The disastrous results of the assembly elections for the BJP in Rajasthan, Chhatisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh have several lessons for us:
- Rahul Gandhi has arrived.
- The Modi wave is dead in the water.
- There is an alternative to Modi and the BJP: Rahul Gandhi and the Congress.
- It is time for the Congress to stand on its own — again.
- Demonetization — and GST — ruined rural and poor India — and the BJP is finally starting to pay the price for those blunders.
- EVM fraud is not a factor unless the elections are very close, and we should stop worrying about it.
- The people of India do not mind bigotry, but they do mind if you pinch their pockets.
- Religious polarization cannot win you elections if you have messed up the economy.
- The servile media in India has hurt rather than helped Modi.
- The BJP will either lose in 2019 or be forced to be part of a coalition due to major losses in seats in the general elections.
- Such a major defeat will probably cause the ouster of Modi from power to make the BJP acceptable to its coalition allies.
Five states went to the polls last month: three heavyweights from the Hindi belt, the core constituency of the BJP: Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, and Rajasthan; along with Telangana and Mizoram.
On December 11, 2018, the results were announced. The Congress lost Mizoram, the last of its North-east states where it once was unbeatable. The TRS won Telangana handily, but this was more or less expected.
But the real story of these elections is the massive drubbing that the BJP received at the hands of the people in all three Hindi belt states. The scale of the drubbing was most evident in Chhatisgarh, where the BJP could only eke out 15 seats to the Congress’ 68. But the defeats in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan were equally massive, when you consider how many seats they had in those assemblies before this election.
Let us look at Rajasthan first, because the disaster there is more obvious. The BJP got only 73 seats to the Congress’ 99, which is one short of an absolute majority. But the bigger headline is how much the shift is. The BJP lost 89 seats; the Congress gained 78 seats. That’s a seismic shift.
Madhya Pradesh had everyone on tenterhooks because the race was so close. The final tally was 114-109, and while that sounds really close, it is the swings that tell the story here. The BJP dropped 56 seats from its earlier tally of 165, and the Congress gained the same number of seats. That’s a huge loss for the BJP (about a third of its previous seats), and the Congress more than doubled its seat tally. So no, this is not a minor victory. It is a huge victory for the Congress and a drubbing for the BJP.
So essentially, the Congress won big in all three states, and the BJP lost big in all three states. There are really no two ways about it. Mizoram, of course, was a significant loss for the Congress, but they will take a trade of victory in the Hindi heartland over victory in Mizoram any day. As any political pundit will tell you, the road to Delhi runs through the Hindi heartland.
This election was Rahul Gandhi’s victory. After failing to achieve a single significant victory for 14 years on his own, this was his second big test (after Karnataka), and Rahul delivered big. Congress spokespersons have argued that for most of the time since 2004, when Rahul entered politics, he was not in complete charge of the party. He had to work within the rules created by others, so he cannot be completely blamed for those failures. But this is a disingenuous explanation, because as the son of the Congress President, Rahul could have demanded any change he wanted and probably gotten it — within reason. A more realistic explanation is that it has taken all this time for Rahul Gandhi to become a good politician. In all his interactions in the last year with the media, Rahul has appeared extremely comfortable in his own skin as a politician — a far cry from the time when he tore up that ordinance of his own party in what appeared to be a contrived display. One might reasonably ask the reason for the delay in his development as a politician, given that he is from a prominent political family — other political heirs master the art of politics at much younger ages — for example, Akhilesh Yadav or Milind Deora. That said, people don’t care so much about your past as what you are today — and that is what we should be concerned about, too. It would appear that Rahul reached this maturity just at the time that he took over the Presidency of the Congress Party — which probably suggests that he understands himself very well — one sees a new maturity in Rahul Gandhi from the time he took over as Congress President — and so it might be pertinent to only look at this new phase of his political career rather than rehash the times when he was an immature politician.
Rahul’s first big test as Congress President was the Karnataka election, and while he did not win that election, his post-election management was very mature and praiseworthy. Rahul managed to stitch together an alliance with the JD (S), a party with whom the Congress had forever been at odds. He was even magnanimous enough to give away the Chief Ministership to Mr. Kumaraswamy of the JD (S) in the interest of opposition unity and to keep the BJP away, even though the Congress was the numerically stronger party in the alliance. In spite of many doomsday predictions prophesying the end of the Karnataka alliance, it has held — in large measure due to timely interventions by Rahul Gandhi himself.
In the just-concluded assembly elections in Rajasthan, MP, Chhatisgarh, and Telangana, Rahul was clearly the face of the party. He campaigned everywhere and worked extremely hard. One day he was campaigning with Chandrababu Naidu in Hyderabad; another day he was savaging Modi in Madhya Pradesh; and a third day he was tearing Modi apart in Rajasthan.
Some commentators have been rather uncharitable to Rahul Gandhi, saying that the BJP’s losses and the Congress’ victories were not his doing — that people were angry with the BJP, and that this was only an anti-BJP vote, not a pro-Congress vote, and so the credit did not belong to Rahul Gandhi.
One could say the same thing about Modi’s victory in 2014 – that it was not a Modi victory but a Congress defeat because the Congress stood accused of widespread corruption. That would not be fair, and not giving credit to Rahul today would be equally unfair. Yes, there were serious allegations of corruption against the Congress in 2014. But it was Modi who kept raising the issues, in rally after rally, and offered himself as a more honest alternative. Similarly, today, Rahul kept raising the failures of the Modi government in rally after rally, and reaped the fruits of those labours. Yes, the people were disenchanted with Modi, but it was Rahul who did the hard work of keeping that disaffectation alive.
The only currency of politics is winnability. Rahul had a negative bank balance until now, but now his bank is flush with a healthy balance. Winning elections brings respectability with it. In the past few years, regional parties have been extremely disrespectful to the Congress — the Samajwadi Party (SP) under Akhilesh Yadav and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) under Mayawati have both been seen to treat Rahul Gandhi with a cavalier attitude and treat the Congress as a junior partner. This is definitely going to change, and leaders of all parties will look at Rahul Gandhi with a newfound respect.
And anyone who still refers to Rahul Gandhi as “Pappu” clearly has no sense of objectivity. There may have been a time when such a moniker might have been warranted, but today’s Rahul Gandhi is no “pappu.” Those who still choose to call him that only reveal their own ignorance, prejudice, and lack of objectivity.
This election provided proof, in case anyone still needed it, that the Modi charisma has run its course. The Modi wave of 2014 has finally come to a crashing halt, much as the German tanks came to a crashing stop outside Stalingrad in 1942. Much as Stalingrad marked the end of nonstop German victory in WWII, these elections will be remembered by historians as the elections that finally stopped the Modi wave and denuded Modi of his charm.
The Modi wave and Modi’s charisma in 2013-14 were weapons against which there was no defense. Without that “kavacha” (armour) of his charisma (as with Karna’s kavacha in the Mahabharata), Modi is a mere mortal politician who has to win an election on the basis of achievements, not hype. And, unfortunately for him, and largely due to his own foolishness, Modi has few achievements to sell to the people. This therefore bodes really poorly for Modi’s prospects in 2019.
Defenders of the BJP claim that the election was decided by local issues, but for most of the people of the country, and even the states (very few people go to attend political rallies; most only watch TV, read the newspaper, or check WhatsApp and Facebook), the only leader of the BJP they ever saw was Modi. Not Raman Singh. Not Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Not Vasundhara Raje. Only Modi, as he went around calling Sonia Gandhi a “Congress ki Vidhwa” and other such unsavoury things to mask his lack of any genuine achievements. Or his almost-daily invocation of Jawaharlal Nehru, a politician who had died 54 years ago, instead of focusing on his own government’s achievements. People, even poor and uneducated people, are not stupid, and could easily see through Modi’s game. They could see he was playing a game of cover-up and distraction.
These elections have achieved two things: making Modi look very vulnerable, and making Rahul Gandhi look like a very credible and competent leader.
Which means one thing for 2019: There is no TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor any longer. Modi certainly looks dispensable, and Rahul looks quite plausible as a PM candidate.
But the consequences go further than just this. The defeats of December 11 have dented the “Superman” image of Mr. Modi, and have irretrievably damaged the “master strategist” image of Mr. Amit Shah. The fact that, despite 10 highly-televised and widely reported appearances each in MP and Rajasthan, Mr. Modi’s personal charisma could not save the BJP in those states, that too just months away from the general election, will definitely ring alarm bells in the minds of many BJP party members and supporters. Indian politicians and businessmen are nothing if not opportunists, and it would be very reasonable to expect an exodus of people and money from the BJP due to the changing political winds in the country. The recent departure of economist Surjit Bhalla from the PMEAC, of Upendra Khushwaha of the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party in Bihar from his alliance with the BJP, and of Aijaz Ilmi from the BJP are merely the tip of the iceberg. Many more will follow, just as so many Congress party members left their party when the party’s fortunes were sinking in 2014.
There were many analysts who said that the Congress was doomed in Chhatisgarh because of Ajit Jogi’s defection and because the Congress could not stitch together an alliance with Mayawati. The Congress’ own response to this criticism before the election was that the BSP was demanding too many seats. The results have justified the Congress’ stand. They won a convincing majority in Chhatisgarh – 68 seats out of 84, to the BJP’s 15. Ajit Jogi’s party did win 5 seats, but that was hardly enough to even bother the Congress. And Mayawati won a measly 2 seats. So in Chhatisgarh, the state most analysts were worried about, Rahul Gandhi’s decision not to ally with Mayawati was absolutely the right one.
Many analysts have looked at the vote share of the election in Madhya Pradesh and said that had the Congress’ and the BSP’s vote shares combined, the alliance would have probably won 140 of the total seats. While this is undoubtedly true, there are huge benefits of perception to the Congress and to Rahul Gandhi of having won an election on their own. And that is exactly what the party and Rahul Gandhi have achieved. The victory in MP was narrow, but coupled with the victories in Rajasthan and Chhatisgarh, it has shown Rahul Gandhi as a leader who can win elections on his own.
When Akhilesh or Mayawati refer to Rahul Gandhi in the future as “Rahulji,” they will, unlike in the past where they were only paying lip service, actually mean the “ji.” And they will make more reasonable demands in negotiations for seats in alliances, with greater respect for their prospective partner. This will benefit all anti-BJP parties in the 2019 election.
These elections have finally settled a long-standing debate I have been having with a friend on the other side of the fence — did demonetization hurt rural India? While every indicator pointed to the fact that it did — I myself wrote an article in Frontline about how rural India was totally unprepared for the withdrawal of cash; and of course eminent economists from all over the world have slammed the move as a disastrous move that would wreck the economy. But my friend always had one comeback to all this analysis: if all that you are saying and all these eminent people are saying is true, why has Modi not paid a political price for this “economic disaster” at the hustings?
My response was that it takes time, that Modi came to power with an aura around him, and it takes time for that aura to fade. So people made excuses for Modi, said that he was at least trying to root out corruption, etc., and that sometimes even well-intentioned moves fail. So I said it was a matter of time before the aura fades and people realize they have been had. And so it has happened.
Probably the turning point in the public perception of Modi was when the RBI reported that over 99% of the cash in circulation had come back, which meant that the original premise of demonetization was completely wrong. There were no stashes of black money hidden under mattresses that had been recovered by the government. Essentially, what the revelation told people was that all the suffering and even deaths (more than 100) they had experienced had been for naught. This revelation came only recently, and must have led to massive anger in rural India against Modi. This, along with other disclosures that showed that terrorism was not the slightest hit by demonetization and proof that counterfeit notes of the new 2000 rupee notes had already appeared within weeks of their introduction told people that the entire demonetization exercise, with its constantly-changing justifications, was a pack of lies. It also led credence to the theory that demonetization had been introduced for the express purpose of winning the UP elections by making the election war chest of the opposition worthless, while giving advance notice to the state BJP unit. Whether that allegation had truth in it or not may never be known, but the absolute lack of any benefit from the demonetization exercise certainly made people wonder.
Demonetization hit the poor and the rural people the hardest, because the urban middle class, who often voice their support of Modi, are the ones who can use net banking, credit card, and PayTM transactions instead of cash transactions. The rural folks do not have ATMs, they do not have netbanking, and even if they did, the merchants they transact with do not have these facilities. The urban upper middle class who voice support for Modi are the least likely to vote in any election (usually they take the day off to go on vacation to a nearby place), whereas the rural and urban poor always vote.
If demonetization was a disaster for the rural folk and the urban poor, GST hit the business class hard. This is the class that has traditionally been the strongest supporter of the BJP. GST caused huge losses for the business community because of delays in repayment of tax already paid through the chain. GST also hit the poor in what became a double whammy after demonetization. The reason was that many poor craftsmen often made products that were bought by merchants up the value chain. Because of GST, the merchants higher up in the value chain get an input credit for products bought from someone else only if the person below them in the chain is registered under GST. But poor artisans and craftsmen do not have GST numbers. As a result, merchants stopped buying products from them, driving them to penury.
One of the oft-cited concerns by friends in the last couple of years has been the fear that, with most of the country under the control of the BJP, the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) can easily be tampered with, and the BJP could win elections by fraud. These elections have shown that such a fear is unjustified. The BJP is currently in power in the centre and was in power in all three Hindi heartland states, and still could not engineer victories in these three states using EVM fraud.
Yes, electoral fraud always occurs, and people have shown that EVMs can be tampered with. But these matter only in close elections. It is possible that some tampering did take place in MP; it is possible that is what prevented the Congress Party from crossing the halfway mark on its own. But the effects of such tampering is always marginal. If a party has lost the mandate of the people, no amount of tampering will help it win. It isn’t that the other parties are sleeping. They are constantly watchful and have teams of people monitoring the movement of every EVM box. So it isn’t that easy to commit fraud. Some people say that the EVMs could have embedded chips that rig the election for one party. If that had been the case, the BJP should have won all the elections just held hands down.
All parties need to be vigilant about election fraud. But I think that, at the end of the day, it is the issues that matter more than anything else. Fraud can only push one party over the finish line in a close contest. But when public anger is on the boil, nothing can save you.
The results of these elections do not bode well for Modi and the BJP in 2019. In 2014, most of the people of India did not know who Narendra Modi was. He ran a brilliant PR campaign, creating a myth of a nonexistent “Gujarat model” that conned a lot of people (yours truly included.) This is 2019, and now people know through direct experience what Modi can and cannot do.
The full realization of the devastation that demonetization brought in its wake has only hit the people of India now, and it will take some time for their anger to subside. Incidentally, this is a case in point where having a pliant and subservient media can actually hurt you rather than help you. Had the media been honest about the disastrous effects of demonetization in 2017, Modi would have faced a lot of flak then; he would have apologized, but the controversy would have died down by now, and he might even have been forgiven. But the full damage due to demonetization has been given to the Indian public only a couple months ago, and so the anger against Modi will still be fresh at the time of the general elections which are just a few months away.
Modi’s reign has been marked by two distinct characteristics: massive incompetence and unprecedented religious intolerance of minorities. What these elections have demonstrated is that the people of India are willing to tolerate bigots but not fools. In other words, “lynchistan” is acceptable to Indians, but incompetence is not. People were perfectly willing to look the other way when an Akhlaque or a Pehlu Khan or an Afrazul was brutally slaughtered – and still vote for the BJP. But they were not willing to look the other way when Modi’s ignorance, stupidity, and incompetence caused them economic losses. If you pinch people’s pockets, they will not forgive you.
As James Carville so memorably said during the Clinton campaign of 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Some have suggested that in the absence of any clear achievements on the economic front, the Modi sarkar might resort to religious polarization in order to win elections. But if anything, these elections have stood that logic on its head. There was as much religious polarization as the BJP could have wished for in Rajasthan. After all, it was in Alwar in Rajasthan that Pehlu Khan, a dairy farmer, was brutally slaughtered in public, for no reason except that he was a Muslim. Similarly, it was in Rajgarh in Rajsamund district of Rajasthan where Shambhulal Regar brutally tortured and killed Afrazul, a Muslim, recorded the whole thing on video, narrated a voiceover justifying his actions, and posted the video on YouTube; and yet, when he was arrested, angry citizens marched in the streets of cities in Rajasthan protesting his arrest. A group calling itself the UP Navnirman Sena recently said it would offer a Lok Sabha ticket to the murderer who is currently in jail.
Yet all this religious polarization was not enough to overcome the public anger at the Modi sarkar’s and at Vasundhara Raje’s economic failures. So if that is the route Amit Shah intends to pursue, it does not seem destined for success.
Whether public anger against Modi will be enough to unseat the BJP from power, or whether it will only greatly reduce the BJP’s numbers in the Lok Sabha and force them into a multi-party coalition to retain power, is still an open question. But these elections clearly point to a huge dip in the BJP’s fortunes next May.
And if that does happen, even if the BJP is nominally in power, the country may become a “Modi-mukt Bharat.” (“Modi-free India.”) For, a loss of that magnitude will definitely have consequences. Those who get the bouquets after successes must also be ready for the brickbats after defeats. Any coalition the BJP is part of will likely demand Modi’s ouster as the price for their participation in a coalition government with the BJP.