Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves during a road show in Ahmedabad, India, Friday, March 11, 2022. (AP Photo)
The election results in the five states indicate that the BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is now India’s only national party because the Congress has been rejected almost everywhere and the Bahujan Samaj Party has excluded itself from the fight. In the vacuum created by the Congress’ and the BSP’s wilful abdication of effective leadership, a small party and a regional party have filled the space and emerged as independently operating bulwarks against the BJP’s homogenising and hegemonist politics.
It was a verdict that was waiting to be delivered. In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has won, while the Congress has become a virtual presence, as has the BSP. The Samajwadi Party is now the torch bearer of the opposition to the BJP and the alternative. For the BJP, it was not an easy victory, because in far too many seats — the final number will be known only by the week’s end — it has won or lost by margins that vary from a few hundreds to a couple of thousand votes. In Uttarakhand, even though the BJP’s chief minister, Pushkar Singh Dhami, lost his seat, the party has won but by a reduced margin. In Punjab, the Aam Aadmi Party has won a spectacular victory and the Congress has been routed, as have the Akali Dal and the BJP. In Manipur, the BJP will form the government as it will in Goa.
The reaffirmation of Prime Minister Modi’s appeal to voters and his capacity to win elections is very evident, as is the BJP’s organisational capability in reaching out to disgruntled voters and managing the anger of voters seriously impacted by the ever-worsening economic situation resulting in job losses, spiralling prices, losses for small and medium businesses and the farmers, who led a fight for the repeal of the pernicious farm laws. It is also very evident that the Congress could not channelise the anger of voters, even though it talked about their distress and the policy failures of the BJP. It is also very evident that the AAP and the Samajwadi Party have succeeded in presenting themselves to voters as the alternative.
The results point to a new dynamic because the political space in India is reshaping itself. The BJP is the dominant party and there is no real alternative Opposition or challenger. The Opposition or the challengers are many, including the Congress. The multiplicity of Opposition parties comprise either small parties like the AAP and the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front, or regional parties like the Samajwadi Party in UP, the Trinamul Congress in West Bengal, the DMK in Tamil Nadu, the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi in Telangana, the YSR Congress Party in Andhra Pradesh, or the Shiv Sena-Nationalist Congress Party combine in Maharashtra.
The Congress as the ruling party in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan and the principal Opposition party in Haryana is a part of this multiplicity. The challenge this multiplicity presents to the BJP from now and up till the 2024 general election, when Narendra Modi will seek a mandate to lead India for the third term, is ideological. Mr Modi and his party firmly believe that India is best governed by One Party-One Nation and its corollary, the "double engine sarkar". The multiplicity of parties as ruling parties in the states and challengers to the BJP exist in defiance of the homogenising and hegemonist concept of One Party-One Nation.
For the regional and small parties, working out how to establish a collective Opposition, whatever be its name, is not going to be easy, because the collective will need to articulate a political message as an alternative to the "Rashtravad-Vikas-Sushasan" formulation (Nationalism-Development-Governance) of the BJP. With every regional and small party interpreting these loaded ideas with different inflections, because they must in order to challenge the BJP, there is every possibility that the babel will reduce their endeavour of presenting themselves as the alternative and the Opposition will seem incoherent and unreliable to voters.
There is also the problem of the reassuringly familiar face of Mr Modi as the leader and the Prime Minister, whereas the fragmented Opposition has, as of now, two potential faces to lead it — Arvind Kejriwal of the AAP and Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamul Congress in West Bengal. The spectacular triumph of the AAP in Punjab has transformed it from running a limited government in the National Capital Territory into a ruling party in the full-fledged border state.
While there is no competition between Mr Kejriwal and Ms Banerjee as of now, both nurse prime ministerial ambitions.
In a contest like the 2024 general election with over 900 million voters, the BJP’s formulation of "Rashtravad-Vikas-Sushasan", which can be spun in different registers to appeal to core voters and ardent supporters of Hindutva and the noncommittal voter with concerns about stability of government, has a clarity that is appealing. In contrast, the multiplicity of opposition parties have not been able to put together a message that defines who they are and what they will do.
The election results of March 10 indicate that there are millions of voters who are angry with the BJP’s policies and performance, its ideology and its leadership. The results also reveal that the challengers to the BJP in UP, in Uttarakhand, in Manipur and in Goa, were not able to convert this anger into a significant share of votes that would put them in place to form governments. The BJP was successful in questioning the credentials of the leadership of the parties in the Opposition, in attacking them as family businesses, as narrow caste-based entities, as advocates of communal polarisation, even as it calibrated its campaign to appeal to caste, community and identities.
These state election results suggest that the BJP has succeeded in packaging its hard right, polarising politics and selling it to the majority of voters, over 45 per cent in Uttar Pradesh, as the politics of the middle ground, that is, the broad space that is bounded on the one end by ultra-right ideas and by extremist-left ideas on the other. It has done so by combining Vikas-Sushasan with Rashtravad, thereby broadening its appeal and acceptability.
The anti-BJP Opposition, made up of the collective of small and regional parties, including the Congress, has no agenda that has the same clarity and broad appeal. It is unlikely to find ways to distil the dissatisfaction into a clearly articulated call that will appeal to voters in time for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.