This piece will either be pinned with a “see I told you so” attitude on social media sites after the next parliamentary polls or allowed to languish in the depths of the cyber world. Over the past five months, after sweeping Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand and foisting itself into power in Manipur and Goa, the BJP has promoted the narrative that electoral invincibility is the new normal for the party. This discourse was precipitated considerably by Omar Abdullah’s overreaction: that the Opposition had better stop fancying its chances for 2019 and instead aim for a comeback in 2024.
The other development that intensified the “surround sound” regarding the BJP’s supremacy was Nitish Kumar’s switchback. He certified that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, about who he once remarked viciously that he (Mr Kumar) would never sacrifice principles “at the altar of the ambitions of a man who creates fear in the minds of my countrymen”, was the continuing aparajito — or unvanquished — of the moment. Besides the Janata Dal (United) joining the National Democratic Alliance, events in the AIADMK and Gujarat contribute to the sense that parties, big and small, see sense in being on the BJP’s side.
Witnessing these developments, I was reminded of the conversation with Mr Modi in the summer of 2012 while researching for his biography. Back then, I broached the question of the BJP’s declining number of allies and queried about his strategy to win them back. His reply was characteristic of a cocksure man: “We had allies when we won seats. When our winnability went down, allies left us. If it increases, they will come back or new ones will join us.” He correctly read the political response of regional outfits. Ram Vilas Paswan, who once virtuously exited the Atal Behari Vajpayee government over the post-Godhra riots, was among the first ones to not just line up but also pay obeisance to the emerging deity of electoral victories. Clearly, Mr Modi can do little wrong and there is nothing that is now rolling in his favour.
Yet, despite consecutive electoral victories and allies, new and old, joining its growing flock, it would be wrong to conclude that 2019 is a settled affair; that the BJP’s victory is a foregone conclusion. In politics, no evaluation can be based on certainty of future. Even the most consensual assumptions have gone awry. This is true about India as well as outside. Few foresaw Donald Trump’s victory. At home, no pollster or analyst expected the Vajpayee-led NDA to face defeat in 2004. Those arguing that the verdict of the next parliamentary poll is pre-decided base the conclusion on following assumptions: the Opposition is completely rudderless and unlikely to pose a threat because, first, the Congress will not yield its primacy to other parties, and second, Rahul Gandhi will not allow another leader to lead the Opposition pack.
The certainty of the BJP’s victory stems from three other factors: the continuing popularity of Mr Modi and the hope he continues to generate among people. Second, although the government is yet to fulfil most promises, by and large no negativity surrounds it and this will neutralise anti-incumbent sentiment. Third, in Amit Shah the BJP has a relentless electoral manager and ace strategist. The BJP is by far the most cohesive political party and backed by the entire Sangh Parivar, with which the party has often had a fractious relationship in the past. In addition, the silent majoritarian thrust of all BJP campaigns on social and political issues, be it on redefining nationalism or “victory” in the triple talaq issue, may undermine India as a tolerant nation but polarises people in favour of the BJP.
What then are the reasons behind the argument that it is too early to be certain of a BJP victory in the next polls? First, public sentiment is suppressed because Indians are clenched by an ubiquitous machinery that publicises so-called “achievements” incessantly. Moreover, public discourse is managed with such ferocity that sceptics think twice before articulating disagreement. Additionally, the binary between anti-national and patriot, established by the regime, risks making people seethe internally yet not display dissent for fear of being branded a traitor. The ballot, history shows, in such situations, becomes a weapon of retribution.
In such situations, electoral rejections of regimes, for instance in Bihar or West Bengal — and even in Punjab recently — are so emphatic that no trace remains of the incumbent. The BJP is walking the razor’s edge by keeping people mortally scared to voice disagreement over the “official line”. This is a government that survives on perception, and experience shows it takes just a split second for fortunes to reverse in battles of appraisals. Almost two and half years later, no one is certain what led to Arvind Kejriwal handing Mr Modi his worst ever electoral rout. The inherent challenges on which the BJP’s fortunes rest is known to the Modi-Shah duo. This explains its two-pronged strategy unveiled in recent weeks: First, claims about its prospects are exaggerated, as evidenced in Mission 350-plus unveiled last week and aimed at demoralising opponents and playing mindgames, Aussie-style, before a Test or ODI series. Second, Mr Modi has again shifted his goalpost. In 2014, the election was fought on the promise of achche din and the next slogan of New India has been unveiled. Both notions are effervescent ideas with more fizz than substance.
Growing farm distress, unemployment, uncertainty among businesses and stagnating growth are pointers that points of unease is being brushed aside. Yet, there is no knowing when the bubble will burst and will trigger unrest. People historically never await a leader but invariably anoint their own. They rarely wait for the Opposition circus to begin. Success or failure of events like Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Desh Bachao rally matters little. Everything, save the people’s anger, can be managed. By containing or sanitising avenues of protestations, the presiding duo is hoping to lay out a smooth passage for themselves into the next round.