Updated: May 24, 2019 2:16:00 pm
How does the BJP triumph compare with the one in 2014, which it has bettered? Where does it leave the Congress and the Left, and what is its significance for the voter? What are the implications for Rahul Gandhi and other ‘dynasts’? The key takeaways from the verdict that has returned Narendra Modi to power.
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In what ways is Decision 2019 similar to, and different from, Decision 2014?
Late on Thursday evening, the BJP had won or was leading at 303 seats, 21 more than its 2014 tally. The saffron splash across a swathe of northern and western India is similar to 2014. With gains in new areas, the BJP voteshare nationally has risen from 31% to approximately 37.5%. Of the 60.37 crore votes polled in this election, more than 22.6 crore have gone to the BJP — a 32% increase over the 17.1 crore votes it got five years ago.
Like in 2014, the BJP’s stunning victory revolves around Narendra Modi — the party’s refrain was that each vote for the BJP was going into “Modi’s account”. The strategy of contesting a presidential-style election paid off again; the difference being that it turned this election also into a referendum on Modi.
In UP, the BJP has all but repeated its performance of 2014 — a formidable achievement. Despite the gathbandhan of the SP, BSP, and RLD, it is down only nine seats from its tally of 71 the last time. These losses were more than made up by its gains in new areas. The BJP polled nearly 50% of the votes in Uttar Pradesh, seven percentage points more than in 2014.
The BJP is no longer a fringe player in West Bengal and Odisha. In Bengal, it has won over 40% of the popular vote and 18 seats, a leap from the 17% vote and two seats it got in 2014. In Odisha, it has won 38% of the vote and eight seats, up from the 22% vote and one seat in 2014. In Telangana, it has made a small but significant gain of four seats.
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While the 2014 campaign was a campaign of hope, one in which Modi sold India a vision for the future, the 2019 campaign was in large part negative — the BJP reminded the people of what might happen if it was not voted back.
Broadly, what has the verdict affirmed, and what has it rejected?
The one clear message: Voters who have given Modi a second term buy into his argument that the damage and the mess of the last 60 years needs undoing, and that process takes time.
In becoming the first non-Congress Prime Minister to return with an increased majority after a full five-year term, Modi has established that 2014 was, in fact, not a ‘black swan’ event. The verdict marks a clear acceptance by the mass of the people of the BJP’s idea of ‘cultural nationalism’, and establishes the importance of ‘national pride’ in determining voting patterns.
Conversely, the verdict suggests a rejection of the “politics of dynasty” that Modi has been stressing at least since the Assembly elections of 2018. It also shows that economic factors may not, under certain circumstances, translate into anger against the incumbent regime.
Commentators repeatedly stressed that this election was a “normal” election, devoid of a wave in any direction. They have been proved wrong. The conventional wisdom that Indian elections are, in most cases, the sum of state elections, has been rejected — this was a single election in most of the country, with Modi being the ‘candidate’ everywhere.
What does the verdict say about the rural-urban divide in votes?
Given the sweep of the BJP’s victory, it would appear that both villages and towns have voted alike. Differences, if any, will perhaps be discernible only in the margins of victory in individual seats. The BJP’s core message seems to have been accepted with mostly equal enthusiasm everywhere. The nationalist fervour that followed the Balakot airstrikes worked to numb of the pain of the rural economic distress and flatten out the electoral field.
What impact did caste and identity have as a counter to Hindu nationalism?
The battle in the key state of UP was between what could be called the caste arithmetic of the gathbandhan and the chemistry of Modi’s appeal. The results show that the arithmetic of identity needed another, accompanying appeal to be effective.
The results in UP and Bihar signal that the politics of Mandal could be reaching its limits. The fact that the SP appears to be winning only five seats in UP (where the father-son RLD duo of Ajit Singh and Jayant Chaudhary, too, have been defeated), the JD(S) just one in Karnataka, and the RJD none at all in Bihar, suggests that even core support bases of the Mandal parties could be wavering.
Also, the BJP’s successes in Haryana, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra seem to have defined the boundaries of the politics of the Jats, Patidars and Marathas, who have led large agitations against BJP governments over the last several years.
How did agrarian distress and jobs — big talking points during the campaign — impact the result?
The sweeping mandate suggests that the campaign around these two issues was not emphatic enough to influence the result, even though both were genuine concerns. One possible explanation is that many voters, while being hurt by the lack of jobs, had enough faith in Modi’s image to believe that he would eventually solve the unemployment problem. In Vidarbha, the theatre of strong agrarian distress, the BJP-Shiv Sena have swept the elections. And while agrarian distress has been at its worst in several years, the fact that inflation has been low has meant that farmers have not felt the pinch as severely as they might have. In the later stages of the campaign, Rahul Gandhi focussed away from these issues somewhat, choosing to harp on the alleged corruption in the Rafale deal, instead.
From 44 seats in 2014 to 52 in 2019 — is this a personal failure for Rahul?
To raise the tally by barely 8 seats after five years is a ringing defeat for the party and its president. The first rumblings have started within and Rahul will have to face questions. He was not only the face of the party campaign, he also chose to turn the narrative into a largely personalised one between himself and Modi. Slogans such as “Chowkidar chor hai” were seen as placing “self above party”, and didn’t work on the ground. Seniors objected to this and his “Gabbar Singh Tax” description of what was, essentially, a reformist measure. His targeting of the PM over Rafale was seen as “lacking sophistication”. Hugging the Prime Minister in Parliament was a joke, and dilly-dallying over decisions to contest from Wayanad and whether or not to field Priyanka from Varanasi only displayed lack of conviction, insiders say.
His defeat in the family stronghold of Amethi is a stinging indictment — in that seat as well as in the national context. Amethi had been won by the Congress 11 times in 13 elections since 1967, including nine times by a member of the Gandhi family (Rahul had won it the last three times) and on two other occasions by family loyalist Satish Sharma. Although Rahul took over the party reins only in 2017, he had been leading its campaign against Modi through the latter’s first term, and was credited with last year’s Assembly victories in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Coming so close after those wins, the 52 Lok Sabha seats will be seen as an inconsequential improvement on the 44 of 2014. Seniors are no longer willing to accept him as a leader, and his leadership is seen by party workers as “family entitlement”, they say.
What are the key messages that the voter has given to the Congress?
One, that if an alternative has to be presented before her, it should be more credible and tangible than a mere attack, without solid evidence, on an individual. There was no overarching counter-narrative against Modi, and no alternative vision. Whether the family — Rahul and sister Priyanka — works for a new generation of voters is a question the party will have to address.
Two, the Congress has to rebuild and rejuvenate its organisation in key states before it can begin to harbour hopes of becoming a political force again. One reason why the promised NYAY scheme failed to connect with the voter could be that Congress workers and the party organisation failed to convey it effectively enough.
Three, nationalism sells. The Congress allowed the BJP to own that narrative entirely, and let it get away with the claim that among all parties, it alone was truly nationalist and patriotic. Worse, by mentioning issues like AFSPA and the repeal of the sedition law, the Congress actually played into the hands of the BJP — in hindsight, a suicidal move in a campaign driven by hypernationalism in the aftermath of the Pulwama terrorist attack.
Does this election signal the end of the Left as a political force in India?
The Left has got zero in West Bengal and its voteshare has plummetted to 8% from 34% in 2014. It has got one seat out of 20 in Kerala. In Tamil Nadu, the CPM and CPI have won two seats each.
Five seats will be the Left’s worst ever performance in the Lok Sabha elections, and will make for only a feeble voice in Parliament. The Left organisation in Bengal has weakened drastically, its leadership has had no fresh ideas in years, and it holds very little attraction for the youthful, aspirational India of 2019. The Left will struggle to present a compelling argument for its ideology.
How is it that the BJP swept Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh so soon after losing the Assembly elections?
While the Congress did form governments in MP and Rajasthan, it was neck and neck with the BJP in terms of voteshare; in fact, the BJP’s voteshare in MP was marginally higher (41% versus Congress’s 40.9%), while in Rajasthan, they were locked at 39.39%. Chhattisgarh was the exception, where the Congress swept the Assembly polls with a 10 percentage point higher voteshare.
In MP, the Congress government could not implement the farm loan waiver scheme fully in more than four months, making farmers resentful. Internal bickering in the Congress with the party preferring Kamal Nath and Ashok Gehlot to Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot led to disgruntlement. In all three states, voters sought to give Modi another five years, given the BJP’s strong communication with beneficiaries about the Centre’s schemes. Voters also seemed to have different choices for the state and the Centre — and early indication was the slogan in Rajasthan, “Raje teri khair nahi, Modi tujhse bair nahi”.
Do the defeats of Rahul Gandhi and Jyotiraditya Scindia suggest a rejection of the politics of dynasty?
While Rahul and Scindia have lost, voters have not entirely rejected dynasts. But Modi’s constant flagging of “naamdaars” has put the dynasts on the defensive. All five MPs from the SP in 2014 were indeed, members of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s family. This time, only Mulayam and Akhilesh appear to be retaining their seats. While Modi’s primary target was Rahul, the narrative people seem to have bought into is that no constituency can be treated as a family fiefdom, be it Amethi or Guna.
Why did Congress’s NYAY not find resonance with the poor?
There are two aspects to this.
One, the Congress failed to communicate the salient features of the scheme to the bottom 20% of households, particularly given the absence of a single MP in about 20 states/UTs. In fact, it did not resonate even in states where it was in power, such as Punjab, or where it recently won the mandate such as Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh. Also, given the partial implementation of the farm loan waiver in MP, many questioned if the party would actually roll out NYAY.
Two, it is possible that the poor are no longer that receptive to the idea of a cash handout or a dole.
What are the implications for lawmaking given the strong mandate in the BJP’s favour?
The new government will find it easy to push through Bills in Lok Sabha. But it may still have to negotiate in Rajya Sabha, where it is short of majority. The BJP has 73 members of its own and, along with allies, about 100 in the 250-member Upper House. In Modi’s first term, the government got around this lack of numbers in Rajya Sabha by pushing certain laws as Money Bills. Further, within the Opposition, not all parties may have a common position on all issues. For instance, YSR Congress, TRS and BJD, which will have double-digit strength in the new Lok Sabha, are neither part of the UPA nor the NDA. They will decide their stance based on their ability to draw leverage from the government. The government may not be able to push through Constitutional amendments in Rajya Sabha immediately, but with more states coming under the BJP’s fold, it may cross the majority mark along with its allies.
Does the verdict put pressure on Opposition governments with thin majorities in MP and Karnataka?
The BJP’s huge majority will give it a psychological edge in attracting independent legislators and those from smaller parties in states where it has numbers to present a viable alternative to the existing government. In MP, it has 109 MLAs compared with 114 of the Congress (two short of majority) in the 231-member Assembly. In Karnataka, it is the single largest party with 104 members in the 224-member Assembly. The Congress-JD(S) alliance has 115 MLAs.
Does the result provide Modi-II with greater scope for carrying out more radical economic reforms?
The BJP had an absolute majority of its own even in Modi’s first term, but it failed to push through fundamental reforms in areas such as land, labour and privatisation. The repeat of such a mandate opens up possibilities to take bold decisions backed by strong economic rationale.
What are the big challenges before the new government?
The primary challenge will be to arrest the powering down of the economy, rekindle private investment and boost consumption demand. The first step will be to unclog the financial sector which is reeling under a severe NBFC liquidity crisis and lack of bank credit. Mending relations with neighbours Pakistan and China will not only bring stability to the region, but will also help the economy. The new government will also have to navigate a not-so-conducive external environment with a global recession looming, the US-China trade war, imposition of sanctions on Iran, and uncertainties over Brexit.
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