December 11, 2018, could go down in history just as June 11, 1975 did. It was an awful day for Indira Gandhi then and now, a pretty bad day for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.
Indira Gandhi received news of her disqualification as an MP by the Allahabad High Court, her Congress party lost the elections to a coalition in Gujarat and one of her key advisors, DP Dhar, died. Prime Minister Modi’s day, on December 11, 2018, began with the tremors of the overnight exit of RBI Governor Urjit Patel still palpable and his party losing elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Mercifully, the party may not have expected much from Telangana and Mizoram.
Modi, however, seemed unfazed. At 40 minutes past ten, while trends were showing bad news for his party, he turned up to address waiting TV journalists outside Parliament House, to spell out words of advice to the opposition parties: to use the session that began on Tuesday for constructive debates and work for the peoples’ good rather than their own. That the people in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh voted against the incumbent BJP even while those in Telangana voted for the incumbent TRS should have guided Modi to say that he and his government will introspect.
Well. A little over half past ten in the morning was when only early trends were coming in and too early to concede defeat for someone like Modi. The fact is even while the BJP lost Chhattisgarh badly to the Congress (though the Congress did not have any of its senuir leaders this election and Ajit Jogi had rebelled and ploughed his own share), the party did not do as badly in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh as the counting proceeded. Modi would have been guided by this possibility.
Contrast this with the Congress president: Rahul Gandhi stayed away from the frenetic race and left his state-level leaders to hedge and keeping up hope.
The Congress had a lot of ground to cover in Madhya Pradesh, which is going down the wire. The party had a mere 58 MLAs in the 230-member assembly, which is just about a quarter of the house. Its vote share in 2013 was only 36 percent and from the trends we seem to have had so far, it has now gone up to 41 per cent and as much as that of the BJP, which seems to have lost about 3 percentage points.
Rajasthan, which began as a cliffhanger when counting of votes progressed, did end up with a simple majority to the Congress in the end. Rahul Gandhi need not have shied, at least post lunch, from speaking to the media. His party won decisively in Chhattisgarh, managed to form the government in Rajasthan and is within striking distance away from a significant victory in Madhya Pradesh.
Now, Over To 2019
The point is that the BJP, in May 2014, had won 62 out of 65 seats from these three states and a chance of a repeat May 2019 appears slim. In addition, the BJP’s campaign points, steered by Modi, to hark upon the Ayodhya issue and its attempt to dismiss the idea of an inclusive India and raise its pitch against the Muslim community have not held the party in good stead in these elections.
The significance of the mandate today is that the Narendra Modi wand, his appearance on the scene since 2013 as the messiah to deliver India out of its economic crisis and corruption, which won the party a mandate, unprecedented in its history, has lost its sheen and this loss is decisive. If evidence is needed, the fact that the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, did not swing the mandate his party’s way is enough.
Rahul Gandhi, meanwhile, exactly a year after his anointment as Congress president has managed to put his party back on the map; it began before he took over the mantle formally. He led his party from the front in Gujarat in November-December 2017 and gave Narendra Modi and Amit Shah a victory that they could not savour much. He snatched victory from the jaws of defeat (to put the conventional saying on its head!), in Karnataka.
The single-most important fact is that Rahul Gandhi showed his maturity in Gujarat to walk with Jignesh Mewani and Hardik Patel, striking a pre-poll arrangement with them and even surprised his rivals by supporting a Janata Dal (S) government in Karnataka after the election.
He, however, showed political acumen by not dancing to the BSP’s tunes in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and pander to the party’s demands. Political pundits in Lutyen’s Delhi did call his decision wrong and this pitch increased when the trends were coming.
Congress Gets Its Mojo Back
In the end, it is now clear that the decision to leave the BSP aside, for now, did pay. The Congress had to resurrect itself as a force ahead of May 2019 and this is now a reality.
And this, indeed, was the importance of Seshadri Chari’s candid remark as the trends came in: that the BJP shall stop seeking a Congress-mukt Bharat now. The BJP needs the Congress rather than regional outfits to stay on in the political discourse. Chari, on a bad day for his party, made sense and hit the nail on its head. He said this, it may be stressed, well before lunch-time.
It then should lead this analysis to the important point about the contours before May 2019 and after the polls. The contest, in May 2019, will be between the BJP (with a small bunch of outfits whose influence is restricted to regions within states and the only large party in that could be Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal United) and the Congress (along with a number of regional parties such as Lalu’s RJD, Pawar’s NCP, Kumarasamy’s JD-S, DMK, TDP in Andhra Pradesh and Mamta’s Trinamool Congress).
In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress is close to striking a post-poll deal with the SP or the BSP (while it is likely that the two UP parties will fight the polls as allies as they did in by-elections to Phulpur, Gorakhpur and Sahranpur). The BJP, meanwhile, can count on Naveen Pattnaik’s BJD and K Chandrashekar Rao’s TRS as potential allies.
BJP Needs To Introspect
A clear win — 272 seats are required for a simple majority in the Lok Sabha — now looks like a pipe dream for the BJP in May 2019. Some of those allies who helped the party with its clear win in May 2014 – Upender Kushwaha for instance – are deserting the ship.
This and the impossibility of a repeat of May 2014 from Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh (as much as from Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) in May 2019 put the BJP and Narendra Modi on a weak wicket.
And this is where the concept from physics – momentum – makes sense. The Congress under Rahul Gandhi has gained the momentum and the rural distress – the unprecedented crisis in the farm sector or say of the scale we saw it in the late 1980s – further accentuated by the near collapse of the informal sector, a mainstay of livelihood, thanks to the demonetisation in November 2016 places the BJP on a difficult situation.
Several voters are angry with the government that they voted to power in May 2014, with fond hopes of delivery from the distress that had fallen upon them then. They also found the alternative in the Congress party and Rahul Gandhi. And Prime Minister Modi will find it hard to go to the people saying Gandhi did many things wrong.
The BJP, instead, will hark upon the Ayodhya issue. We could witness more acts such the one that happened at Sahranpur in which a police officer was killed. Adityanath will play a larger role now in national politics.
V Krishna Ananth teaches History at Sikkim University, Gangtok.
First Published: IST