The worm is turning, finally, though slowly. Economic hardship has almost trumped political hype. The Opposition has gained, but it also failed to knit the public angst into a coherent poll narrative and take full advantage of the situation. The October polls results, surely, have provided the decimated and demoralised Opposition an opening to regain its voice.
It would be inaccurate to conclude that the outcome in Maharashtra and Haryana point to a weakening of Narendra Modi. Modi continues to be a supremely popular leader. Yet, it does raise the question: Has Modi peaked?
It would also be wrong to read the results as a rejection of the abrogation of Article 370, an issue flogged by the BJP. A large mass of people continues to endorse the decision. Farmers’ suicides and rural distress, which have influenced voter choice, were a reality even five months ago, when Modi won 303 Lok Sabha seats for the BJP.
But the worm began to turn essentially because of a combination of factors. Rozi roti issues have begun to take their toll on the ruling party more than they did five months ago. Economic hardships are increasing, with an increasing number of people being thrown out of jobs: The unemployment rate in Haryana has risen to an all time high of 28 per cent.
The law of diminishing returns seems to be setting in as the BJP resorts to the nationalistic rhetoric. But for the party’s campaign pitch — “Is baar Pachatar Paar” in Haryana and “Upwards of 220” in Maharashtra — the poll outcome might not have been seen as a comedown for an incumbent government.
Equally important was the backlash from dominant communities in both states. The Jats in Haryana and the Marathas in Maharashtra have started to look away from the BJP. They had been chafing against their loss of power since 2014, since Manohar Lal Khattar, a Punjabi in a state ruled by Jats, was appointed the chief minister in 2014.
Eleven of Maharashtra’s 18 CMs have been from the Maratha community, which makes up 34 per cent of the population, and Devendra Fadnavis, a Brahmin (a community that constitutes a mere three per cent of the state’s population), was called to head the government. Both belonged to “politically wrong” castes. Another term for Khattar would have meant the Jats (comprising 27 per cent of the state’s population) would be out of power for the longest ever period since the formation of the state. The Marathas have been trying to reassert their identity and clout in politics by organising massive rallies for reservations in education and employment.
The third factor was that these communities rediscovered leaders who they felt could take up cudgels on their behalf. There was suddenly Sharad Pawar taking on Narendra Modi and Amit Shah frontally, and B S Hooda giving voice to the anger of the Jats. These were leaders who their respective communities knew and identified with. Suddenly, they saw the glimmer of an alternative.
Fadnavis and Khattar had managed to quell many a Maratha and Jat protest, However, the communities had continued to nurse a sense of loss of power. They also felt they were being taken for granted. A Jat expressed this feeling to this writer while talking about the “arrogance” of the BJP’s “Pachatar Paar” slogan, as if “nobody exists on the other side”.
Pawar started the fight back after he was named by the Enforcement Directorate in the MSCB scam. When Pawar, 80 years old and a cancer survivor, helped on to the dais, started addressing six to seven meetings daily, he won the sympathy of many. The photo of him, drenched in rain, addressing a rally in Satara was a seminal moment. The candidate, Udyan Raje Bhosale, lost the election, despite being the descendent of Chhatrapati Shivaji. It was Pawar who connected emotionally with the Marathas.
Hooda, a former CM, had fought and lost the Sonepat seat in the May general election. A month before the assembly election he was made Congress Legislative Party chief and given charge of the campaign, but only after he hinted that he may launch his own regional outfit. Paradoxically, Hooda went up in public esteem for “cocking a snook” at the High Command. This is something Punjab CM Amarinder Singh had done to great effect before the Punjab elections, winning the respect of the Jat Sikhs, for being autonomous of the High Command. We can only speculate what the poll outcome might have been had these leaders got their act together in time and hit the road.
For the moment, a little space has opened up once again for the Opposition. The Congress has improved its performance without the Nehru-Gandhi family leading from the front or campaigning for the party, which may well lead to a further weakening of the family. Sonia Gandhi did not address a single rally due to ill health. Nor did Priyanka Vadra Gandhi. Rahul Gandhi stepped in for his mother and addressed just five meetings.
The message of the “Ma-haryana” elections for the Opposition is unambiguous. It may have to consider a model that is the antithesis of the BJP’s “two leaders and a centralised command” structure. The Congress may have to rework its High Command-centric functioning and opt for a decentralised structure — for example, Sonia Gandhi helming the party while allowing state leaders the autonomy they wish.
The Opposition could also explore a federal front of regional and national parties, in which the Congress agrees to be one amongst equals. A newly-energised Sharad Pawar, with his vast network of cross-party relationships, is well-placed today to facilitate it.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 26, 2019 under the title ‘A glimmer of an alternative’. The writer is a senior journalist.
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