The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) should worry. This may sound ludicrous when the party has just won a resounding victory in the general elections, but here is a sobering thought: no party (or alliance) which won such a huge mandate (the only comparable mandates are 1971 and 1984) has managed to retain its sheen in the next round. By 1974, Indira Gandhi’s Congress was fighting with its back to the wall, with Jayaprakash Narayan leading a nation-wide agitation against her rule; by 1987, Rajiv Gandhi’s Mr Clean image and unchallenged power had been shredded to bits by the Bofors scandal and a deteriorating economy.
This backlash should be expected even by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, for when the voter gives you such a mandate, her expectations are also high. The only way to retain credibility and power all the way to 2024 is to deliver, and by shedding arrogance and hubris.
It is worth recalling that the BJP lost many byelections immediately after its 2014 victory. And it lost most of the crucial Lok Sabha byelections in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan over the last two years.
This suggests that once a party wins big, the electorate is more than happy to swing the other way, if only to keep the powerful party in check. Indian voters do not like to give any party a blank cheque forever. They vote for the underdog when they think the party they put in power gets too uppity.
It is also not unreasonable to assume that the huge swing towards the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh may well reverse if the choice is about who should rule these states. With the exception of Karnataka, where the assembly vote last year brought the BJP within a whisker of power, but a Congress- Janata Dal (Secular) or JD(S) gang-up robbed it of the chance to govern, the BJP cannot expect to do the same in states like Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh, even though the Congress majority in the latter state is thin.
The BJP’s assembly losses last December cannot be said to have been erased merely because of its super performance in the central elections on 23 May. People who voted for Modi this year may not necessarily want the party back in power in the state so soon.
The message for Amit Shah is thus simple: avoid overt destabilising moves in states other than Karnataka. In Karnataka, the Congress-JD(S) alliance of convenience has simply not worked out, and if the coalition crumbles, few voters may regret this. But one can’t say the same of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where the Congress party won the assembly elections on its own, fair and square. Cooperative federalism demands that the opposition be allowed to govern the states it won the last time.
A third point to consider is the enormity of the vote for BJP. It is easy to assume that all of it was the result of the Modi wave, but given the scale of the rout of the mahagathbandhans in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, one has to reckon with the reality that there was a large element of disgust with the opposition too. The vote may have been as much against the unprincipled opposition as in favour of Modi in these two states. This is the only thing that can explain why the BJP outscored the combination of Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) on 23 May when these parties’ individual votes shares in 2014 and 2017 were much higher than the BJP in most seats. The BJP wrested back all the bypoll losses of 2017-18 – Gorakhpur, Kairana and Phulpur – with massive margins, even though they were won by the SP-BSP-RLD combo. In 2019, the BJP would have lost only eight more seats (from its 62) even if the Congress had joined the mahagathbandhan.
But anger against opposition losers tends to dissipate fast once they are handed out a solid defeat. Now, the sympathy will be entirely with the losers.
The message for the BJP is this simple. It has very little time to gloat over its victory.
First, forget hubris, and make sure that this time your allies have no reason to be disgruntled with you. In particular, the Shiv Sena, the Janata Dal (United), and the LJP of Ram Vilas Paswan need to be mollycoddled and kept in the loop from Day One.
Second, when moving major legislation, keep major regional parties in the consultation loop, so that they have no reason to gang up to scuttle reforms in the initial years of National Democratic Alliance -3. Most regional parties are now petrified of the BJP, and hence they have good reason to cooperate if the BJP appears willing to negotiate with them on legislation and on back-room deals. Major factor market reforms in land and labour and agriculture are needed this time around, and the BJP cannot get these reforms legislated if the opposition is going to gang up in the Rajya Sabha.
Third, the BJP should let the party machine seek victories in the forthcoming assembly elections, and not invest Modi himself in much of the campaigning, unless there are distress signals coming from important states (like Maharashtra).
Fourth, the BJP must frontload key reforms in this calendar year, so that there is no economic or political disruption towards the second half of its tenure, when it will surely have to trim its reformist sails to prepare for the 2024 elections. In its last tenure, the most disruptive reforms – goods and services tax and Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code – were implemented towards the end of the tenure, thus keeping the growth impetus down just when the Modi government needed it the most.
The truth Modi and Shah need to keep in mind is this one: it is glorious to have the power of a T-Rex, but using this power to crush smaller allies and rivals can boomerang. They should remember what happened to Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi after massive victories in 1971 and 1984.
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