Monday 25 March 2019

BJP Staring at Massive Defeat

Even seasoned political commentators across the country with marked secular credentials have continued to maintain that the Bharatiya Janata Party has a decent chance of coming back to power again. Recent opinion polls suggest to them that Modi is ‘ahead’ even if slightly, that the BJP has shown better political acumen by forming alliances swiftly and firmly, that the electoral campaign of the opposition, especially the Congress, is in ‘disarray’ since the alliances recommended from television studios have not materialized, that Phulwama and Balakot have changed the ‘narrative’ in favour of BJP, and so on. I am setting aside the issue of whether these impressions are deliberately created to please the ruling power, or whether the spectre of 2014 continues to haunt nervous political thinking. The fact of the matter is that the ground reality is exactly the opposite.

No doubt BJP’s decisive electoral victory of 2014 was a rude shock to the democratic aspirations of the nation. However, the current issue is whether the BJP is anywhere near in either exceeding or repeating or even closely approaching its electoral success five years ago. Begin with the fact that even at its historical peak in 2014, BJP could muster just 31% of popular vote to ensure a majority of 282 in the Lok Sabha. Much of this came from UP (71), Bihar (22), Jharkand (12), MP (27), Rajasthan (25), Chattisgarh (10), Gujarat (26), Karnatak (17), Maharashtra (23) plus smaller states like Delhi (7), Haryana (7), Goa (2), HP (4) etc. The impressive vote-share in these states was bolstered by a very impressive conversion rate; the conversion rate in some of these states was nearly 100% with a vote share nearing 50%. It was a massive victory in a very carefully managed electoral territory in the north-central-west part of the country. Let us call this BJP’s Core Sector. BJP secured as many as 253 of its total tally of 282 seats from the Core Sector alone.

Even in 2014, BJP continued to have minimal or no presence in Orissa, Andhra, Telengana, Tamilnadu, Kerala, West Bengal and the north-east. Vast stretches of eastern and southern India ignored the Modi wave and the aggressive propaganda unleashed by the BJP-RSS-corporate conglomerate. As noted, BJP managed only 29 seats in the rest of 290 seats. Let us call this BJP’s Peripheral Sector. So, the ability of the BJP to return to power depends entirely on (a) if it can hold on to the vote-share and seats in the Core Sector, or (b) expand its base in the Peripheral Sector; or both.

Core Sector

BJP’s quantum of victory in the Core Sector, in terms of vote-share and conversion to seats, was so astonishing in 2014 that it is hard to expect that a similar share will be retained after five years of governance. As a matter of fact, BJP’s base in the Core Sector has mostly fallen apart in recent years.

In UP, as surveys from CSDS-Lokniti and others pointed out, even going by the vote-share of 2014, BJP would have garnered only about 30 seats if the SP and BSP votes just numerically combined, despite the Modi wave and the polarization engineered by the electoral machine of Amit Shah. There is no Modi wave now and Shah’s designs will not work anymore, as recent by-elections showed. This is largely because the SP and the BSP have formed a formidable alliance much ahead of the elections. Since it is a formal alliance already working in the ground, its effect is likely to be deeper than just arithmetic; it is now a hope for the people especially in view of the major failures of the Modi rule.

It is important to note that the broad picture in UP is not likely be affected by the presence or absence of Congress because Congress will not be able to detach the subaltern vote of the alliance where the alliance is strong, which is the case for the vast majority of the seats. In the few seats in which the alliance is not so strong and where RLD is not fighting, some Muslim vote may drift to Congress; but in these cases, much upper caste vote may also drift towards Congress enabling Congress to win. In sum, there is much justification in the claim of the alliance that BJP’s tally will be counted in one hand.

In Bihar, knowing the situation in UP, BJP hastened to form a humiliating alliance with Nitish Kumar’s JDU to try to retain the ground of 2014. Numerically, the combined vote-share of BJP-JDU in 2015 assembly elections was nearly 40%. The high number was largely the result of continuing Modi wave enabling 24% to BJP, and the transfer of votes to JDU due to the grand alliance with RJD and Congress. Both factors are now absent. So, even with the alliance, BJP’s own seat-share will fall sharply because (a) the NDA faces a formidable alliance of RJD, Congress and others that consists of most of the subaltern forces and a large section of the upper classes, (b) the Nitish regime is faced with massive anti-incumbency. In Bihar, the contest in most cases will be strictly one on one, in which anti-incumbency and the shady image of Nitish Kumar will play a large role.

Most significantly, in four of the major states in the Core Sector, BJP has actually lost power in Punjab, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan, MP and Karnataka; in each case, Congress formed the government (in alliance with JDS in Karnataka). It is a proven narrative that the party that wins a state election just prior to national elections, wins the latter as well. In these states then, BJP is staring at significant defeats. These elections were indeed a huge game-changer.

In Gujarata and Maharashtra in the Core sector, the last assembly elections showed that BJP has lost considerable ground in Gujarat; it must have lost even further ground by now due to a resurgent Congress with consolidation of Dalit and farmer votes around it accompanied by palpable anti-incumbency. In Maharashtra, BJP did form another humiliating alliance with Shiv Sena, but this alliance faces an equally strong and resurgent alliance between Congress and NCP. Also, there is severe anti-incumbency, especially due to massive farmer’s unrest. As noted, in a basically one on one contest, anti-incumbency will play a decisive role.

In this scenario, the upshot is that in the Core Sector, which was BJP’s real bastion in 2014, it will be surprising if BJP is able to retain even a third of the seats it won in 2014. In fact, with the possible but remote exception of Bihar and Jharkand, there is not a single state in the Core Sector by now where the BJP is likely to secure the majority of the seats.

Peripheral Sector

Since it was pretty obvious that the skewed performance of 2014 in the Core Sector cannot be repeated, BJP has been trying to expand in the peripheral sector with much money, organization effort and muscle power, including wide-scale communal propaganda in the north-east, West Bengal and Kerala. Nevertheless, the results are roughly as follows.

As the recent elections showed, it is obvious that BJP will come a cropper in Telengana which will be swept by TRS. In Andhra, BJP had lost its old ally in TDP; in any case, Andhra is a toss up between Jagan Reddy, TDP and Congress; BJP is nowhere in the scene. In Bengal, the last assembly and panchayat elections showed an almost absolute control of the electoral ground by Trinamool. After its surprising performance winning four seats in 2014, BJP did make a violent attempt to penetrate Bengal, but the BJP was outmanoeuvred by Trinamool in terms familiar to Amit Shah’s roving brigades. With a resurgent Congress, BJP has no chance in Bengal in actually winning seats, even if it may come second in four-cornered contest. The picture is roughly similar with Kerala. In Tamilnadu, BJP has formed its worst alliance with the AIADMK which is going to be routed due to massive anti-incumbency, especially with the robust DMK-Congress alliance opposing it. In Orissa, the scene is somewhat uncertain, but with a resurgent Congress, most contests are going to be triangular where the ruling BJD is likely to retain the upper hand.

Yes, BJP did make some inroads in the north-east, especially Assam and Tripura. But with the resurgent Congress putting its acts together in Assam and Manipur and the widespread resentment due to the sinister Citizenship Bill, it is to be seen how much of the electoral success will be sustained in the general election. In any case, in total the north-east has about twenty seats, and most of the BJP rank and file consists of erstwhile Congress defectors. It is anybody’s guess how much of this will stay with BJP in the dramatically changed scenario. The last time we heard about it, over fifty legislatures have shifted to Congress.

Fact and forecast

I have been mentioning repeatedly the recent upsurge of Congress. In fact, a significant survey by Lokniti-CSDS as early as in May 2018 already suggested that while there were big dents in Modi and BJP’s popularity, the curve for Congress and Rahul Gandhi were rising impressively. It is natural to presume that by now the downward curve for BJP and the upward curve for Congress are irreversible. The early resurgence of Congress—no doubt largely caused by people’s anger about demonetization, GST, farmer’s plight, massive unemployment, failed promises, siphoning off of billions by crooks, a highly problematic defence deal, and the like—was hugely bolstered by electoral victories in four major states. There's a well-known 'law' of progress during election times that once a force goes ahead just before elections, it keeps gathering momentum. That's certainly the case with Congress. It is also a 'law', as noted, that the party that has just won state elections sweeps general elections from that state as well. So, Congress is on upswing in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh with clear effect on adjacent states of UP, Bihar, Orissa, Andhra, Jharkhand.

Even as late as six months ago, a range of regional leaders—Chandrababu, Mayawati, Mamata, Sharad Pawar, Devegowda, even Kejriwal—were all jostling to stake a claim for the leader of the opposition; hence for the post of prime minister. With sound campaign strategy, resounding electoral wins, admirable visibility, adept political arm-twisting, clarity of message, and a breath of bravado, the Congress, guided by 10 Janpath, has set all the regional mud aside to project Rahul Gandhi as the undisputed leader of the opposition. There is no doubt that, once again, the 'dynasty' has proved itself to be the most potent opposition to the murderous Modi-regime. Apart from the absence of any Modi wave, the grim economic scenario, the all-round failure of governance, the resurgence of Congress with Rahul Gandhi as the undisputed leader makes the 2019 elections radically different from 2014.

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