Despite the setbacks the BJP suffered in the bypolls of August and September, there was never any serious doubt that it would emerge as the winner in the Maharashtra and Haryana Assembly elections. What has come as a surprise is the magnitude of the victory. Not only has it gained an absolute majority in the Haryana Assembly, but it has come close to doing so in Maharashtra in spite of breaking its alliance with the Shiv Sena. The doubling of its share of the vote in Maharashtra, and its tripling in Haryana, confirms its pre-eminence today. The message of these elections is therefore unambiguous: five months after the General Election, the ‘Modi wave’ has not begun to retreat.
The reason is not hard to seek. In May, the country had been suffering from a recession that had stalled industrial growth and completely stopped the growth of employment for the previous three years. Narendra Modi promised to revive the economy and offered the ‘Gujarat model’ as proof that he could do so. Desperate to see a ray of sunshine in their lives, a huge number of people believed him and voted for the BJP. As a result, the BJP’s share of the national vote increased from 19 percent to 31 percent.
Today, people continue to believe Prime Minister Modi’s promises despite the fact that there has been absolutely no improvement in their condition in the past five months. They do so because with his common touch, now amplified a million-fold by the media, he has struck a chord in their hearts. The message he has managed to convey is that his government will not make decisions for the poor, he will allow the poor to set their own priorities. So, they are prepared to give him more time.
But the ‘Modi wave’ is only a relative one. The BJP’s share of the vote is still only 27.8 percent in Maharashtra and 33.2 percent in Haryana. Thus it still owes its win to the utter disunity among the secular parties. This is most clearly visible in Maharashtra. The vote of the Congress and the NCP, together, fell by only 2.1 percent.
As had happened in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh last December, 11 out of the BJP’s 14 percent gain in vote took place at the cost of independents and unrecognised parties. The message this conveys is the same as the one that the four major state elections in December conveyed: that voters are no longer prepared to waste their vote by giving it to people who have no hope of winning.
The Haryana election has delivered a different, but equally important message. Here, two-thirds of the increase in the BJP’s vote has come from the Congress. As in adjoining Delhi last December, this is a vote born out of pure disillusionment. In Delhi, the beneficiary was the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). In Haryana, since AAP did not fight the Assembly election, it has been the BJP.
For the BJP, the message is clear: the entire country wants a revival of the economy. If the BJP cannot deliver this, its honeymoon will not last much longer. What is more, were faith in Modi’s promises to collapse, the rejection of the BJP will be severe.
For the Congress, these elections have shown that unless it makes a herculean effort to pull itself together and present, or at least lead, a credible alternative to the BJP, its vote will keep slipping away. The party’s introspection must start with why it has been on a losing streak despite having poured four times as much money as the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government into programmes of “inclusive development”. This introspection is necessary because the collapse of growth is the only reason that the Congress’ pundits did not offer during its soul-searching conference after its defeat in May.
Accepting that chasing the phantom of inflation at the cost of growth was the main cause of its poll debacle will not set anything right, but it will at least carry the reassurance that such a thing will not happen again were it to come back to power. However, the Congress would do well not to bank upon the BJP’s non-performance to bring it back to power as the default option for the electorate. Modi’s government has not done anything tangible to revive the economy yet, but it would be foolish of the Congress to hope that it will not do so in the coming four years.
But there are other areas in which the Congress can build an alternative platform that will attract the voters to its banner in the coming elections. Among these are the destruction of the nexus that has developed between crime, black money and politics in the past 50 years; empowering the common man against the State by amending Article 311 of the Constitution to allow people to prosecute the State for the dereliction of its duties; providing security to the poor through social insurance, instead of throwing money at them in the hope that some of it will stick; and acquiring land for development in ways that will make the owners and users permanent stakeholders in development instead of its victims.
The Congress also urgently needs organisational changes: if there is anything it needs to learn not only from its defeat in May but the absolute disarray in the party since then, it is that the days of relying on the Nehru-Gandhi charisma to win elections, have ended. The current generation of the family neither has the acceptability nor the sheer grit (that Indira Gandhi had in abundance) to pull the party out of the morass of defeat. The party needs a compete remake, and the remake has to start with its current leaders formally handing over power to a younger generation of Central and state leaders who have the long vision, and the perseverance, to rebuild the party democratically from its roots.