Since coming to power in 2014, the top two in the BJP — Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah — have held “victory” marches at its headquarters after every assembly poll win that followed, and credited each other for the achievement. But, as the results of the five state polls came in Tuesday, party leaders were scrambling to distance the two from the debacle.
From office-bearers to MPs and MLAs, they insisted that these elections were fought on local issues and that the outcome cannot be seen as a referendum on the NDA government. “In fact, the efforts by Amit Shah and Modiji helped the party put up a good show in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan,” said P Muralidhar Rao, general secretary and Rajasthan poll in-charge.
Beneath the surface, however, the rumbling was clear. Speaking to The Indian Express, at least two senior BJP leaders admitted that the Modi-Shah combine should “at least share the blame”.
“Just as they take the entire credit for the wins, they should share the blame, too. If the BJP leadership thinks the PM’s popularity is intact, it is making a huge mistake. That was clear from the crowd that his rallies drew in Chhattisgarh, MP and Rajasthan,” said one leader, who is a national office-bearer.
While the party’s official line has been that the defeats have strengthened the BJP for the next battle, this setback in the Hindi heartland, in states that gave it a significant number of seats in 2014, is “not a good sign”, the other leader said. “While we have been shouting Congress-mukt Bharat, the Congress has become more relevant with these elections, making 2019 a tough battle,” he said.
Central leaders attributed the defeats to “local anti-incumbency factors”, but sources close to Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan argued that their “performance and popularity” helped the BJP put up a close fight.
The sources also cited “too much interference” from the central leadership. They pointed out that the state unit chiefs were replaced a few months ago, and that the central leadership “imposed” their strategies while ignoring local proposals on policies and manifestos.
The other key reason for the slide, they said, was that the party failed to match the Congress narrative, especially on the farm crisis.
At least three MPs from Chhattisgarh said that the Congress manifesto that proposed a loan waiver and Minimum Support Price had become a “fascination” for farmers. “The Congress won because of what it promised to farmers. In Chhattisgarh, this is a big deal,” Raipur MP Ramesh Bais said. “The BJP lost almost all the agrarian regions where farmers were upset. The Congress cashed in on the resentment,” said Korba MP Banshilal Mahto.
Kanker MP Vikram Usendi, meanwhile, claimed that “over-confidence” and “an element of complacency” worked against the party.
In Madhya Pradesh, former MLA Raghunandan Sharma said the party would have “won easily” if Chouhan had not “upset the upper castes” with his comment that “Koi mai ka lal aarakshan nahin khatam kar sakta (Nobody can end reservation)”. “We lost at least 15 seats because of that,” Sharma claimed.
That claim came with a warning, too, for 2019. “If the central government does not change the provisions in the GST and simplify the rules, the party will pay a heavy price in the Lok Sabha polls,” Sharma said.