It would neither do to draw too large a picture from the recent Assembly results for Maharashtra and Haryana nor, for that matter, to think that these were pretty standard outcomes of state elections in which trends can frequently be at variance with that of a Lok Sabha contest even when the leader at the top is “strong” — such as Indira Gandhi was deemed once and Narendra Modi is now (on no other count can the two be compared).
How we proceed from here is likely to depend largely on political actors on all sides and their strategies. The RSS-BJP pride themselves on being deeply ideological. They have pursued their ideological agenda with disconcerting intensity. Look at the cow issue, Kashmir, NRC and Ayodhya. However, in their dealings with other parties — allies or antagonists — their approach has been mostly purely political, with the ideology aspect being camouflaged.
The calculation has generally been around short and medium term objectives, and gains and losses. Seen in this light, the BJP’s assessment of the Maharashtra and Haryana results and subsequent developments is likely to be one of wariness, not self-congratulation — regardless of what is said for public consumption.
This is because the party expected much more from itself, misjudging the public mood to be in its favour in the wake of its sweeping victory in the Parliament poll in May, but in both states results fell well below publicised expectations.
As has been the case usually, the saffron party will now seek to plug gaps, mend organisational lapses with a view to achieving greater efficiency, deploy the unbelievable resources at its command to win over defectors, intimidate and malign opponents, and craft high-pitched rhetoric around emotional and chauvinistic themes with the help of uncritical or supportive sections of the media.
The party has no choice but to carry on with this game because its policy failures are too apparent. The economy is self-evidently a mess. Questions are being raised on Kashmir at the UN and in the entire Western world. With China, the Wuhan spirit and the “Chennai Connect” have not even brought illusory gains and Beijing has rounded on New Delhi after the Kashmir debacle. In Kashmir, terrorism has gained a fresh lease of life although practically every inch of the Valley is guarded by soldiers and all non-BJP politicians are in jail.
What can the Opposition’s strategy be? The plain answer is it can’t match the BJP’s firepower. It simply doesn’t have the BJP’s assets, or its organisational clout or informal authority that accrues from wielding governmental power since in non-Western democracies the integrity of institutions leaves much to be desired — including that of the Election Commission, the judiciary, the investigating agencies, and the media. Lately, these tendencies have been all the more striking.
On the other hand, the Opposition parties may learn from the BJP on one important count. They too might profit from not mistaking politics for ideology. When the idea is to trip up or throw an opponent off-balance, cleverness of tactics derives from ingenuity. It makes little sense to be foolish and confuse tactical moves with ideological coherence or fervour. Ideological idolatry is of little value.
A real measure of things can be had if the BJP rule since May 2014 is seen in the imagery of a natural episode that wreaks considerable havoc, such as a tsunami or a grade six cyclone. Nature’s fury, while it lasts, inspires awe and seems uncontrollable. People are known to fall down in prayer before it in hopes of early mitigation. And when the fury of the gods is spent, it is ordinary women and men who must pick up the pieces.
How quickly they can get back on their feet depends on how sensible they are, how mindful of reality, and whether they can mobilise every resource in the shortest time. This is the situation the Opposition finds itself in after the bulldozing of the country by the BJP since 2014. The Maharashtra and Haryana results offer an opening, but just about. Can the Opposition parties take the fight to the ruling party’s camp?
The fragility of the economy on account of ludicrous policies was becoming manifest by 2017, and the BJP lost three key states it held — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and nearly lost Gujarat, the home state of the PM and the then BJP president and present home minister. But in the Lok Sabha polls in May this year, the ruling party not only won these states in thumping fashion, it swept all before it, like the tsunami.
The first state polls, held not long after the BJP’s stunning May 2019 win, produced below par results for the BJP. It seems probable that the effects of the government’s economic policies are being felt a lot more widely than in 2017. Back then the electorate still lived in hope of the promised miracles. Now it knows better. In both Haryana and Maharashtra, the rural constituencies were mainly picked up by the saffron party’s opponents. The ruling party bled, but held on to its urban base in the main.
This suggests that the cyclonic storm that has been on a wild path since 2014 has not retreated fully and the BJP may yet have potential for revival even after the setback in the recent Assembly polls. So confident was the party before these results that right at the start of its second term it began to pull out from its quiver of arrows one ideological projectile after another — NRC, Kashmir, Ayodhya — something it had not attempted between 2014 and 2019. The focus was wholly on deep-seated majority communalism.
The question is whether, for the BJP, the communal trick will continue to trump, as before, the frustrations people face in their everyday lives, although the discontent is more widespread than previously, and its causes more easily traceable to faulty policy. Lack of purchasing power, rising unemployment, declining farm incomes and agricultural wages, failing banks, falling core sector production and sinking exports have become a matter of daily discussion.
After Haryana and Maharashtra, these would worry the BJP too. The question is: Can the Opposition parties deepen the BJP’s worries through a better tactical response to the situation? The present Maharashtra imbroglio is especially interesting for this reason.
If handled with tactical vision and elan, it can possibly create a demonstration effect elsewhere and raise the BJP’s anxieties — especially in states such as Bihar, where the BJP is in alliance with another party (the JD-U), and in states where Assembly polls are due soon. If the BJP comes out of this well, the winter of discontent could be long, rather than short, for its opponents.