As the curtains fall upon the intense drama during the five state polls in India, often touted as the semi-finals of the 2019 General Elections, I see a spate of good news ahead for the nation as a democratic polity.
Competition Back Again:
First, three Hindi heartland states have voted out the ruling BJP and brought in the main opposition party Congress albeit with a close fight in two, while the remaining two voted out or restrained Congress and upheld the main regional forces. So, the nation is neither Congress-mukt, nor BJP-mukt, and neither free from the regional forces. It is a state of near perfect competition for the elections ahead. There will be alliances, but relevance of multiple parties will remain. For example, the new Congress governments in Rajasthan and MP depend on the support of smaller parties like BSP and SP and independents.
Chastened Ruling Party:
Second, the defeat of BJP in three Hindi heartlands and earlier in Karnataka to form government and in Gujarat forming a laboured government are very strong warnings for the ruling party, its Modi-Shah leadership and the cadre at the grassroots that victory is not a given in 2019 and Brand Modi has its weaknesses, albeit with the strengths of a decisive leader. Working hard on ground, putting organization on a strong footing, greater coordination with the RSS and its mass fronts and a democratic multi-leader face of the party shall be some aspects in BJP ahead. No wonder talks have started on projecting Nitin Gadkari as the alternative leader should BJP fall short of 200 seats in Lok Sabha in 2019, as a Plan B.
Congress Progressed, but Yet Weak:
Third, while this is the best moment for Congress, more so for its president Rahul Gandhi exactly one year after he took over the reins of the party, there is also the humbling factor of a weak victory in MP (lower votes, higher seats) and Rajasthan (in spite of an extremely unpopular incumbent state government), and the fact that the electorate still is not as disenchanted with the Central as they were with the state governments, especially in Rajasthan (as proven by the Outlook-Lokniti-CSDS post election poll in these states). So, Congress, which managed to put up a joint fight, has a long way to go at the grassroots connecting every family, mindful of the fact that the three states have surely voted against BJP and not necessarily for Congress. That’s good news for a competitive democracy.
Aggressive Hindutva on Backfoot:
Fourth, the poignance of Hindutva as an electorally potential force is blunted for sure. On one hand, the Hindi heartland voters, where political Hindutva has been the strongest, are asking questions on farming and jobs, and on the other, Congress has learnt to lower its minority appeasement image by following a soft Hindutva line through Rahul’s temple run, Shiv bhakti espousal, Shashi Tharoor’s ‘Why I am a Hindu?’ book, and Congress taking a middle path in Sabrimala imbroglio, apart from MP and CG manifesto promises on goshala and gomutra medicines. Good for the nation where aggressive Hindutva has potentials to cause riot-like situation, more if aggressive Muslim elements choose to retaliate, as happened in UP many times.
People’s Issues at the Forefront:
Fifth, and the best one, is a apparent rise of the bread and butter issues. The electorate is focussed on farmers’ distress, unemployment, youth discontent, problems arising out of demonetization and GST. The Centre has to look at these closely and create counter arguments on ground, and counter policies and short term measures in governance, and not just sweep them under the carpet. On the other hand, the Congress will have to work very hard to deliver what they have promised in the 3 states, with the nation looking at it: loan waivers, jobs, unemployment stipend, women’s security, and transforming agriculture. So while bullet train or Rafale or Ram statue and temple can wait or create minimalistic optics, roti-kapda-makaan-naukri-krishi will call the shots in the year ahead. Both BJP led NDA and Opposition Mahagatbandhan will be forced to come out with their pro-people Common Minimum Programs soon and there will be a clash of competing development agendas and narratives, which the nation so desperately needs.
Minorities Back in the Reckoning:
Sixth, there is the return of the largest minority, the Muslims, in the political narrative of the nation, which is the home to the second largest number of Muslims in the world. The BJP ignored them politically in the last half a decade, and Congress avoided them lest they are dubbed pro-minority, though used them electorally behind the back. With regional forces holding forts, and winning margins becoming narrower, the Muslim voters will find themselves at a significant pole position. Being more than 150 millions in India, they can decide results in around 80 LS seats and has considerable influence in around 135 more. While BJP cannot change tactics with approximately 150 days left to the hustings, the Opposition alliance will go all out to seek a consolidated mandate from the minorities. Considering Muslims as outsiders, seeking their ‘ghar-wapsi’, not being able to restrain spate of lynching, targeting Muslim men through ‘love-jehad’ and a flawed triple talaq bill (while instant Talaq needs to be banned for sure), BJP has largely lost remnants of minority support, and opposition will attempt to consolidate the same.
Seventh, BJP has gone all out to consolidate Dalits and tribal electorate across the country and had reaped huge same in the last general elections of 2014. The MP loss and the implosion of BJP in Chattisgarh show that this is not a given anymore. Hindi heartland slow shift of SC and ST voters towards the opposition was seen in all the bye-polls in UP lost by BJP, and the state assembly polls in Gujarat, MP, Chattisgarh and Rajasthan, and to a lesser extent in Karnataka, in spite of BJP’s laboured lone victory in Gujarat. New Dalit leaders’ rise in Gujarat and UP, return to reckoning of BSP in the Hindi heartland, and Bharatiya Tribal Party winning seats in Gujarat, MP and CG show independent voices of the tribals and Dalits which can only benefit the Opposition if it is politically astute enough to take advantage of the same.
Allies in Alliances Stronger:
Eighth, a return to strong alliances rather than strong leaders’ run governments is the reality of the moment. Modi led NDA has lost 12 allies over the last 50 months, and gained just one officially (JDU) and have a few sympathisers who are actually fence-sitters (TRS, AIADMK and BJD). Congress has consolidated its position as the core of any opposition alliance, but still falls short of calling the shots all by itself. BJP was too dominant a force within the NDA, but now no more with JD(U), Akali and Shiv Sena asking for their pound of flesh in seat-sharing and BJP relenting. Return to alliances with two national parties at the core is the situation of the moment. There is an ongoing attempt to create a third front, Federal Front, with KCR and Mamata taking lead, but is yet to see any fruits on ground, and may be a non-starter. The political narrative of mocking Rahul as ‘immatured kid’ or Pappu has also taken a beating, and for the good of the nation because democracy thrives only when there are multiple possible good leaders to lead the polity, and not one single dominant face like Indira Gandhi or Narendra Modi.
Populism & Relief Measures:
Ninth, we can see a spate of populist budgets, both by the Centre and the state governments, in early 2019 in this election year. Populism in the form of loan waivers, unemployment stipends, free amenities in health, reliefs to urban poor, insurance and tax reliefs, etc are a bad long term policy, but an essential short term measure, especially in the current situation of an agonising farming economy, rising prices and low employment figures.
Institutions & Media Neutrality:
Tenth, and finally, in a situation of keen contest with chances being even on both the sides, the media, the Police, the election machinery usually go by the books, maintaining neutrality and balance as they are not too sure as to who comes to power. Power always corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But the power dynamics in 2019 elections will have some equilibrium of sorts, which in fact will work towards a fairer elections.
By Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury. The author is a known media academic & commentator, and currently the Media Dean of Pearl Academy, Delhi and Mumbai.