If the middle of the year saw the BJP at an all-time high, 2019 seems to be ending on a sombre note for the party. A midnight Midas-touch by some of its leaders might still help the BJP retain office in Jharkhand, but the state assembly results surely invite a less than flattering assessment of the party. Parties are assessed on several criteria — electoral performance, governance records, popularity and the ability to set and pursue the agenda. It would be worthwhile to take stock of how the BJP is doing on these four fronts. However, electoral performance is bound to be the key to a party’s performance in other arenas. That is why Jharkhand would hurt the BJP.
The Jharkhand result falls into a pattern: In its second honeymoon period, post-May, the BJP has faced three setbacks. The party can argue that these are not decisive. It has lost seats but gained vote-share, the BJP may have suffered a loss of face but retained power nevertheless (as in Haryana), it could still claim to be the single-largest party and also harp on statistical details like “strike rate” as in Maharashtra. This argument is specious, particularly in the backdrop of the party’s convincing victory in May. The BJP has not found it easy to repeat its performance in the parliamentary elections in the states. This is in contrast to the post-May 2014 situation, when the BJP went on to win Haryana and emerged as the single-largest party in Maharashtra and Jharkhand, assuming office in all three states.
Surely, the party is not down — and far from being out yet. But the failure to translate its all-India victory into state victories indicates the BJP’s limitations and alerts us to the splitting of electoral choices. And, the electoral outlook for the party does not appear bright — the AAP appears to have an upper hand in Delhi and the JDU is probably waiting to upset the BJP’s applecart in Bihar.
Can the BJP boast of an improved governance record? While opinions on governance in states where the party holds office are bound to be deeply divided, at least three things are clear. One, the states run by the BJP are not better governed than those run by non-BJP parties. This includes even the states where the BJP has been ruling without allies — Haryana before 2019, UP and Karnataka today. Two, if the economy is any indication, the abysmal failure on the governance front is apparent, particularly for a party that came to power originally promising better times. This failure is even more glaring if one takes into account the enormous trust the voters placed in Narendra Modi despite the economy not doing well in May 2019. The governance failure, thus, tantamounts to a breach of trust — and becomes colossal. Third, if governance is judged on its democratic dimension, the BJP government has gone from bad to worse in its second term. Subterfuge, sleight of hand and excessive propaganda are the techniques of non-performing governments. Having taken recourse to all these, this government is increasingly resorting to semi-repressive and clearly repressive measures to hide its non-performance.
Politics, though, is never a straightforward enterprise and the BJP can still find comfort in the fact that it continues to be fairly popular — the public may be disappointed with the government’s performance but not disenchanted with the party. Retaining popular acceptability, however, is going to be a tough task because over the past two parliamentary elections, the BJP has added a large number of supporters to its core base — who are around 20 per cent at most. The new supporters of the party may look for alternatives and as state elections indicate, these are rather discerning supporters who are willing to switch to state parties during state elections.
Yet, it would be unrealistic to deny the diffused popularity enjoyed by the BJP. This popularity owes to various factors. One is the party’s organisational reservoir of support. The other reason for the party’s popularity is Modi himself. Much of the addition to the BJP’s popularity has been Modi’s contribution. So long as the PM’s personal popularity remains relatively high, the party can bask in reflected glory. This source of popularity is crucial as much as it is risky. The moment Modi flounders, this chunk of popularity could diminish. The BJP’s efforts to gain acceptability by building a Hindutva political identity has also been successful. It has managed to convince a large section of Hindu society to understand politics through the prism of imaginary Hindu interests.
This takes us to the fourth yardstick to assess the party: How far has it been successful in setting an agenda and pushing it towards a direction desired by it? Here, we confront a complex picture. The party has gone down from being in office in two-thirds of India two years ago to just a little over a third of the country today. But a cursory look at today’s public debates would show how successful the BJP has been in setting the agenda. During the campaign for the Lok Sabha elections and after that, unemployment, the slowdown in the economy and issues related to livelihood could barely make their presence felt.
In its first term, through issues of cow-protection and instances of mob vigilantism, the party was able to keep its agenda on the front burner. More recently, it has successfully managed to legislate its agenda into public policies. In the past six months, the BJP has effectively steered the agenda of public decision-making. When we look back at the past six months, bringing a fundamental change to India’s identity will emerge as the single most effective thing the BJP did in this period. It has rewritten the Constitution without having to make any amendment to it. This is something not even Indira Gandhi could do during the heyday of her authoritarian rule. And this achievement means that non-BJP parties will have to play by the new rules set by the BJP. They will have to acquiesce into the new normal of violence, hatred and illiberal law-enforcement — they will have to be more like the BJP in order to fight it. But the moment they show willingness to engage the BJP in an authentic manner, the party’s achievement will shrink.
Success brings arrogance and insensitivity. The BJP exemplifies this maxim. But the BJP’s problem — and the problem caused by it — goes much beyond this. It sees electoral ascendance as a licence to alter the nature of India and the character of the Constitution. With two-thirds of India keeping its distance from the BJP in state elections, it will be of immense interest how far the party can continue to push its agenda.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 24, 2019 under the title “Jharkhand portents.” The writer, based in Pune, is chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics and co-director of Lokniti programme, CSDS
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