Just days after the BJP emerged as a pan-India party by supplanting the Congress following electoral triumphs in Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland, the Trinamool Congress Member of Parliament Derek O’Brien said in an interview that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would not be the one delivering the Independence Day address from the Red Fort in Delhi on August 15th, 2019. O’Brien’s leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had just mooted a non-Congress front of anti-BJP parties for the General Election due next summer. In the making was a plan to take on the popular might of Modi, who, along with the electoral strategies of his trusted lieutenant and BJP chief Amit Shah, has turned the party into a force with the kind of political predominance an entire generation has never seen. The BJP now has more than 21 states under its rule, more than the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s peak number of 19 states.
The BJP victories were fuelled by a clever combination of Modi’s high approval rating and Shah’s organisational abilities that let the party forge sound alliances in some states where it could not form a government on its own and achieve a sweep at the hustings in key states such as Uttar Pradesh, where it had no significant presence for more than a decade. Shah’s template has, since 2014, transformed the BJP into a well oiled machine that knows how to optimise the use of technology and leverage the discipline, hard work and capabilities of seasoned leaders from the RSS. The effort has been to tap the aspirations of the youth.
To build even a halfway credible opposition to the ruling party for 2019, the biggest hurdle for Banerjee and the leaders she has sought to rope in would be the might of the Modi-Shah duo. This is a tall order for opposition forces, with or without the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress in tow.
Worse, developments in the country’s northeastern states have again served to belie the doomsayers who maintain that the BJP’s stock would nosedive in 2019. Banerjee’s initiative of reaching out to BJD chief and her Odisha counterpart Naveen Patnaik and even K Chandrashekhar Rao in Telengana was clearly an exercise in political desperation. After all, Nitish Kumar, the JD-U chief, Bihar Chief Minister and the opposition’s erstwhile choice to lead them against the BJP had already switched sides. This happened after the Congress’ ability to play that role under Rahul Gandhi came under doubt, with the party losing one state after another in elections, its showing in civic polls no better. Despite these setbacks, the Congress was unwilling to countenance the idea of an anti-BJP grouping led by another party.
On March 3rd, when results to Assembly polls in three states of the Northeast—Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura—were declared, Gandhi was in Italy with his grandmother, leaving his party looking lost in more ways than one. Banerjee publicly accused the Congress of rejecting her offer of a tie-up with the TMC in Tripura to keep the BJP out. Her statement highlighted the innate contradictions in the anti-BJP coalition led by the Congress and its friends, the Left parties. The top leadership of India’s grand old party preferred, as part of a long-time cosy understanding with the CPM, to let the latter’s Manik Sarkar lead the battle in Tripura, a state it had held for 25 years but lost dramatically to the BJP-led alliance. The tacit quid pro quo was Left support in Parliament. Nagaland, it was clear, would likely go the way of the BJP-led coalition there. But Gandhi’s visible support for his party’s ground forces was imperative, at least in Meghalaya where the Congress ran a government headed by Mukul Sangma. He did not step up to the task. Again, Gandhi failed to seize the day and form a government, though the party emerged the single largest. Banerjee’s frustration at his lethargy as an opposition leader was palpable.
Amit Shah has turned the party into a force with the kind of political predominance an entire generation has never seen. The BJP now has more than 21 states under its rule, more than Indira Gandhi’s peak number of 19
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Unlike Modi and Shah, the Congress president does not seem to consider every election important enough to lead from the front (or be seen as leading). His absence was used by his party colleagues to shield him from criticism for yet another defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. “We have to recognise that there are still many moving parts in the construction of a multi- party, anti-BJP coalition. Things are very fluid and dynamic in politics and what is relevant today may not be six months later. There is time before the Lok Sabha elections and it is unfair to criticise Rahul Gandhi for taking decisions based on [the advice of] party leaders in Tripura,” a Congress spokesperson maintained. A distraught Sonia Gandhi, meanwhile, has been forced to emerge from semi-retirement and call a meeting of anti-BJP parties to work out a common plan (who will attend is unclear yet). The NCP chief Sharad Pawar, who gave Rahul Gandhi some sage— but ignored—advice on staying put in the country and proving his commitment to politics, has already sounded a bugle call in Maharashtra that makes little reference to the Congress. The latter’s leadership has yet to come up with a credible alternative charter to Modi’s politics and policies, or even a rough electoral strategy. Instead, it relies mainly on criticism of Modi, especially on social media, to gain traction. Meanwhile, the Congress fate in Karnataka hangs in the balance. And in Punjab, the only other state under its rule, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh’s son-in-law stands accused of corruption, which has hurt his image.
Analysts say that a serious challenge to the BJP can only be posed either by crafting a grand alliance of opposition parties with a cohesive political agenda that does not rest merely on anti-Modi rhetoric, or by the emergence of a disruptive political leadership, as witnessed some years ago in Delhi with Arvind Kejriwal of AAP. Both Bihar’s ‘mahagathbandhan’ experiment and Delhi’s AAP story have since come apart, which voters keen on stability are likely to bear in mind. Moreover, three extra factors would be needed for either of the two abovementioned scenarios to unfold. First, a dip in Modi’s personal popularity; second, organisational disarray in the BJP; and third, a united and cohesive opposition with a charismatic leadership offering an alternative agenda of governance that appeals to the electorate.
Modi, to the disappointment of anti-BJP parties, however, remains the country’s top vote catcher. And under Shah’s charge, the ruling party’s ground machinery appears to be going from strength to strength, proving its ability to even capture territory populated by voters who are not considered well disposed towards its saffron ideology. In doing so, and in widening its reach and spread, the BJP may have managed to fend off the charge that it is a hardcore Hindutva party with no appeal among religious minorities in India. The party’s governments and areas of influence now include not just Jammu & Kashmir, but also the Christian-majority states of Meghalaya and Nagaland.
Rahul Gandhi does not seem to consider every election important enough to lead from the front. When the Northeast results were declared, Gandhi was in Italy, leaving his party looking lost in more ways than one
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Last November, a Pew survey had found that Modi was the most popular political leader across the country. Nearly nine out of ten respondents in the sample had picked him as the most admired political leader. He had a lead of more than 30 per cent over the then Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi and of 31 per cent over its then President Sonia Gandhi. Some critics had questioned the timing of the survey’s release. It came out in November, just ahead of Assembly polls in Mod’s home state of Gujarat, while the fieldwork had been done in March 2017. The BJP lost 16 seats in those elections but improved its vote share and retained power in Gandhinagar. The BJP got 49.1 per cent of the popular vote in this state it had ruled for over two decades, more than a percentage point higher than it achieved in 2012, when Modi was its chief ministerial candidate. These numbers made a mockery of the Congress leadership’s celebration of what it portrayed as a revival in its fortunes.
Mamata Banerjee’s attempt at creating an alliance, with the Congress kept out, is a sign that the last of the three enabling factors to take on the Modi-Shah duo is only dimly probable. Rahul Gandhi’s inadequacies bear much of the blame for this. So low has the Congress chief’s own stock as a leader fallen that even a relative lightweight like Chandrashekhar Rao has jumped into the fray to project himself as a Third Front leader. Now that his Andhra Pradesh counterpart Chandrababu Naidu has pulled the TDP’s two ministers out of the Central Government in pique over the state not being granted special status by the Government, some observers expect him to stake a claim to leading an anti-BJP alliance. He would, of course, need to test public sentiment on the issue. Naidu, a shrewd regional player, has been with both the BJP-led NDA and an anti-BJP front in the past. Irrespective of ideology, his attempt has apparently been to get the best deal that serves his political interests. Notably, he has not yet broken away from the NDA, which suggests that asking his ministers to quit is a tactic to convey his position on a sensitive local issue to voters in the run-up to the next General Election.
Sitaram Yechury had declared before the Northeast polls that the BJP would be stopped in its tracks, with Tripura proving to be its Waterloo. Such statements reflect the Marxist failure to understand its rapidly losing appeal
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AS FOR SHAH’S strategic and organisational skills, it would take a brave person to count on any let up as 2019 approaches. With Modi, he has boosted the party’s electoral performance in ways few could imagine when he was appointed BJP president. In Tripura, the BJP (alongwith its local ally) saw its vote share surge from a mere 1.5 per cent to 43 per cent, spelling doom for Marxist hopes. Such a sharp rise is unprecedented. It is usually new formations that display such sudden popularity and most emerge from local agitations, such as NT Rama Rao’s TDP in Andhra Pradesh of the 80s, the All Assam Students Union that threw up leaders like Prafulla Mahanta in Assam, or, more recently, AAP in Delhi.
A slice of the credit for the BJP’s Northeast gains, however, Shah could share with the Congress, which suffered from an acute lack of direction from the party’s top. It was thanks to its frailties that regional forces found it a better to rally forces with the BJP. The Congress drew a blank in Tripura and Nagaland, where it has held power in the past. The party’s vote share also fell precipitously, leading the Prime Minister to proclaim, sotto voce, “Congress kaa kad itna chhota kabhi pehle nahin dekha hoga…” (Congress has never looked so small in stature) while speaking of the BJP’s expanding dominance of the country and the corresponding shrinkage of Congress influence.
Tripura stands out as a prize catch for the BJP because it had no membership or organisational structure to speak of in the state three years ago. Today, it has won what might be India’s first ever state-level direct battle between the Left and the Right to form a government in Agartala. When Amit Shah visited the state on the eve of the 2014 General Election, there were just a handful of people at the airport to receive him. Party worker meetings held on that day in three places were attended by less than 20 people. But he didn’t give up. He made frequent visits to Tripura, taking night halts in Shillong, to overthrow the CPM. For a Congress that was counting on Manik Sarkar to face down the BJP, this should serve a sharp rebuke; it failed to sense the ground shift away from the Left.
Confident perhaps of northeastern states resisting the sway of saffron, Gandhi’s deputies landed in Meghalaya and Nagaland only on the eve of the polls. Apart from some members of the Christian clergy, they met few others—and failed to grasp the pulse of the voters. Though the BJP won only two seats in Meghalaya, it managed to craft a coalition that has claimed power.
From a national perspective, the decimation of the Left in Tripura could be counted as the BJP’s big achievement in the Northeast polls. Communist power has now been reduced to Kerala and the ideological enclave of Jawaharlal Nehru University in the capital, throwing the Left parties into their worst crisis since the Chinese aggression of 1962, which led to a split of the CPI over the issue of whether to condemn China. The BJP’s latest body blow to the Left will likely weaken the hold it has long had in many urban and professional circles.
Within the Left front itself, the results will perhaps aggravate the differences in viewpoint among the two major parties—the CPI and CPM—on a multitude of issues, especially those centred on relations with the Congress. CPM General Secretary Sitaram Yechury’s proposal to join hands with the Congress in a tactical alliance at the national level to battle the BJP was rejected at a party Central Committee meeting recently. The party has been advocating equi-distance from both the BJP and the Congress thus far, since both are deemed ‘bourgeois’. Yechury had also confidently declared before the Northeast polls that the BJP would be stopped in its tracks, with Tripura proving to be its Waterloo. Such statements are a reflection of the Marxist failure to understand its rapidly losing appeal even with Tribal voters that it had wooed for decades. As with the Congress in Gujarat, the Left’s self-congratulatory hosannas were premature.
True, the BJP has recently lost seats for which bypolls were held in both Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Again, anti-BJP observers have tried to extrapolate these party setbacks to a BJP defeat in 2019. While the losses in Rajasthan were real, and followed more recently by a few Congress gains in civic and local polls across the state, both the Assembly seats in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh were in Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia’s Guna constituency; and in both, the BJP managed to reduce its loss margin to 2,000 votes or less from about 20,000 earlier.
For Modi and Shah, no state is too small. “A civic bodies poll in Delhi or Mumbai or Nagpur demand as much focus as a parliamentary bypoll or an assembly election,” says a BJP leader, “It is a consistent political and ideological high that percolates down from [Modi and Shah] to the smallest party worker.”
That alone should worry anti-BJP politicians who expect to deny Modi a second term as Prime Minister. Lately, some of his critics have latched on with hope to news that UP archrivals BSP and SP plan to fight the BJP together in upcoming parliamentary bypolls in Phulpur and Gorakhpur, the latter being the seat vacated by Yogi Adityanath to take office as the state’s Chief Minister. But if the BSP and SP fail to wrest these two seats despite joining forces, says a state BJP leader, one can expect India’s largest state— with as many as 80 Lok Sabha seats—to stay as deeply saffron as in 2014, or perhaps even more so. The BJP’s juggernaut isn’t showing any signs of slowing down any time soon.