There is an old saying about Russia: it is never as strong as she looks and it is never as weak as it looks. The same, more or less, can be said about the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress after the Assembly polls recently held in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, and Mizoram. It goes to the credit of Congress president Rahul Gandhi that he has shown that the juggernaut of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah is stoppable. Rahul has arrived; this is perhaps the biggest upshot of the Assembly elections. But several caveats need to be added to Rahul's achievement, the most important of which come from the phraseology of economists rather than of political analysts. It's called the base effect; it was very low for the Congress. For instance, in Rajasthan the grand old party had won just 21 seats in 2013, so even with a triple increase this time—and that would have meant a loss—the performance would have been impressive. Reaching 99, and forming the government, was indeed more than impressive.
The BJP, on the other hand, had to perform on a high base. For example, in MP it had won 165 out of 230 seats in the last Assembly poll; the number has come down to 109. The other important caveat comes from sports. It's a bit cliched, but appropriate nonetheless it is. Rahul has won the semi-finals; the much bigger, and tougher, finals would be held next year—the general election. BJP leaders are blaming and will blame, local factors for defeat in the three Hindi-speaking states, though it will cut little ice either with political pundits or the general public. In Chhattisgarh, it was more than a defeat; with the GOP bagging over two-thirds of seats, it was a veritable rout. The saffron party can derive some solace from the fact that it didn't suffer a similar fate in the desert state, where it was said to be doing badly, but then that is more to the political acumen of the outgoing Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje rather than the magic of Modi, the political astuteness of Shah, or even the role of the RSS. For it is a well-known fact that the Parivar is not enamored with Raje.
Similarly, in Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP did better than it did in Rajasthan, it was the incumbent Shivraj Singh Chouhan's doggedness and some good work, especially in road-making, that stood him in good stead. The second biggest upshot of the results in the three Hindi-speaking states is that the Modi-Shah duo is not invincible. The BJP should learn this lesson from the results. The concoction of the Prime Minister's rhetorical flourishes and the BJP president's organizational skills was heady stuff for the electorate. But even the most potent intoxicant has an effect only for a certain period of time. This brings us to the third conclusion that can be derived from the Assembly election results: emotive issues don't have as much potency as the saffron party seems to believe they have. And it's not just the BJP but also the Congress that should learn this lesson. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Whenever there are elections, general or state, the BJP and its sister organizations start talking about the Ram Temple.
The underlying assumption is that this is an issue that can be milked till eternity. But for how long would Lord Ram come to the rescue of the saffron party? Three decades ago, when it was languishing with just two seats in the Lok Sabha, the mandir movement helped it bounce back to relevance. In 1998, it was able to form a government that lasted till 2004. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister at that time. Whenever Ram devotees demanded the building of the Temple, BJP leaders would say that their government didn't have a majority, it was a coalition government and the allies are not agreeing to the Temple. The Modi regime, however, didn't face any such constraint; it enjoyed full majority, along with the complete support from the party and the RSS. Yet, it did nothing to placate the devout. And now, when the general election is in the offing, the ruling dispensation is talking about the Temple. Ditto with the BJP's other 'core issues'—Article 370 and uniform civil code.
The third conclusion that we can draw from the Assemble poll results is that BJP is losing popularity in the countryside. The numbers tell the story. In MP, while it secured 44 urban seats against the Congress' 33, in the rural areas the corresponding wins were 64 and 78. In the desert state, the saffron party's performance in towns almost matched with that of the Congress—22 against 24 of the GOP's. But in rural areas, its 51 was no match to the Congress' 74. Chhattisgarh, of course, was even worse, with the BJP getting just seven seats in urban areas (against the Congress' 18) and nine in rural (Congress, 49). Evidently, rural distress is not just hurting farmers but also the BJP. For decades, the BJP was determinedly and persistently working to expand its social and geographical base. Not long ago, that is still the 1980s, it was seen primarily as a party of the urban, middle class, and upper caste people. The party, as also the RSS, worked assiduously to change both this reality and perception. It succeeded too, as evident from the 2014 general election results and also the state Assembly polls that followed.
That expansionary movement seems to have been halted, if not reversed. The fourth surmise that can be made is that smart messaging and efficient party and election management are poor substitutes for development and governance. All the tall promises that Modi and the BJP made in the runup to the 2014 general election were observed in the breach. Bringing back ill-gotten wealth stashed in overseas accounts? Well, that was just a jumla, as Shah said. Abrogation of Article 370? The ruling dispensation doesn't even talk about it these days? Uniform civil code? Nothing more than court-supported action against triple-talaq. Acche din? What's that! The law and order situation and general administration leave a lot to be desired, thanks to the lack of police, administrative, and judicial reforms. And then there are saffron cowboys, making the lives of Muslims and Dalits miserable.
On the external front, too, the Modi regime's performance has been below average. Pakistan continues to export jihad to India. China persists with its encirclement policy. The creation of crores of jobs? The government doesn't even have any authentic data on employment, forget its creation. Worse, millions of jobs were lost because of demonetization. The situation was further worsened by the Gauche implementation of the goods and services tax (GST) regime. And, on top of everything, the Modi government simply forgot the interests of its core constituency— the middle class. There were no substantial income-tax benefits for the salaried class, notwithstanding some tinkering effected by Finance Ministry babus. Rahul has been quick to perceive the discontent emanating from economic underperformance. At the press conference after the Assembly election results, he repeatedly emphasized upon farmers, youth, and jobs. “And this is a clear message to the prime minister and to the BJP that the country is not happy with what they are doing.
The country is not happy with demonetization, the country is not happy with GST, the country is not happy with the lack of jobs, so that is there. I think it is a good thing for Congress. I am quite happy with what we have achieved,” he said. He hit the Modi regime where it hurt the most—on the rural and employment fronts. The results his party got from the countryside, as we saw, were favorable. Fortunately for the GOP, he not only grasped the economic problems but also was able to keep his bickering satraps in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan on a leash. Further, he could also discard the anti-Hindu tag that his party got recently, thanks to his mother Sonia's proximity with an array of notorious Muslim appeasers, professional revolutionaries, green terrorists, and sundry Luddites. The BJP found his public display of religiosity—temple run, janeu, et al—ridiculous and fake. Intellectuals and liberals were scandalized that a descendant of Nehru could do such things. But, politically, the maneuver seemed to have worked, and this is what matters in realpolitik. So far, so good—that is, from the Congress' perspective. But then neither the Congress is still not strong enough to take on the ruling party nor the latter is so weak as to let the GOP take a walkover. Modi and Shah certainly are no pushovers; they are doughy fighters who would leave no stone unturned to return to power.
Against this backdrop, the lessons that the Congress high command has to learn are simple: ensure that its senior leaders work in cohesion, attack the ruling dispensation on the economic front, form alliances with regional parties (which the party is already doing in earnest), and never let complacency check the momentum. The BJP, on the other hand, has to realize that the potency of emotive issues is not unlimited, that there is life beyond cows and the Nehru-Patel dichotomy, that Lord Ram cannot be taken for granted, and that the cadre have to check vituperation and spread the word about the welfare schemes the Modi regime has executed. A ruling party cannot seek another mandate just by highlighting the inadequacies of a prime minister who died over half a century ago.