Friday, 28 January, 2022
HomeOpinionStop counting state by state. 2019 will be a national election

Stop counting state by state. 2019 will be a national election

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Unity or not, the opposition needs to think national to challenge Narendra Modi in 2019 elections.

In the 1989 Lok Sabha elections, Rajiv Gandhi’s powerful home minister Buta Singh lost his Jalore seat to a nondescript BJP rival. He had done a lot for Jalore, but the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) sadhus campaigned against him on the Babri Masjid issue.

That election saw the BJP’s Lok Sabha tally go up from two to 85. There’s been no looking back since then. How did it do it? There was the context of a discredited Rajiv Gandhi over Bofors, but the BJP’s rise was primarily because of the Ram Mandir issue. Months before the election, the BJP adopted the Palampur Resolution, officially taking up the Ram Mandir issue the VHP had been campaigning on.

Among the amazing things about this rise from two to 85 seats was that the BJP had not won any state election until then.

Then there was the main protagonist of that election, V.P. Singh. He created a new party, the Janata Dal, combining various regional and small parties.

Singh had himself been part of the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet, left mid-way over the Bofors issue, and ran an entire election campaign on corruption and Bofors. He would go from one place to another, taking out a piece of paper from his pocket and reading out an arbitrary number, claiming it was Rajiv Gandhi’s Swiss bank account number. The Janata Dal won 143 of 244 seats it contested.

The government didn’t last long, but it ended the Congress domination and heralded the era of coalitions in national politics. From 1989 to the 2009 general elections, coalitions became the rule. Coalitions are but natural in a country so vast, people argued. Indian general elections are nothing but a sum of the states, everyone agreed.

As the UPA-2 collapsed, becoming more unpopular than any government in recent memory, the BJP would easily have come to power leading a coalition of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). It would have been like the Vajpayee government, which managed a large coalition of regional parties.

Instead, Narendra Modi saw the opportunity to do something bigger. He did a national campaign around his own persona. One nation, one leader is how Modi went about it. It wasn’t a BJP or an NDA campaign, but a national Modi campaign. The strongman of Gujarat became a national trailblazer through a deliberate campaign.

Like V.P. Singh’s Bofors campaign or Advani’s Ramjanmabhoomi campaign, the Lokpal movement of 2011 captured the national attention. It is another matter that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) couldn’t quickly scale it up nationally.

Win states and lose Centre

Most voters see national and state elections differently. Part of the reason why the BJP has seen a decline of roughly 5 per cent vote share in state elections since 2014 is that state elections are state elections. Brand Modi matters but Narendra Modi isn’t going to be a chief minister.

One of the worst media banalities about Indian elections is the reading of national trends in state elections. Every major assembly poll is seen as a ‘referendum’ for the Central government. In truth, every election has its own logic, its own contest, and its own issues.

The Congress party’s performance in the 2007 assembly election in Uttar Pradesh didn’t suggest it could win 21 Lok Sabha seats in the state two years later.

Similarly, the Congress won Karnataka in March 2013, a year before they saw their most humiliating Lok Sabha defeat.

The general elections in 2004 were to be held in September, but Atal Bihari Vajpayee brought them forward to April. He did so because he thought his party was on a high, having won all three state elections in December 2003 – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. To everyone’s surprise, Vajpayee and his coalition lost.

State elections are a poor predictor of national elections because many voters tend to think nationally than parochially in general elections. If a party or a leader offers them a national imagination, they’ll succeed. In UP and Bihar, the BJP and Congress have often done better in Lok Sabha elections than in Vidhan Sabha elections.

Think national

In 2019 as in 2014, Narendra Modi will have a different strategy for each state. But that is not at the cost of the main, national narrative.

The AAP forgot all about the national mind space it was occupying when it put all its eggs into the Punjab basket. Once it wins Punjab, the AAP thought, it’ll use it to overcome the handicaps in Delhi and then target another state. The idea was to go state by state, because the nation is a sum of the states.

It had given up on building a national narrative, forgotten about governing Delhi to win Punjab, and couldn’t even win Punjab. After losing Punjab, the party found itself directionless. Had the party continued focusing on a national narrative while fighting Punjab, the defeat in the state would have been easier to handle.

Similarly, Rahul Gandhi has charted the course for 2019 as a series of state elections. He made in Karnataka the same mistake the AAP made in Punjab. He put all his eggs, and all of himself, into Karnataka.

At a Jan Aakrosh rally in Delhi in April, Rahul said, “Let me tell you, in Karnataka the Congress party will win, in Chhattisgarh the Congress party will win, in Madhya Pradesh the Congress will win, in Rajasthan as well the Congress will win, and in 2019 as well the Congress will win the elections.”

But the Congress didn’t even emerge as the single largest party in Karnataka, let alone win the state. Perhaps Rahul should have spent less of his energy on Karnataka, leaving the state to Siddaramaiah. He should have focused on creating and sustaining a national narrative of ‘Jan Aakrosh’ in Delhi.

Going into 2019 elections, the opposition wants to carve out a state-by-state strategy. But Narendra Modi will show voters a national imagination. Unless the opposition starts thinking national, it has little chance of capturing the treasury benches in the Lok Sabha. Those who are counting state by state will be taken aback when a second Modi wave crosses the state borders without blinking an eye.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Very good analysis indeed. But think at the national level one has to change one’s mindset, which, unfortunately, none in the opposition has been able to do.

  2. 1. Congress President Rahul Gandhi wishes to be next Prime Minister and my thinking is that his wish will remain a dream. This I am saying because if regional parties form a front, it will not only be an anti-BJP but it will also be an anti-Congress front. 2. All alliances are accommodative arrangements and therefore if anti-BJP parties wish to form a grand alliance, it is perfectly okay. I feel that such an alliance, whatever be its name (‘Federal’ or ‘Third’ front), need not be based on any ideology because it is a politically convenient arrangement. 3. The Congress party, weakened as it is over past few decades, it cannot hope to win even 60 Lok Sabha seats without forming alliance with this or that regional party in different States. Fact is that in States like Uttar Pradesh & Bihar, Congress is in desperate need to form an alliance. In these States the strong regional parties (SP BSP and RJD) will dictate terms of alliance to Congress. In Maharashtra Congress & NCP will be probable alliance partners with many smaller parties. However NCP will bargain hard as it knows that it is Congress which needs alliance. In West Bengal (WB), the Congress may have to join hands with the Left parties (who are yet to recover after loss of power). Here, I believe some Congress leaders in WB are against alliance with the Left parties. Uncertainties are many. 4. From what Smt Mamata Banerjee said in a recent interview it is clear that in the Federal or Third front, the Congress may have no place. In other words, just to repeat what I mentioned earlier, Federal or Third front will be anti-BJP and anti-Congress front.

    • UP –> Congress+SP+BSP=70+
      TN –> Congress+DMK = 35+
      MH –> Congress+NCP = 40+
      KL –> Congress = 10
      TS –> Congress = 5+
      AP –> Congress+TDP/YSRCP = 15+
      KA –> Congress+JDU = 20+
      GJ –> Congress = 5+
      MP –> Congress = 10+
      RJ –> Congress = 20+
      CHT –> 2+
      JH –> Congress+JMM = 8+
      BIH — > Congress+RJD = 8+
      ASSAM –> Congress = 4+
      HR –> 4+
      WB –> Congress+TMC = 40+
      North+East = Congress = 5+
      And AAP+Communist+Others = 25+
      Total = 340+UP –> Congress+SP+BSP=70+
      TN –> Congress+DMK = 35+
      MH –> Congress+NCP = 40+
      KL –> Congress = 10
      TS –> Congress = 5+
      AP –> Congress+TDP/YSRCP = 15+
      KA –> Congress+JDU = 20+
      GJ –> Congress = 5+
      MP –> Congress = 10+
      RJ –> Congress = 20+
      CHT –> 2+
      JH –> Congress+JMM = 8+
      BIH — > Congress+RJD = 8+
      ASSAM –> Congress = 4+
      HR –> 4+
      WB –> Congress+TMC = 40+
      North+East = Congress = 5+
      And AAP+Communist+Others = 25+
      Total = 340+

  3. If 2019 is a national election, with national issues and narrative, then the electorate, before generating a second tsunami, will check how the last five years have been for their families. How much better off they are in material terms, other aspects of governance, like safety, especially of women, basic services like education and healthcare, although these are the responsibility of state governments. National security / foreign policy is not normally an issue, which is perhaps a good thing. One way or another, they will compare the Report Card with promises made in the previous election. 2. The opposition will focus on real, non emotive issues, as happened in Gujarat. Since neither the Congress nor its leader command automatic acceptance or overwhelming force and presence, it will stitch together a genuine coalition for the limited purpose of avoiding a split in votes, leaving the bargaining and negotiations to the post election phase, when numbers will create their own logic. Whether a national canvas or a sum of states, this is going to be an incredibly tough election.

    • And with a rag-tag expedient coalition creeping into power, it may not be good for governance that the country desperately needs. So we are back to square one.

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