The victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Haryana and Maharashtra Assembly elections indicates that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his trusted lieutenant, party president Amit Shah, will now move full steam ahead to marginalise regional political parties while seeking to establish the party’s presence across all parts of the country. On his way towards a Congress-mukt Bharat, Mr Modi has set his sights on making the BJP the tallest pole in the polity for some time to come.
His task has become easy because his political opponents are so deeply demoralised and despondent that they seem to have lost the will to fight back. Witness, for instance, the utterly desultory manner in which Sonia Gandhi and her son went about campaigning in the two states where the BJP used to be a marginal force. The Congress currently rules in five states, two small ones in north India (Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh), two in the South (Karnataka and Kerala) and one in the Northeast (Assam). Few imagined that the country’s “Grand Old Party” could be decimated in such a short period of time. The Congress is today weaker than it ever was. Even after the March 1977 elections that followed the Emergency, the party was able to retain its base in southern India.
Whereas the Congress has only itself to blame for its present denouement, regional political parties have to brace themselves for a frontal assault from the BJP. West Bengal is one state where the ruling party, the Trinamul Congress, not only realises that its principal political rival is the BJP, but is also in a quandary because it cannot ally with its traditional rivals, a batte-red and extremely weak Left Front and an even weaker Congress. As far as the BJP is concerned, it senses that communal polarisation in West Bengal will clearly work in its favour.
In Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalithaa is so preoccupied with her legal battles having just come out of jail, that she is hardly in a mood to pick even a small tiff with her “old friend” Mr Modi. In Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party was able to perform unexpectedly well in the byelections because its traditional rival, the Bahujan Samaj Party, was not in the electoral fray. But the BJP is aware that these two parties are unlikely to sink their differences in India’s most populous state even though both confront a common adversary.
Bihar is one state where all anti-BJP forces have been able to come together. Can Bihar again “show the way” as it did in the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s when all anti-Congress political forces were able to coalesce for brief periods? Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav found it relatively easy to come together. Mayawati will not find it that simple to forget or forgive Mulayam Singh Yadav for all that has happened. Who remembers the infamous Lucknow guest house incident which took place in June 1995? Is the BSP leader worried that the disproportionate assets case against her may go the Jayalalithaa way?
The BSP has another headache as it is likely to soon lose its status as a “national” political party as defined by the Election Commission of India. The Nationalist Congress Party may also meet a similar fate. As for the Left led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), it currently seems to be at a complete loss as to how it should even formulate a revival strategy.
The BJP has already made it clear that if any regional party wants to align with it, it will be on the terms laid down by “big brother”. The outcome of the Assembly elections in Haryana and Maharashtra has indicated to the BJP that it can dispense with smaller allies since the “Modi wave” has not dissipated. It must be mentioned that among all the constituents of the National Democratic Alliance, the Shiv Sena has always been ideologically the closest to the BJP.
Still, ideological affinity has a new context today. The BJP is espousing a neo-Hindu nationalist stance — Hindutva with development, if you like, as political scientist Dhirubhai Sheth’s contends — which can afford to ignore the parochial positions taken by the Sena and other extreme-Right elements of the Sangh Parivar.
The Prime Minister’s strategy goes beyond bolstering the BJP’s strength in the Rajya Sabha over the next few years so that it does not encounter legislative hurdles. Mr Modi sees himself at the helm of India’s “second republic”. He has been lucky that the fall in international prices of crude oil will help mute food inflation and keep the fiscal deficit under control.
Even if his government is unable to create jobs for the youth in a hurry and even if his announcements on financial inclusion (Jan Dhan Yojana), cleanliness (Swachh Bharat Abhiyan) and reforms of labour laws (Shramev Jayate Karyakram) make only marginal changes to the overall economic well-being of the people, the Modi juggernaut will roll on. He will focus on bolstering India’s international image, even if the situation at home remains far from bright. The Prime Minister will almost certainly receive the wholehearted support of the “new” middle classes in cities, small towns and rural areas among all sections of society, including many dalits, adivasis and those belonging to the other backward classes.
Mr Modi appears confident that he is here to stay for at least 10 years. He knows his government cannot be seen to be corrupt, inefficient and effete as the preceding Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government undoubtedly was. Most of the “tough”, Right-wing, neo-liberal economic policy decisions are likely to be taken during the ongoing “honeymoon period”, perhaps as early as the next Budget which will be presented on the last day of February.
There could be problems along the way. The world economy is still in bad shape. The sharp fall in oil prices which helps India is also ironically indicative of the fact that the Great Recession is not yet over. In addition, it is not certain how successful Mr Modi will be in pursuing his style of governance — which is dependent on loyal bureaucrats delivering results. The old guard in the BJP is out of the reckoning. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has little choice but to abide by the bidding of its erstwhile pracharak and he too will oblige them.
There’s another issue. Never before in the history of India has so much power been concentrated in so few hands. There are just three individuals who appear to be in-charge of decision-making in this country of 1.25 billion people. No prizes for guessing their names.
The writer is an educator and commentator