As the year draws to a close, it may be useful to assess the BJP’s poll performance in elections that were unconnected and held at different intervals throughout the year. In 2014, the party was unbeatable with the most efficient and well-managed campaign machine taking on all corners.
State elections in Delhi, Bihar, local elections in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, a Lok Sabha by-election in Madhya Pradesh and the latest municipal and panchayat polls in Gujarat saw adverse results for the ruling party. These were states where the BJP held sway in the Lok Sabha elections and which gave it most of its seats — 26 per cent from UP and 11 per cent courtesy Bihar. In Gujarat and Rajasthan, the opposition Congress was blanked out by the BJP.
It would be tempting for the Centre to describe the majority of these elections as ‘local’ and too early to consider them a reflection on the central government. However, the inverse could also be the case: that a series of setbacks in its comfort zones so shortly after the clear mandate of the Lok Sabha elections, merit concern. Furthermore, apart from Delhi and Bihar, the contests pitted the BJP directly against the Congress and the results were far from the ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ that the BJP had promised.
Let’s consider a few pointers from the results in 2015.
First, that the centralised and tightly controlled election machine put into place by the BJP leadership, bearing the stamp and style of the PM and that of his close associate and party president Amit Shah, offered a successful template until the end of 2014. It had created a business-like mechanism to ‘win’ elections which included a huge electronic apparatus, RSS foot soldiers and repeated statements like ‘we will get a two-third majority’, a derisive dismissal of the opposition as strategy to scare and diminish it, and a huge outlay of resources to shock and awe the electorate.
However these did not work in each of the 2015 polls.
Second, there was an attempt to place the burden of incumbency on the opposition: the approach to parliamentary proceedings was that the opposition is responsible to ensure the running of the House. This seems to have backfired as the electorate expects majority governments to be in charge.
Third, incidents like the Dadri lynching, the anti cow-slaughter campaign went far beyond what the public mood wanted, and the propensity of ruling party members, ministers, MPs and MLAs to make controversial remarks – perhaps to project themselves as ‘Hindu nationalists’ — and the government’s silence on them, has worried large sections of the public.
‘Hindutva plus Development’ — that subtle message had won over the Hindi heartland in the Lok Sabha elections. However, communal unease — a corollary of aggressive Hindutva – alarmed large sections of foreign investors, rating agencies and an electorate which thought they had voted for economic nirvana, and not the RSS.
But more than all of this, the big message that runs through all the election results, especially the most recent Gujarat polls is that ground realities — price rise, agrarian distress and no pick-up in the jobs economy — have made voters critical of the government.
The BJP has done well in urban Gujarat with about 96 lakh voters and a voting percentage of 47 per cent. In rural areas and in semi-urban Gujarat, where the number of voters is much larger (more than 2 crore), a high voter turnout of 67 per cent have rejected the BJP.
The problem is in agriculture and food prices — food prices continue to rise while the producer, the farmer, continues to be in distress and receive few benefits from the rising prices the consumers has to pay.
Thanks to adverse climatic conditions and inaction by the Centre, 302 districts of the 640 odd total number of districts in the country according to a report by IndiaSpend, are in drought-like conditions. This, combined with the fight the BJP led to change the Land Act, and then backtracked, ended up conveying the impression of a regime not fully in tune with ground realities in rural India.
The rural demand played a big role in shoring up the Indian economy in the past decade, so a slide in rural fortunes has a impacts the cities too — city life cannot be inured from developments in rural India.
The magical offer of the ‘Gujarat model’, promising support to private industry and then relying upon them to deliver jobs and prosperity, appears to be floundering.
With a huge Patidar-led reservation agitation this year, the BJP stopped selling the Gujarat model by the middle of the Bihar campaign, after the maverick Hardik Patel — before he was jailed for ‘sedition’ – threatened to go to Bihar and Jharkhand and sell the dark side of the economic distress. And then there was the attempt to reverse the reservation policy.
Thus 2015 offers an opportunity for all sides to reflect upon the verdict and prepare for a more exciting 2016.