Since the past few years, predictability is the unstormy petrel of psephology in India. The numbers have been on the side of Narendra Modi who rose from the western riverfront of Narmada as a tidal wave to sweep away all possibility of hostile predictions to his electoral fortunes. From 2014 onwards, his voice, words and his virtues had made the final verdict a mere formality as his party decimated rivals in state after state. Barring a few exceptions, the Modi blitz strafed the citadels of caste- and community-dominated fiefdoms to ruins.
Political opposition was either silenced or shrunk. But October 2019 was a jack in his box. Even though the ruling party did not run out of luck, voters gave the Opposition a chance to have its say. Pollsters were proved awfully wrong and neither the BJP nor the Opposition has fully absorbed the impact of the Assembly elections in MaHa (Maharashtra and Haryana.) The former was able to break a record in Haryana by installing its chief minister for a second consecutive term by forging an alliance with the JJP, a year-old local party led by Dushyant Chautala, the 31-year-old scion of the Chautala Clan.
In Maharashtra where its tally dropped below its 2014 mark, the BJP struggled hard to ensure a second term for Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. Its two decade-old ally Shiv Sena demanded the top post for 29-year-old dynast Aaditya Thackeray. Both Fadnavis and Thackeray are well spoken and students of shiny schools and Ivy League colleges. Comforted by the banality of the predictability algorithm, not once during the MaHa campaigns did Modi or Amit Shah guess that power was going to be desperately dependent on picayune partners. All exit polls barring one by the India Today group had bestowed over a two-thirds majority on the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance. Some poll pundits even blared an absolutely majority for the BJP that was contesting in 161 seats.
In Haryana, it could not score an absolute majority, leave alone its target of 75 seats. Political dogma dictates that state polls hardly make a significant difference in national power play. Modi was, and still is, India’s most popular political personality. He enjoys the full RSS support and has its well-oiled organisational machine to take him to easy victory. However, his avowed objective of achieving a Congress-Mukt Bharat ran into stiff resistance in MaHa where the GOP performed marginally better than in 2014. The doughty 79-year-old Sharad Pawar proved the Cassandras wrong by delivering more seats than predicted.
The NCP-Congress brotherhood crossed a century in the 288-member Maharashtra Assembly. The Congress was a headless chicken, which rode the coat-tails of the NCP’s aggressive helmsman Pawar. With national leaders such as Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Manmohan Singh missing in action or simply unwelcome, the only saving grace was local personal appeal. The BJP has emerged as the single largest party for the second time, but with a bruised ego. Its strike rate was higher than the Shiv Sena’s. It polled a better percentage of votes. But in Haryana, it was in no position to dictate terms to its junior partner and had to compromise with a party whose patrons are in jail for corruption charges. The MaHa takeaways are clear:
Wake-up call for the BJP: The BJP found its inability to cobble up a MaHa majority unpalatable. It had clean CMs who never faced allegations of nepotism or financial irregularities. Fadnavis launched many infra projects. Haryana’s performance on all social parameters was stellar. Yet the local party leadership failed to deliver and the winning margins of MaHa CMs were uninspiring. Seven of Haryana’s sitting ministers lost.
According to insiders, the basic reason was disconnect among the BJP leadership, ministers and ordinary workers. Workers got the impression that all ministers projected or behaved as if they were in the Chief Minister’s chair. Even MaHa Union Ministers acted like the Prime Minister. Moreover, coordination between the government and the organisation was absent. Excessive arrogance of ministers and civil servants drove away committed party workers. In the absence of genuine feedback from the ground, the MaHa leadership’s overconfidence ended in despondency. They couldn’t effectively counter Opposition charges of ineffective and unresponsive governments.
Vote for an effective opposition: Though the #MaHa mandate is for the BJP which has emerged as the largest single party, the electorate has sent an unambiguous message that people want a stronger and more powerful check on the ruling party now. The feeling that it has been functioning arbitrarily sans consultations with the Opposition has gained ground. Various lopsided welfare measures and infrastructural projects favoured specific regions and interests.
Farmers’ issues were totally ignored. Barring a few exceptions, the BJP and Opposition leaders do not meet to identify common areas of development together. The voters have also penalised defectors. Data reflects that MaHa voters have largely chosen candidate merit over caste compulsions. More Jats won in Haryana’s non-Jat dominated constituencies. The Opposition had acquired a boost after the Congress won in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh elections. But six months later, the Congress couldn’t grab even half a dozen Lok Sabha seats in all the three states put together. A small victory is enough to halt Opposition decline in the Rajya Sabha where it will gain more seats from the states that went to the polls recently. The BJP’s undeclared objective of securing a two-thirds majority in the Upper House may not fructify immediately.
Finally, the saffron party will be forced to deal with an Opposition on steroids and an equally powerful opposition within. Both the JPP and Shiv Sena would demand not only a maximum say in the governance, but will also dictate terms on the selection of key civil servants, policy issues and regional development. The Shiv Sena was doing it earlier but couldn’t extract the maximum price thanks to the BJP’s invincible image. In Haryana, Dushyant will play his cards to recover the glory of former Deputy Prime Minister Devi Lal’s lost legacy. He would push for more freebies and social welfare giveaways that may contrast with the BJP’s supply-led development model.
With elections in Bihar, Jharkhand and Delhi staring at the BJP, predictability is no longer a cool drink of water. For Modi and the opposition, 2020 is likely to be the year of Compromise and Consensus rather than Confrontation and Coercion.
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla