It is an old card that the BJP cannot resist playing in any election in the Hindi heartland.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stunning victory in Uttar Pradesh has lessons for the Indian political system and for his capacity to rule the country above the fray. He has bettered the BJP’s record in the 2014 Lok Sabha election while diminishing the office of Prime Minister by his no-holds-barred campaign.
Imagine the Prime Minister of India pitching his tent in Varanasi for three days for an Assembly election, throwing convention to the winds and putting his national responsibilities on the backburner. His aims were clear: to win the heartland state with an outsize influence in national politics, increase the party’s strength in the Rajya Sabha and win more votes in the electoral college to choose the President and vice-president, with both posts falling vacant this year.
The Congress won Punjab by a clear majority and cornered the BJP in Goa and Manipur, but performed dismally in UP, winning only seven seats despite its alliance with the Samajwadi Party of Akhilesh Yadav, who fought bravely against the BJP and his own clan, including his father and a less than faithful uncle.
Mr Modi again proved to be a superb campaigner, weaving local complaints into a larger picture of Opposition-bashing, painting himself as pro-poor and converting his demonetisation decision into an anti-rich move. In the process, he insulted and derided Opposition leaders by name in idiomatic Hindi, limiting his capacity to take the whole country with him in a future crisis.
As Mr Modi basks in his triumph in Uttar Pradesh, where does it and other Assembly elections take the country, and what is the future of the Congress Party and of Rahul Gandhi, with the next general election of 2019 already casting its shadow? He sacrificed his national position in favour of attaining immediate goals, but his insults will ring in the ears of Opposition leaders long after dust has settled on a memorable election. It remains to be seen how far his conduct during the Assembly elections will impair his capacity to govern.
After the announcement of the results, it is time for introspection for the fractious Opposition parties because divisions in their ranks are the happy hunting ground for the BJP. Above all, with its poor showing in much of the country, with the exception of Punjab, the Congress is facing an existential crisis, with little time left for prevarication over reconciling the perennial dilemma of the dynasty against the heir-apparent’s lack of political instincts. Without the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, the party faces the real danger of splintering, and although it still has some capable young leaders, they cannot usurp the leadership role. Sonia Gandhi, still the party’s titular leader, believes it is her duty to continue dynastic rule, having been married into the family.
The problem for the BJP is of a very different kind: protecting the parliamentary form of government against Mr Modi’s preference for a presidential variety. By refusing to name a chief ministerial candidate for UP, Mr Modi emphasised his own importance in the election and the surfeit of Modi masks in the celebratory functions speak for themselves.
The BJP is still short of electoral votes to select candidates for the two high constitutional posts that will fall vacant later this year, but is better placed to bargain with the Opposition parties. The political turmoil in Tamil Nadu will play in its favour. But the absence of a recognised national Opposition leader will continue to haunt the Opposition ranks. Bihar’s Nitish Kumar at one time assumed this role, but the new compromises he had to make in the coalition arrangement with Lalu Prasad Yadav has somewhat diminished his stature.
Mr Modi and his party have much work to do in the remaining time before the next general election. While revelling in the UP victory, they cannot afford to rest on their laurels. A nation is more than a collection of states and need the healing touch of a national leader above the fray to hum. Mr Modi will no doubt attempt to make an attempt at reconciliation, but will find the going tough, in view of the insults he has hurled at leading Opposition figures.
Does the scale of the BJP triumph in UP alter the configuration of Indian politics? For one thing, the BJP must guard against over-confidence. We know what happened to Indira Gandhi in the aftermath of the Emergency regime and of her political revival after the then Opposition, including the BJP’s parent, made a mess of its golden opportunity.
Mr Modi’s lieutenants have been unanimous in suggesting that the Centre’s welfare programmes for the poor, such as distribution of free cooking gas cylinders and reaching electricity to new areas, did the trick for the BJP. At the same time, the Opposition was mindful of Mr Modi’s flirting with the communal card in pleading for space in villages for Hindu rituals as for Muslim graves in an effort to consolidate Hindu votes. It is an old card that the BJP cannot resist playing in any election in the Hindi heartland.
The next few months will be crucial in determining the direction Mr Modi will take in seeking to alter the country’s political arithmetic. A key element will be the pace at which the BJP will seek to Hinduise UP, which has a substantial Muslim population and the tradition of strong clan leaders ruling their bailiwicks without official intervention and often with official connivance. The recent battle between the security forces and a terrorist in Lucknow who chose to die, rather than surrender, shows the perils of overzealousness in preaching Hinduism.
The country at large hopes that the Opposition in its present battered state will seek wider space for coordination, if not unity, in fighting the BJP, which is set to replace the Congress as the country’s hegemonic party with a twist: promoting the cause of Hinduism as the new “Idea of India”. The BJP has never agreed with India’s, and specially Jawaharlal Nehru’s, Idea of India, but is shy in fully spelling out in own narrower version of nationalism.