Ordinarily, if the country is less than a few months away from three assembly elections --- and particularly if a state as significant as Maharashtra is among them --- one can expect a fair bit of buzz building up in the political and media circles.
If past trends are anything to go by, now would roughly be the time when a few theatre-turned-cinema artistes would begin to write a letter or two decrying some perceived injustice or the other and a few other ‘eminent historians’ and ‘public intellectuals’ would return some of the awards that they had won during more ‘secular’ times.
Thankfully, the nation has been spared such theatrics this time around. Even the major political opposition party, the Congress, has restricted its attacks to acerbic missiles around the state of the economy and has not really shown any inclination to get its hands fully dirty.
The internal turbulence in the opposition and fairly clear verdicts from all the three states in the general election have made the opposition and its larger ecosystem almost concede defeat to the BJP.
Now, whether the expected saffron sweep may actually materialize or not is only a question that time can answer but what can be noticed across the commentariat is a palpable lack of interest in any electoral battle where their bête-noir is expected to win comfortably.
However, for those interested in a more than casual analysis, the elections of Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand will represent a critical step in the political project that the BJP, under the Modi-Shah duo, has effected in the country over the last five years.
The genesis of this initiative can be said to have been in the state of Uttar Pradesh, in the run-up to the 2014 general election, when Amit Shah was sent to the heartland as its state in-charge.
Readers may not remember, but those were the days when leading political thinkers in Delhi had wondered out loud in their columns on what the BJP-RSS leadership ‘might have been smoking’ in order for them to decide to send Shah to UP. How far we have come!
In UP, Shah managed to revive his party in a spectacular fashion, by winning it 71 of the state’s 80 seats. He did this by orchestrating a rainbow coalition of castes --- prizing away micro-castes (non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits) from their larger caste groupings and adding them onto the already existing social alliances of the BJP.
Of course, he was helped by the image and oratory of Narendra Modi but at the end of the 2014 general election, it was evident that, as an electoral strategy, Shah’s plan of creating a social coalition of non-dominant castes had worked.
The elections of Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana quickly followed and the strategy was replicated in all three. It needs to be noted that in all these states, the BJP had been in power only intermittently and never on its own strength.
The polity of Maharashtra had come to be dominated by the Marathas, Haryana’s by the Jats and Jharkhand had never seen a non-tribal chief minister since its formation.
The Modi-Shah duo built their social alliances against this tide and after unprecedented victories in the polls, reinforced these tactics with their selection of chief ministers from the non-dominant communities.
While it may seem that the Modi-Shah strategy has paid off today, the move was fraught with risks at the time. Both Fadnavis and Khattar bore the brunt of the wrath of the dominant groups (no doubt egged on by the opposition) in the form of reservation protests, which nearly cost them their chairs, and their party, the state.
Also, this move was in stark contrast to the practice followed rather successfully by the Congress and its allies for decades in Maharashtra and, post the rise of Hooda, in Haryana.
The strategy was to target the most electorally dominant caste and combine it with their traditional minority vote bank in order to create formidable social arithmetic, which almost guaranteed a victory in the face of a fractured opposition.
Essentially, the path that the BJP chose --- or was perhaps forced --- to follow was far more difficult and required a herculean effort from the party and its larger ideological organization.
Not only did it require the devolution of power into multiple social groups, it also involved the identification of a larger pool of leaders from the targeted groups. Not to mention the challenges of balancing a wider range of interests, which can --- even at the best of times --- be mutually conflicting.
As Devendra Fadnavis found out in Maharashtra with the Maratha agitation and the Dhangar reservation demand, challenges can arise from both within and outside the party’s social alliance.
However, evidence from the Lok Sabha polls shows that, despite the conventional wisdom of the likelihood of such an alliance getting fractured over time, it is the converse that has occurred.
In all three states, not only has there been a solidification of existing caste alliances, there is also evidence of the BJP’s expansion into the dominant caste groups.
The mass migration of a host of Maratha satraps into the party, its inroads into the Jat bastions of Haryana and UP and the addition of Hindu tribals in Jharkhand to the saffron coalition only point to the fact that the gambles of 2014 seem to have paid off.
It is also significant to note what the reasons of such a migration could be.
Certainly, the social schemes of the NDA government and the last-mile delivery achieved by the Prime Minister’s emphasis on implementation would have had its part to play.
Even so, the historic cultural profiles of the Marathas and Jats when combined with the patterns of the fissuring of the tribal vote also point to the growing public resonance of the nationalist and Indic value systems represented by the Prime Minister and his party.
It remains to be seen whether this result will be replicated in the assembly elections, when Narendra Modi is not on the ticket and more local factors begin to take precedence.
There will certainly be more emphasis on the performance of the respective Chief Ministers, candidate selections and local governance issues than there was in the general elections (which the opposition unwittingly made out to be about Modi).
In a sense, the voting patterns from the assembly polls will serve as an indicator of the long-term cohesiveness of the BJP’s social alliance, especially when it does not have the overt appeal of Narendra Modi to bind it.
If the party succeeds in holding onto its newer and more expansive base, then the signs will be ominous for the opposition, especially with the Bihar polls coming up next year and the UP elections looming in the medium term.
A repeat of the clean sweep in October followed by wins in Bihar and UP (the result in Delhi notwithstanding) will signify a quantum change in the political and social narrative of the country.
Such victories could also open up this template to be replicated in the areas where the party has not managed to make significant inroads yet --- specifically states in the south like Tamil Nadu.
Perhaps more importantly, it will also represent a major step forward in the larger ideological battle to move the Indian polity towards one driven by Indic values.
Praful Shankar is a political enthusiast and tweets at @shankarpraful.
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