Shah Rides On Modi Wave



Riding on the crest of a wave that catapulted the BJP to an unprecedented win in the May Lok Sabha election, the party swept to power in Haryana and came tantalisingly close to forming a government on its own in Maharashtra — two states that had been ruled by the Congress (along with its allies) for 10 and 15 years, respectively.

Although the BJP’s gamble of going it alone paid off (it won an absolute majority in Haryana and emerged as the single largest party in Maharashtra), it was not enough to push it over the finish line in Maharashtra. By some BJP leaders’ own admission, the tally could have been higher if the BJP-Shiv Sena Mahayuti (or grand coalition) had not broken.

The fact that the Modi juggernaut stopped short of a simple majority of 145 MLAs in the 288-member Legislative Assembly means that the BJP could be forced to cohabit with its estranged ally, the Shiv Sena. Unless, of course, as is being advocated by a section of the BJP’s unit in Maharashtra, the party deems it politically expedient to form a minority government a la Narasimha Rao in 1991 in the belief (hope?) that neither the Shiv Sena nor the NCP would precipitate a crisis at the time of the government seeking a confidence vote.

The NCP’s unilateral decision to offer unconditional, outside support to a BJP government in Maharashtra could come in handy — a scenario that the BJP would have factored in when its 25-year-old alliance with the Shiv Sena was called off on 25 September and, as if on cue, the NCP-Congress split within hours the same day.

The option of forming a minority government is being seen either as a BJP ploy to forestall hard bargaining by Shiv Sena or to avoid the albatross of coalition compulsions, a phrase that Manmohan Singh in New Delhi and Prithviraj Chavan in Mumbai conveniently cited to explain away their inability to call the shots, but which is an anathema to some in the BJP. However, how stable such a government would be is anybody’s guess as the index of Opposition unity will determine how long it lasts.

At the time of writing, the BJP camp was sanguine about forming a government, with or without the Shiv Sena. That Anant Geete of the Shiv Sena attended a dinner that Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted on 20 October for his council of ministers and that the BJP’s support to the Sena continued in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) suggested that the doors were open for talks.

On balance, while the BJP achieved one of its objectives in Maharashtra, that of maximising its tally of seats, it could well end up with something it wanted to avoid — a coalition of compulsion. The Congress, on the other hand, has been relegated to the third position in both states and it is barely struggling to stay relevant in the national polity, losing more states than it gains. Therefore, to that extent, the Maharashtra results are sobering for the BJP just as they are sombre for the Congress.

In the midst of all the hectic political activity in Maharashtra, Haryana is the lesser-known success story of the BJP where its turnaround is nothing short of spectacular. In a state where the BJP bagged only four seats in 2009, two in 2005 and six in 2000 and where it was fighting on 74 seats for the first time, the party won a record 47 seats. However, unlike Haryana, which contributes only 10 Lok Sabha seats and five Rajya Sabha seats, Maharashtra sends 48 MPs to the Lok Sabha and 19 to the Rajya Sabha. That should explain the disproportionate focus on Maharashtra as opposed to Haryana.

As the results show, the BJP won 122 seats in Maharashtra as compared to 46 in 2009; its vote share rose from 14 percent in 2009 to 28 percent in 2014. After 1990, this is the first time a party has won 100 or more seats in the Maharashtra Assembly. In the 1990 Assembly polls, the Congress had secured 141 seats. Not only has the BJP nearly trebled its tally but it has also appreciably increased its strike rate (ratio or percentage of seats won against contested) and its vote-share and swing. This, when the BJP had never contested more than 119 seats (in 2009) in the state.

Not only did BJP president Amit Shah have to build the party organisation from the ground up in 150-odd constituencies but he also had to find suitable candidates on most of those seats. The BJP coopted some defectors from rival parties, mainly from the NCP and the Congress. However, only about 20 out of the 50-odd turncoats managed to win on a BJP ticket. Compounding matters for the BJP, only one of its allies, the Rashtriya Samaj Paksha, won a lone seat.

Two to tango Modi and Shah are leading the BJP into brave new territories
Two to tango Modi and Shah are leading the BJP into brave new territories. Photo: AFP

Man of the match
A triumphant Shah says the BJP has created history in Maharashtra and Haryana by not only positioning itself to form its own government there but by ensuring that the Congress would not even get the post of the Leader of Opposition in those Assemblies. “We have moved two more steps towards a Congress-Mukt Bharat (Congress-free India),” he says.

Shah feels that the results establish beyond any doubt that the programmes, policies and performance of the Modi government have found universal acceptance among the voters of the two states. He blames “circumstances” for the BJP going it alone in Haryana and Maharashtra.

Apparently, one of those circumstances was the BJP’s urge to capitalise on its performance in the Lok Sabha election by contesting more seats on its own in both the states, which was resisted by the Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC) in Haryana and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. Doing so would not only have given BJP a better chance at increasing its tally, it would also have helped to strengthen its organisation in those states. An added incentive was to increase its footprint nationally.

While Shah was quick to rebuff the HJC’s suggestion of a 50:50 division of the seats (90 in all), the seat-sharing talks in Maharashtra went down to the wire although a week before the nominations closed on 27 September, it was already being talked about that the two parties can be expected to go their separate ways.

The Shraadh period (8-23 September), which is considered inauspicious for starting anything new, added to the anxieties as four days were lost to it. (The nominations opened on 20 September.) Yet, ironically, the BJP-Shiv Sena split was announced on a day when, as per the Hindu calendar, the Navratris began.

Shah, for one, was confident of a creditable performance by the BJP but chose to play along as he did not want to be seen as a deal-breaker; instead, he waited for the Shiv Sena to make a false move before making the split official. He insists that the decision to go it alone was the Shiv Sena’s, not the BJP’s.

“Neither did we try to break our relations with the Shiv Sena nor did we break it,” he told a news conference at the party headquarters in New Delhi. At the same time, Shah, whom Modi called the man of the match for the BJP’s win in the Lok Sabha election, maintains that the alliance could not have been saved at the expense of, or by sacrificing, the BJP karyakarta (worker.)

Rahul Gandhi’s image problem
Image guru Dilip Cherian feels Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has a serious problem on his hands because neither he nor his party has been able to properly communicate its policies and programmes to the electorate. The results of the Lok Sabha and the recent Assembly elections indicate as much, he says. Cherian describes the Congress party as “topheavy” with leaders seeking to graft their competing vision on to the party. Many of its leaders are engaging in a cover-up with few willing to tell it like it is and in “image terms, a cover-up is bound to wear thin if reality penetrates too often,” he cautions.

Ekla Cholo strategy
As a TEHELKA report (Will Modi’s Big Gamble Pay Off? 18 October) pointed out, a creditable performance by the BJP in Maharashtra and Haryana would come as a shot in the arm for the Modi-Shah duo and re-establish their pre-eminence in the party and beyond.

In Modi and Shah, the BJP has a formidable duo that can lead the party into unchartered territories based on a combination of the former’s administrative skills and the latter’s organisational acumen. It is Shah who devised the party’s strategy of consolidating the non-Maratha and the non-Jat votes in Maharashtra and Haryana, respectively, while projecting Modi’s development agenda to beat the caste and regional arithmetic.

Shah is the perfect foil to a Modi who thrives on challenges and the results have disproved some sceptics who had begun to wonder whether the results of the bypolls in 54 Assembly constituencies across 14 states (Uttarakhand in July; Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Karnataka in August; and Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Assam, West Bengal, Tripura and Sikkim in September) since the BJP-led NDA came to power on 26 May were indicative of the waning of the Modi magic. (The BJP and its NDA allies had held 36 of those 54 seats but they managed to retain only 20 of them.)

Predictably, Shah could hardly conceal a chuckle when he told the news conference, “Some people rejected the Modi wave after the bypoll results but I want to tell them that the Modi wave is intact and the tsunami is still capable of vanquishing all opponents.” (However, an editorial in the Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece Saamana dismissed the wave as “nothing more than froth that receded before it reached the shores”.)

Shah asserts that “people have accepted Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the undisputed leader”. Modi had addressed 27 rallies in Maharashtra and 11 in Haryana while Shah had addressed 17 rallies in Maharashtra and 22 in Haryana. (In comparison, Congress president Sonia Gandhi addressed only four rallies in Maharashtra and three in Haryana while her son and vice-president of the party Rahul Gandhi addressed six rallies in Maharashtra and four in Haryana.)

It was anticipated that a BJP win in Maharashtra and Haryana would impart a greater momentum to the government’s promise of a fast-track development agenda in general and economic reforms and foreign and security policies, in particular. It could also nudge Modi to effect a reshuffle of his council of ministers.

Therefore, it did not come as a surprise when Finance Minister Arun Jaitley acknowledged on 20 October that the BJP forming governments in Haryana and Maharashtra will be a big plus for the Centre’s reforms push. Jaitley addressed a press conference in which he announced coal sector reforms; on the same day, Union Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Nirmala Sitharaman said in Bengaluru that the government is closer to finding a solution to approve a legislative scheme that enables the introduction of Goods and Services Tax (GST). On 18 October, the government announced oil sector reforms, including deregulating diesel prices.

Face-off Both Uddhav and Pawar need the BJP for their own ends
Face-off Both Uddhav and Pawar need the BJP for their own ends. Photo: Vijay Pandey

While the results of the Assembly elections may not have an immediate bearing on the composition of the Rajya Sabha (where the BJP has 43 members and the Congress 68), but going forward, it could impact the elections to fill up the vacancies that will arise in the upper House of Parliament. The Rajya Sabha would become even more important when the government seeks to push through legislations.

maharashtra_ELLMarathi Manoos and Asmita
Uddhav Thackeray, who led the Shiv Sena into the first electoral battle after the demise of his father Bal Thackeray in November 2012, acquitted himself better than his cousin Raj Thackeray, chief of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. While Shiv Sena increased its tally from 44 seats in 2009 to 63 this year (the highest number of seats it won was 73 in 1995), the MNS could win only one seat, down from the 13 it won in 2009.

The MNS’ rout has taken the sheen off its slogan of Marathi asmita (pride) just as the BJP’s development agenda has posed a challenge to the Shiv Sena’s and the MNS’ Marathi ‘manoos’ ideology. In contrast, the Hyderabad-based Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) won two seats in the Marathwada region.

Where Uddhav erred was in not reconciling to the new ground realities and insisting on a 151-119 seatsharing arrangement with the BJP, which the latter could accept only at its own peril. Unlike the relationship that existed between the late Thackeray, the late Pramod Mahajan and the late Gopinath Munde, the new men at the helm of the BJP today, Modi and Shah, do not have any affinity towards Uddhav.

Shah was clear from the word go that the BJP, having tasted blood in the Lok Sabha election, would go for broke in Maharashtra. That meant contesting on more seats than the BJP ever has but the Shiv Sena’s reluctance to accommodate what it saw as a junior partner’s excessive demands coupled with Uddhav’s claim to the post of chief minister should the Mahayuti win, unravelled the negotiations.

As the Maharashtra election results poured in, Shah had the last laugh. The BJP had not only won more seats than the Shiv Sena was willing to offer it, the hitherto junior partner in the Mahayuti had become the single largest party in the Assembly. “The results have proved who was correct,” Shah was heard telling reporters afterwards. “The BJP will be forming the government in Maharashtra.”

After an initial burst of bravado, when he asked the BJP to make the first move (“I am sitting at my home peacefully, if somebody thinks our support is needed, they can approach us”), a chastised Uddhav called up Shah and Modi to break the ice. A Saamana editorial sought to strike a conciliatory tone by indicating its willingness to let bygones be bygones.

However, the BJP seems to be in no hurry to reciprocate although the RSS and veteran BJP leader LK Advani made it known that they would like the BJP and Shiv Sena to come together again. A section of the BJP, which feels that Uddhav has earned his spurs in this election, sees it as an ideological necessity to align with the Shiv Sena.

Even before Rajnath Singh and JP Nadda were to fly to Mumbai, the BJP led by Nitin Gadkari had opened informal talks with the Shiv Sena on the possibility of a rapprochement and what it will entail. For one, the Shiv Sena favours a united Maharashtra; it is opposed to the carving out of a separate Vidarbha state. Meatier portfolios in Maharashtra and at the Centre are another bone of contention. For its part, the BJP will have its way on its choice for the post of chief minister.

Empty HQ For the Congress, the cascade of bad news is unlikely to end anytime soon
Empty HQ For the Congress, the cascade of bad news is unlikely to end anytime soon. Photo: Ram Kumar S

Haryana_EllImplications for regional parties
The BJP win in Haryana can be attributed to the BJP strategy of consolidating the non-Jat vote while at the same time ensuring that the Jat vote split between the INLD and the Congress. The fact that an overwhelming majority of the BJP’s MLAs are non-Jats explains the party’s decision to project Manohar Lal Khattar as its chief minister-designate.

The Haryana results are particularly significant for the Janata Parivar as the Janata Dal (United), Rashtriya Janata Dal, Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Lok Dal and the Janata Dal (Secular) had sought to come together on a common platform with the INLD to take on the BJP. However, the BJP did one better than them at social engineering and weaned the BJP and Dalit votes away from them, as the election results bear out.

Going forward, an assertive BJP not only poses a threat to regional parties in the states where elections are due in the next year or two but also runs the risk of cannibalising some of its own allies, existing and potential. (Elections are soon due in Jammu and Kashmir and Jharkhand. Bihar in 2015, West Bengal in 2016 and Uttar Pradesh and Punjab in 2017 would be a few of the elections to watch out for.) For its part, the BJP wants to position itself as the default ruling party in key states.

The results of the Maharashtra and Haryana elections have come as an advance warning for the Congress and some regional parties. From a BJP standpoint, they seem to herald a unipolar moment in the Indian political landscape, which its rivals can ignore at their own peril.


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