Special Report

BJP should urgently refocus its agenda

BJP should urgently refocus its agenda

Even the most ardent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporter will have to admit that the just-concluded assembly elections have yielded a disastrous return for the party. Across the spectrum, the euphoric mood among the supporters of the Congress can be well understood too. The overwhelming sense among the Congress of prevailing in a “semi-final” contest appears to have taken hold. Yet with the general election still about five months away, there is time yet for a change in fortunes. Any signs of over-confidence from the Congress or utter despondency from the BJP party at this stage would be unduly premature.

To be sure, the collective verdict from the Hindi-speaking hinterland in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan has delivered a spectacular rebuff to the BJP. Almost five years ago, it emphatically won these states, setting the scene for a landmark general election victory to follow. Putting this into numerical context, in the last assembly elections for these sates, the BJP secured 376 seats. The party’s tally has plummeted to about 197 assembly seats which is a calamitous drop.

Crucially, the party swept the last Lok Sabha elections in these states winning 62 seats out of a potential 65. In Uttar Pradesh, the other major Hindi heartland, the party won 71 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats. Given the recent Lok Sabha (LS) by-election defeat in Kairana, Uttar Pradesh and chief minister Adityanath’s lacklustre performance, replicating the 2014 result there may be a tall order.

Away from the Hindi hinterland, the BJP failed to make inroads in Telangana. That too will hurt. An important part of its ‘southern strategy’ after the Karnataka elections earlier in the year was to expand its regional influence and canvas new allies. That hasn’t translated into electoral gains. Nor has the party expanded its reach in the Northeast as the result in Mizoram shows. As the Modi government ponders over the scale of the challenge that lies ahead in 2019 for a renewed mandate to govern at the centre, the trends from these assembly elections should certainly send alarm bells ringing. These elections took place at a regional level but their impact at the national level cannot be ignored.

What should the Modi government reflect on? After such a disappointing performance, the usual noises about the need to “listen and learn” were made. But the party needs to probe deeper. Granted, anti-incumbency was an important factor that contributed to the result. Yet putting this down solely to voter fatigue with an incumbent state, BJP government would be erroneous.

The larger truth is that voters have expressed dissatisfaction at the perceived gap between the rhetoric and reality of the Modi government’s agenda. Importantly, this disaffection cut across rural and urban constituencies. The results speak to a perceived failure of governance and lack of confidence in the party’s economic prospectus.

Agrarian voters were able to vent their frustration at the BJP’s inability to stimulate sectoral growth and provide greater access to credit. Moreover, the vast gap between the government’s minimum support price to farmers for certain produce and the actual rates offered due to ‘intermediary leakage’ has hurt them considerably. Urban voters also expressed disappointment at the levels of bureaucracy they continue to face and at the slow pace of reforms. In particular, an error strewn GST implementation prompted anger. Modi’s Diwali bonanza for small and medium sized enterprises failed to change the tide.

Looking ahead, the Modi government should relentlessly focus on demonstrating its economic competence and developmental credentials. The temptation to veer into polarising socio-religious issues should be firmly resisted. Against a background of higher oil prices and rupee depreciation, the government will need to be extremely determined about its priorities to stimulate the economy. Politically, it needs to encourage lending to farmers and small enterprises and promote capital infrastructure. Yet it needs to achieve this with some fiscal restraint too.

An unhinged frenzy of public spending risks spooking international markets, creating inflationary pressures and could be counter-productive. What is therefore needed is a policy of ‘responsible populism’ to square the circle.  What might be said for the Congress party? Undoubtedly, these results will contribute to a sense of momentum with Rahul Gandhi as its leading voice. Yet it would be a mistake to attribute its success solely to his leadership.

The truth is that the Congress party’s regional gains were also due to a combination of anti-incumbency and its local leadership which had done the hard work of cultivating a grass-roots base. The challenge for the party will be to develop a coherent national manifesto for change with a credible economic vision. Merely opposing the BJP isn’t the same as framing a convincing alternative governance agenda.

Ultimately, with the general election still about five months away, much can change. The complex and unpredictable dynamic of electoral alliances need to be factored too. What is clear though is the latest assembly election results have opened the door to a dynamic general election campaign where nothing can be taken for granted.

—Rishabh Bhandari is a London-based lawyer and political commentator.

FPJ written by Rishabh Bhandari 


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