was a challenger. As an incumbent, the party had a tough time. In Goa, however, the BJP needed post-election manoeuvring to retain the state. The combined mobilisation by the trio of Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani along with Rahul Gandhi gave the BJP a scare in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. It required an extra push by Modi in the last leg of the campaign to rescue the party from the jaws of defeat.
A year and a half later, with its defeat in three states of Hindi heartland — Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh — there are now serious doubts over the BJP’s ability to cross even 200 Lok Sabha seats in 2019. This is also the first time Modi, the campaigner, has lost an important election to the Congress party in 17 years.
Were the defeats in the three states inevitable? Can the BJP turn the rising tide against it?
Even Prime Minister Modi’s rallies could not prevent a decline in the party’s vote share in these three states. To be fair, many in the BJP were sure of defeat in Rajasthan (where the by-election results in the past two years had given signals of massive reversal) and a close fight in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh (where the party was in power for three straight terms). They lost Madhya Pradesh after a valiant fight and may be frustrated with the final outcome, but Chhattisgarh results should serve as an eye-opener. Despite the alliance led by Ajit Jogi winning over 12 per cent votes, the vote share gap between the BJP and the Congress is in double digits. This basically means that the BJP was hardly in contest this time around in the state in which it had won 10 of 11 Lok Sabha seats in 2014.
Is the massive mandate in 2014, along with several states under the BJP government, going to become Modi’s curse in 2019? Research on re-election patterns clearly shows that the incumbents in India face a disadvantage. It is virtually a coin-toss.
Even denial of nomination tickets to sitting legislators and replacing with fresh faces rarely helps in reducing the disadvantage the incumbent party faces. The BJP at the moment has the maximum number of MLAs, MPs and state governments across the country and many are likely to face anti-incumbency sentiments for non-performance in 2019.
Does this mean that the BJP-led dominant party system is likely to meet a premature death?
Dominant party systems are built around five elements — ideological prowess, organisational advantage, charismatic leadership, a populist dream, and finally an electoral hegemony. What is missing from the BJP’s narrative post-2017 is the ‘dream’ element, and rightly so.
The economic mismanagement by the government, sharpening of caste and religious fault lines fuelled by party supporters on the ground, un-acknowledgement of the worsening agrarian crisis and the inability to fulfil rising aspirations have all now accumulated in a way that can become a recipe for an electoral disaster.
In the run-up to the 2019 elections, the BJP detractors will rejoice at every indication of Modi wave waning. Tuesday’s result marks the arrival of that moment. The BJP sympathisers will hope for a Mogi magic, for they are well aware that without this the 2019 elections would become a summation of state-level verdicts and their party will be at a disadvantage.
Can Modi come up with a dream — a narrative that will cut across the social and geographical divide? Given that the Lok Sabha elections are now just five months away and Modi cannot present himself as a challenger as he could in 2013, it appears unlikely. But when have leaders been prisoners of the past and precedents? In the next few months, Modi and his party will try to bounce back. The resurgent Congress too would leave no stone unturned to deny the BJP another shot at power. Both the rise and fall of dominant party systems create institutional scars that often take a long time to heal. The unfolding of events will be an instructive story in how Indian democracy works.
The author is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California at Berkeley, US.
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