Recent state polls might indicate a cruise to victory for the Prime Minister at the next general election – but Ashis Ray says it is not yet a done deal

Anyone glancing at the results of the five state elections held this year in India would conclude that they were a crushing triumph for the Bharatiya Janata Party and its leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

After the recent set of elections, the BJP is now in government in four of the five states that went to polls, including Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest, where it won the biggest victory seen there for three decades. It appeared that Modi’s brand of Hindu nationalism had driven Congress, once seen as the country’s natural party of government, into further obscurity

So is the outcome of the next general election – due in 2019, unless the Prime Minister calls a mid-term poll –a foregone conclusion? Not necessarily.A clinical analysis of the landscape suggests that while the BJP may presently be on course to emerge as the largest single party, it is not certain to win an absolute majority, as it did in 2014.

The latest result in Uttar Pradesh indicates people continue to repose faith in Modi

At the last general election the plan of Modi and his right-hand man, Amit Shah, was to capture the Hindi-speaking heartland and western coastal states, which were potentially receptive to Hindutva (Hindu chauvinismway of life) and anti-minority messages. Against a condemned ruling alliance spearheaded by Congress, the strategy worked to perfection. The BJP crossed the half-way mark in the Lok Sabha for the first time, increasing its proportion of the vote from 18 per cent to 31 per cent. 00000

The latest result in Uttar Pradesh indicates people continue to repose faith in Modi, notwithstanding his failure to fulfill the big promises he made 35 months ago. He has successfully weaned away sub-castes not identified with the Yadavs of the Samajwadi Party and Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party. There is also evidence that a section of Muslim women, swayed by the promise that the arbitrary triple talak system of divorce would be abolished, voted for Modi.

The BJP returned to power in adjoining Uttarakhand as well. But with its ally, Akali Dal, it was heavily defeated in Punjab, where Congress made a notable comeback. Congress was also the largest single party in Goa and Manipur, but failed to form a government in either, because it was outmanoeuvred by the BJP’s ability to lure non-Congress lawmakers.

In short, while public opinion in Uttar Pradesh, or UP – which elects 80 of the 540 members of the Lok Sabha – cannot be ignored, in the 16 state elections that have taken place since the 2014 general election, the BJP has secured absolute majorities in only three, become the largest single party in as many and lost in 10. Indeed, it has suffered a significant erosion in support nationwide, compared to its 2014 performance. Even in UP, its vote share dropped from 42.6 per cent to 39.7 per cent. And the appointment of Yogi Adityanath, a radical Hindu religious activist, as chief minister of UP has left those who voted for Modi’s development pledgewondering if the real agenda is hard Hindutva.

A closer examination also reveals that the magic of Modi has only worked where there has been an anti-incumbency mood (as in Haryana, Assam and Uttarakhand) or fortuitous factors, such as the open warfare among Samajwadi Party leaders in UP. Pitted against popular figures – like Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Nitish Kumar in Bihar, even Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi – he has come a cropper. And when the odds have been against him, as in Punjab, he has been demolished.

WEAKEST LINKS: Rahul and Sonia Gandhi, Congress’ Achilles heel
WEAKEST LINKS: Rahul and Sonia Gandhi, Congress’ Achilles heel

Modi benefits from the weaknesses of Congress and the dynasty at its heart, the Gandhi family. The party’s president, Sonia Gandhi, is said to be in illhealth and therefore incapacitated. Her son, Rahul, the vice-president, has been mauled even in the Gandhi pocket boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareili. Much talk of his sister, Priyanka, being a vote-winner has not translated to reality.

If Congress is ruled by a dynasty, the BJP is a dictatorship. The difference is that while the electorate may have at least temporarily tired of Congress, Modi is still a fresh face, and people are yet to lose faith in him. Congress also has serious issues of inner-party democracy, an apparent neglect of talent outside the Gandhi family and a collapse of its grass-root organisation. The party needs radical treatment to revive itself.

At the same time, Congress still has some strengths. While dwarfed by the extent of the BJP’s organisation in northern and western India, its pan-India footprint is still deeper and wider than that of its rival. Its decision-making is also consultative, but vested interests around the Gandhis are essentially ‘no-changers’ rather than ‘pro-changers’.

There is no dearth of promising figures in Congress, but they need to be allowed a higher public profile and given a free hand. The election resultin Punjab demonstrated that – when granted the liberty to act, the Chief Minister, Amarinder Singh, delivered a handsome victory.

If Congress demonstrates efficiency and clean government in Punjab, this could influence nearby states like Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi. More importantly, the law of cyclical fluctuations dictates that by 2019, the BJP could be on the decline in important states such as Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and even Modi’s fortress of Gujarat.

There is no dearth of promising figures in Congress, but they need to be given a free hand

In Maharashtra, too, Congress may come back, especially if the BJP and its ally, Shiv Sena – with which there is now a strained relationship – abandon their electoral alliance. Congress might also recover in the Telengana-Andhra Pradesh region.

In the Lok Sabha,256 of the BJP’s 282 seats emanate from Hindi-speaking areas:, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka. Of these, it could lose around 75 in the next general election, and even if it makes up ground in Odisha, the party would still be 50 to 60 seats short of an absolute majority. That would leave the

BJP heavily dependent on partners like Telegu Desam in Andhra Pradesh, and Shiv Sena. These two parties hold 16 and 18 seats respectively in the lower house, not enough for a majority, and in any case, they are likely to win fewer next time.

The situation is reminiscent of the 2004 general election. Two years earlier, a well-entrenched BJP-led government was being fancied to remain in power, but a conglomerate of secular parties stitched together by Congress inflicted a shock defeat. Such a union appears to be in the offing, perhaps on a grander scale, this time. If the parties representing the scheduled castes, particularly the Bahujan Samaj Party, representing scheduled castes, can be lured into the alliance, the BJP’s parliamentary strength could fall to below 200, rendering it almost impossible for it to form an administration.

The next Indian general election is not yet a done deal, as some pundits are making out.

Ashis Ray has worked for the BBC, the Ananda Bazar Group and the Times of India. He was CNN’s founding South Asia bureau chief in Delhi and is the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent

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