Having focussed excessively on the Congress, and continuously drawing a Modi-Rahul parallel as if it were the sole selling point, the BJP has lost sight of the regional parties that are seeking to take the centre-stage, says N Sathiya Moorthy.
Independent of the Bharatiya Janata Party parting company with the Peoples Democratic Party in the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir, come election 2019 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi might be his party’s sole poll mascot, as he was five years earlier.
The reasons are no far to seek. Across the nation, the BJP has lost most regional allies, and is not unlikely to lose more of them, between now and the Lok Sabha polls due by May next.
In 2014, the electoral contribution of the allies was next to nothing in most states and regions where the NDA swept the polls. If anything, barring a few noticeable exceptions, the allies benefited more from the ‘Modi wave’, both in terms of seats won and their own independent victory margins in individual constituencies.
It could well be so again, if 2019 is to be like 2014. The elections are months away, and anything can happen between now and then, for anyone to draw definitive conclusions of the kind, as was possible five years back.
At that time, no one was in any great doubt about which party or alliance would form the government, or who would become prime minister. Yet, even the BJP was pleasantly surprised by the number of seats it won as a party and alliance, and even the huge victory margins in individual states and constituencies.
All this thus well for the BJP and Modi as long as similar trends are bettered in election 2019, or anything close to the status quo as becomes possible.
The question is, what if ‘anti-incumbency’ of the 2004 and 2014 kind were to revisit election 2019? Having focussed excessively on its Congress rival, and continuously drawing a Modi-Rahul parallel as if it were the sole selling point of the BJP campaign, they lost sight of the regional parties that were seeking to take the centre-stage.
Today, there is greater talk of possible direct fights of the anti-BJP kind in many states, if not all, though much of it still remain as wild guesses for media analysts and in the realm of theory among possibly prospective allies.
In such a scenario comes the question, what could the allies do to strengthen the NDA tally and also the BJP’s numbers, too? It is here that the loss of existing allies like the TDP in Andhra Pradesh, and possibly the ruling JD-U partner in Bihar, that the drift is more visible than just visual.
In Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena has not formally walked away, but even after BJP boss Amit Shah had called on Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray for what seemed to be a reconciliation effort, the latter has not stopped attacking PM Modi and the Centre for alleged wrong policies and leadership.
In Punjab, the BJP can do without the Akali Dal ally, or so would it seem, but does not know how to shed the ‘weight’, a process it had begun after election 2014 but could not complete, as the slip-up began showing, even if only slowly.
Of course, Jammu and Kashmir, where the BJP pulled the plug from the Mehbooba Mufti-led coalition government, is a stand-alone. They did not contest the LS or even the assembly polls together.
If anything, the famed ‘Modi charisma’ is not incapable of turning a possible political adversity flowing from the inability to contain terrorism in J&K into an electoral advantage in 2019, through more visible action on the ground, which was not exactly lacking in the past years but was not producing the required results.
J&K is one state where BJP rushed in where lesser mortal desired otherwise. Now, they could tell the voters elsewhere in the country that they were honest and tried their best, but it did not pay the expected dividends in the larger national interest.
The problem for the BJP in 2019 is what it had faced in 2004. Too much of self-belief implanted by party strategists at one level and taken to obnoxiously unimaginable kind by self-styled volunteers and committed ‘Modi bhakts’ who are not card-holding members to be reached and told to go slow.
Their votes will remain if their voices can also get shriller. The question is if any or all of their ‘social media antics’ is going to bring in an additional voter or, better still, not lose any or many from the 2004 figures.
It is also this kind of self-inflicted wounds that the party should be wary of, but for which the existing allies in many states may not have had any reason to walk away, or consider doing so.
Likewise, if someone thought that shriller their voices get on controversial issues of the Hindutva kind, there could be another round of electoral polarisation, they need to remember that every such attempt had only ended in a failure for the party.
The BJP too needs the middle-of-the-road non-committed voters, who are also the deciding factor in most elections. They voted for Modi in 2014, but it is not clear if they would do so wholesale now in 2019, if the party did not change its campaign focus and style.
There is a case in point. For weeks and months now, the pro-BJP social media has been painting the nation’s political map saffron, claiming that most states in the country are ruled by the BJP or an ally, with the party forming a part of the government.
The facts speak otherwise, if one were to look at it only from the viewpoint of election 2019. For one thing, the BJP has lost most by-polls in recent months. For another, the BJP continues to have little foothold in many states after a point.
Size does matter, and here the BJP may still hope to be in an advantage, the recent by-poll reversals notwithstanding.
Otherwise, the fact remains that the BJP is in a clear majority in only 10 state assemblies in a total of 29.
A clearer picture will emerge only after the upcoming assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Rajasthan. These are traditional ‘two-party states’, so to say, so a victory for the BJP, even of the Gujarat kind, would only mean that the Congress rival may not be able to stake the pre-poll leadership of a joint Opposition, and nothing more.
Otherwise, as the wag has worked out and circulated on the social media, the BJP has no assembly seats in Sikkim, Mizoram and Tamil Nadu. The party has four out of 175 seats in Andhra Pradesh, one of 140 in Kerala, three each in Punjab (117), West Bengal (294) and Delhi (7), five of 119 in Telangana, 10 of 147 in Odhisa and 12 of 60 in Nagaland.
Even in states where BJP is part of the ruling coalition, the party has only two seats out of 60 in Meghalaya, 53 out of 243 in Bihar, and 13 of 40 in Goa. In J&K, where it was a partner in the Mehbooba government that it toppled, the BJP has only 25 out of 87 assembly seats.
In all, the BJP has 1516 MLAs in a national total of 4139, and as many as 950 of them come from six states, namely Karnataka, Gujarat, UP, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan -- with the last three waiting to face fresh assembly polls before or just after the Lok Sabha polls.
Another unmentioned electoral factor is the increasing possibility of individual voters, especially in the large ‘non-committed’ pool, taking their decision on the performance of the incumbent government half-way through its term, and start to see things in that light from then on.
It is thus that by-elections and assembly elections become pointers, if only to that limited an extent, as otherwise, the average voter is becoming an increasingly closed book.
That is also why, from the early days of psephology coming to the country in a big way, every other pre-poll survey in every other state in the country has become less and less accurate.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.