Shikha Mukerjee | After Gujarat, can BJP beat law of diminishing returns?
DECCAN CHRONICLE | Shikha Mukerjee
It was an outstanding and unprecedented triumph for Prime Minister Narendra Modi; the results of the state Assembly elections in Gujarat, read alone, reaffirm the popularity and invincibility of the BJP’s superstar. The Gujarat results may, however, be an outlier.
In Gujarat, Mr Modi is a son of the soil. In the two other places that also voted in the last round of elections in 2022, not only did Mr Modi’s appeal fail to galvanise voters, but in Himachal Pradesh voters actually disdainfully rejected the BJP’s appeal to change their habit of booting out the party in power and voting in the Opposition. In the Delhi MCD elections, the BJP lost, even though its top leaders had rushed around making noisy appeals to unimpressed voters.
In Gujarat and in Himachal Pradesh, Mr Modi made no bones about how the voters should weigh their choices. "You need not remember the BJP candidate, only remember the symbol of ‘lotus’," he declared to his audiences in meeting after meeting. He also made an unequivocal appeal for voters in both places to vote for him, personally; he said the "lotus" means "it is the BJP and that Modi ji has come to you".
The vote against Mr Modi and the BJP in Himachal Pradesh and Delhi is a signal that people are willing to choose an alternative. The pundits who are analysing the election results, based on the Gujarat outcome, have come up with the idea that voters trust Mr Modi. It is, therefore, equally true that elsewhere voters distrust Mr Modi.
The mixed message of the elections is that Mr Modi’s appeal and perhaps that of the BJP appears to have reached the point of diminishing returns. The chances of Mr Modi and the BJP replicating the results it has achieved in Gujarat in the future are dicey. This time the BJP’s vote share was over 52 per cent, which is exceptional given that for the first time in decades there was a three-cornered contest, with the Aam Aadmi Party presenting itself as the challenger to both the Congress and the BJP. In future elections in Gujarat, it will be very difficult for the BJP to improve on its performance, regardless of its deep roots in the state, the appeal of toxic, majoritarian, divisive identity politics and its arrogance in nominating Payal Kukrani, the daughter of the BJP’s convicted leader responsible for the massacre in 2002 in Naroda Patiya.
Hubris has a way of catching out the narcissist. The arrogance that paid off in Gujarat did not go down well with voters in Himachal Pradesh. The difference in vote share between the Congress and the BJP in Himachal Pradesh may be infinitesimal, but the gap is a definitive. The discontent of people coping with unemployment, the economic slowdown that is resulting in ever shrinking opportunities for work, lollipops like the "Agnipath" scheme, contractual employment in the armed forces with no prospects, have had an effect. That effect has outweighed the appeal of "Modi ji".
Unlike Gujarat, which is as rich as a middle-income economy like China or Argentina, Himachal Pradesh is poorer and has a backward economy, which makes it more representative of most parts of India. Voters in Himachal Pradesh are not happy with the way things are. They are unhappier about the Narendra Modi government’s failure to address their day-to-day problems than they are about the Congress. It is this difference that is crucial for what happens in 2023 and 2024, when the Modi government and the cult of the larger-than-life leader will be at stake.
Between now and 2024, when the Lok Sabha elections are due, there will be more than nine states that will test Mr Modi’s popularity, given that he has opted to make himself the only alternative. That power in the BJP has been concentrated in the persona of Mr Modi and his mastermind Amit Shah for several years is not news. What is new and significant is the convergence of person with party along the lines of "the epitome of absurdity that was reflected in the infamous statement that India is Indira and Indira is India" in his pitch to voters in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.
If this is the template that Mr Modi and his mastermind have designed for the Hindutva conquest of India, where the "lessons" of 2002 have been learnt by the Muslim minority and "Akhand Shanti", or uninterrupted peace, prevails, then it is a gamble driven by the dangerously seductive but entirely deceptive idea that the Congress and the Opposition have been effectively neutralised. The Bharat Jodo Yatra of the Congress is the resurrection, not of the party, but of the idea of India that Mr Modi and his associates in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh despise and are committed to defeating.
Step by step, Mr Modi has moved to fulfil the promises of remaking India as per the master plan of Hindutva. Topping the list is the construction of a loud and large temple complex at Ayodhya for the glory of the BJP and its devotion to Lord Ram, followed by the abrogation of Article 370, effectively cancelling Kashmir’s special status in Hindu-majority India, followed by the successful abrogation of triple talaq for Muslim women and create a discriminatory route for religious migrants facing persecution in neighbouring countries. What the Modi government has not been able to do, as yet, despite its threats to get it done, is implement the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens in a bid to disenfranchise sizeable numbers of Muslims in border states, legislate on a Uniform Civil Code and so change the social-political dynamics to fit the pattern card drawn by the founders of the obsolete idea of Hindutva, as the most glorious manifestation of a peculiar political ideology.
In Gujarat, the Hindu majority may be convinced that they have voted to strengthen an ideology of discrimination that trashes the founding values of India’s Constitution. In Himachal, voters rejected that design, as they did in the Delhi municipal election. The next set of elections, from Meghalaya to Telangana, will offer voters multiple opportunities to decide who they wish to be as Indians, as citizens, as a people. The elections will also offer Mr Modi a chance to reinvent himself if he thinks that will help him beat the inexorable law of diminishing returns.