Modi is Supreme, but a Bad Thursday for the BJP
How does one see the results of the Assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh and a series of by-elections in various states that were declared on Thursday?
Well, I have three answers.
One, overall it was a bad day for the BJP.
Two, the myth of Arvind Kejriwal being the national alternative to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2024 national elections stands exploded.
Three, despite all its drawbacks, the Congress still remains the largest opposition party with maximum state governments under its control. There cannot be any real challenge to Modi by any party or combination if the Congress does not lead it.
Now, let me explain my answers in detail.
There are no two opinions that the BJP created history in Gujarat. But, what difference has it made in concrete terms? Well, the BJP will rule Gujarat for the seventh consecutive time, a rare record in independent India’s political history; only the communists had a better record for having ruled West Bengal uninterrupted in between 1977 and 2011. But was this victory ever doubted?
The number of BJP MLAs has gone up significantly – from 99 in 2017 to 150 plus this time. But how does that add to BJP’s power in Gujarat? The BJP is the supreme political party in the state. Prime Minister Modi is the supreme leader; this election has not changed that status in Gujarat. Last time having won just 99 seats in the Assembly, the BJP bagged all the 26 Lok Sabha seats a year and half later. The same will be the case too in 2024.
So what did the BJP gain in Gujarat? There is nothing, in concrete terms. The BJP did not have anything more to prove in the state other than protecting and consolidating its hold in the state. That it has consolidated its hold is laudable, no doubt. But that satisfaction is not enough to compensate for the loss of its power or government in Himachal Pradesh.
All told, on Thursday, December 8, the number of states under the BJP rule shrank by one. Well, one may argue that Himachal is a tiny state having no real national significance. But politics is also a game of perceptions. And political perceptions are made not exactly on the sizes or the magnitude of wins and losses, but on the number of wins and losses.
I am also not impressed by the argument that traditionally Himachal has never given an incumbent government a second successive term. It is said to be a typical state that plays political pendulum in every Assembly election by choosing the Congress in one term and the BJP in the next and the vice versa. Therefore, the BJP government in Shimla had to make way for a Congress government.
However, this theory or phenomenon of political pendulum has been defied in other states where it was also a normal feature until the advent of the Modi-phenomenon. The BJP governments in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand had defied this phenomenon early this year. The party successfully retained power in these two states, something it has also succeeded in doing in Assam last year.
In other words, if the BJP could save its governments in Assam, Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Uttarakhand, why could not it do so in the case of Himachal Pradesh? If anti-incumbency could not be a hindering factor in UP or Uttarakhand or Assam or now in Gujarat, it could not have been hindering in Himachal too. If the Modi – factor worked in all those states, the Modi-factor could have worked in Himachal too. Therefore, the party’s loss in Himachal needs to be seen through a different prism.
Was it due to serious intra-party schisms and faulty ticket distributions? There have been reports that BJP’s national President Jagat Prasad Nadda and the outgoing Chief Minister Jairam Thakur differed on strategies and worked at cross-purposes, resulting in the emergence of a significant number of party-rebels. And the matter had gone out of hand to such an extent that even the intervention of the Prime Minister to rescue the situation did not work. Modi’s personal appeals to the rebels to withdraw from the contest fell on deaf ears. This must have helped the Congress enormously.
Be that as it may, the Himachal debacle and its below –par shows in by-elections held in Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan are warning signals for the BJP and the Prime Minister. In Uttar Pradesh, the opposition led by Samajwadi party has done extremely well in winning a Lok Sabha seat and snatching an Assembly seat from the BJP. The party failed to win a single seat in the bypolls held in other states, except in Bihar. It was really a bad Thursday for the BJP.
What about Arvind Kejriwal’s Am Aadmi Party (AAP)? If one would have gone by the TV interventions of its spokespersons over the last one month, videos of the Delhi Chief Minister travelling in auto-rickshaws on Gujarat roads and the tall promises it made it made to the Gujarat-electorate, then it was just a formality for the AAP to form the government in Gandhinagar. But, all the hype notwithstanding, the party has just won 4 (four) seats at the time of writing. The party could not even open its account in Himachal, despite it being the immediate neighbor of Punjab. In fact, the AAP got just one percent of the total votes polled in this hill-state.
And yet, the AAP is ecstatic that in Gujarat it got nearly 13 percent of votes and these votes have enabled the AAP to get the official status of “a national party” in the country. Well, it could be a solace, but then has AAP’s performance in this round of polls catapulted Kejriwal as the leader who could take on Modi in 2024 as the alternative? Not really, though that is the ambition of Kejriwal. He may have money and the perception-makers aplenty with him, but he does not have the party apparatus to bring voters to the polling booths in major states that send scores of members to the Parliament.
He has won the Assembly elections in Punjab that sends 13 MPs to Lok Sabha, but this win had more to do with the lack of an alternative to the ruling Congress , the traditional alternative of the Akalis having lost all their credibility, than to do with Kejriwal’s popularity. Besides, the Diaspora-factor, heavily dominated by the Khalistanis, played a very important role in Punjab elections last year.
In fact, Kejriwal’s populist governance of freebies, possible in a city government of Delhi that gets the country’s maximum taxes, both direct and indirect, is proving to be a disaster in the sensitive state of Punjab, whose economy is at the verge of collapse. It will be a miracle if AAP repeats its performance in Punjab next time.
The AAP has otherwise failed miserably in elections in small states like Goa, Uttarakhand and now Himachal. Even in Delhi, people may have voted for the AAP for the sake of freebies in Assembly and local polls, but, as they have shown in the past, Modi becomes their choice when elections are held for the Parliament.
Considering all this, Kejriwal may occupy a lot of space in the newsprints, TV-airs and cyber-space and create an impressive narrative as Modi’s alternative in 2024, but that is least likely to change the ground situation, which is heavily dominated by the Prime Minister. Modi remains the undisputed popular leader of India.
However, all this does not mean that BJP will have an easy time in 2024. And the party that is capable of making Modi’s path towards a third successive term difficult is none other than the Congress party. The Congress may be in poor health. It may not have a dynamic leader. But its very presence all over the country with a large network of activists and arguably the best part of the country’ intelligentsia whom it nurtured very well under 70 years of its long rule give the Congress primacy among all the opposition parties.
Besides, with Himachal now in its kitty, the Congress has three state governments under its control. It is a matter of time before Karnataka is added to the list. Thus if any combination has got a realistic chance to challenge Modi in 2024, then the Congress has to be its nucleus. The victory in Himachal, therefore, is a big enabler to this narrative.