Often, in the rush of unfolding events, we fail to pause to fully internalise the import of a particular development. There is news reportage aplenty; we also see a great deal of instant analysis; the electronic media is full of clashing opinions. In an age of real time reporting, not enough time is available — between one event and another — to review and introspect. Important developments then become a blur of succeeding images, instantaneously commented upon and disposed of with an air of finality.
The recently concluded elections in Haryana and Maharashtra are a case in point. The moment the results came out commentators swung between exultation and disappointment. Some — prematurely — began to draft the obituary of the BJP, while others hailed the continued supremacy of the saffron party. Both conclusions, in my view, were off the mark. The truth — elusive as ever — lay somewhere in between.
The results in the two states did not eclipse the continued ascendancy of the BJP. The party emerged as the single largest entity in both states. In Maharashtra its strike rate was impressive, because unlike the last time around, it fought on fewer seats, and yet managed to notch up an appreciable total of 105. In Haryana too, it beat anti-incumbency. Obviously, the momentum of the stupendous victory of the 2019 general elections is still in evidence, and for large parts of popular opinion, it is still the choice to govern.
The truth is that the BJP did not do badly in absolute terms, but did not do as well as it expected to do. In Haryana it expected to sweep the elections, and even coined the slogan: “Abki baar pachattar paar”. The disappointment was that far from reaching 75 seats it struggled to win 40, and could not even cross the halfway mark. In Maharashtra too the expectation was that the BJP-Shiv Sena combine would cross 200 seats when it could with difficulty just get some 160 seats. The mood of a sweeping victory was accentuated by the overwhelming majority of exit polls. Only one pollster — Axis — predicted the actual results.
If things did not do go absolutely wrong for the BJP, what did not go fulsomely right either? Quite clearly, the traction the BJP hoped to gain from a combination of Hindutva and ultra-nationalistic rhetoric did not get the expected response from the people. The abrogation of Article 370 which the party touted as a major achievement was of less concern to the voters than local issues and the larger impact of an economy that is tanking, with the attendant consequences of a lack of jobs, and farmer distress. It is important for the BJP to internalise and introspect on this trend. Even in Bihar, where five by-elections were held, the NDA did poorly, winning only one seat. The gainers were — unexpectedly —parties like the RJD, which were on the verge of disintegration, and received, contrary to their own expectations, a shot in the arm.
There are important lessons for the Opposition, too. The Opposition had gone into these elections like a boxer entering the ring with one hand tied behind its back. There was little organised planning, sporadic campaigning, last minute improvisations, and a generally defeatist attitude. The one exception to this dismal script was
Sharad Pawar who, at the ripe age of 80 and far from robust health, put up a spirited fight. Not surprisingly, the NCP performed far beyond expectations.
It was almost as though the Opposition performed in spite of itself. For instance, in Haryana, the Congress gave charge to Bhupinder Singh Hooda, just a few days before the elections. If he had been in the saddle for a couple of months in advance, the Congress could well have won many more than the 31 seats it did. The fact is that the voter created the Opposition, rather than the Opposition influencing the voter. And this state of affairs holds key lessons for the Opposition, especially the Congress, which is still the largest Opposition party.
If a credible riposte can be given to the BJP's expectations when the Opposition is so disorganised and ineffectual, imagine what the situation would be if a truly organised Opposition was to emerge on a pan-Indian basis. This is precisely the challenge for the Opposition. Up till now it was in the thrall of the BJP’s invincibility. Its responses were —and continue to be — ad hoc, improvised, reactive and listless. These electoral results should make it sit up.
The greatest responsibility rests on the Congress. If it can reinvent itself, and become a fighting outfit, with a micro-detailed programme to take on the BJP in an organised and structured fashion, the political script for the future can change. What the country needs is an Opposition that can harness the discontents due to a languishing economy, and come out with a cohesive counternarrative. Unless this happens — and happens quickly — the BJP with its well-oiled electoral machinery and tremendous organisational skills will continue to be in the ascendant by default.
A vibrant democracy such as ours needs an effective Opposition. PM Narendra Modi himself spoke about the need for this. On its part, the BJP must give up being in denial about the state of the economy, and understand the limitations of a narrative that relies disproportionately only on Hindutva politics and the rhetoric of ultra-nationalism. Ultimately, the voter is king. Even the most persistent propaganda machine must defer to the voter’s understanding of what are the real priorities that affect his life, and for which alone he will cast a vote for or against a party. The sooner the BJP and the Opposition understand this, the better.